Rantz: Seattle group hosting racially segregated theater receives $100k in tax dollars
A Seattle-based theater company hosts performances of Shakespeare meant to be racially segregated. The organization collectively received over $100,000 in tax dollars since 2021.
Seattle Shakespeare Company provides year-round performances of Shakespeare. Organizationally, the company says it is committed to being inclusive, which requires them to “uproot systemic harm by undertaking new practices and continually examining them.”
One of their apparent tools to create a more inclusive space for theater are performances for and by the so-called BIPOC community (Black, Indigenous, people of color). The intent appears to be for white people to self-select out of the shows — all in the name of equity and inclusivity.
‘Brown Out Matinees’ for the ‘BIPOC community’
The group hosts “Brown Out Matinees,” and the second performance was on Sunday, March 13, at the Seattle Center.
Seattle Shakespeare Company promotes these performances as necessary, “so that Seattle’s BIPOC community can come together.” It’s not merely intended for “BIPOC” audience members. The group says their performances of “Hamlet” and “As You Like It” are performed and produced “with a fully POC acting company and POC majority artistic team.”
The implication of the racially segregated performances is that non-white patrons don’t feel comfortable going to theater around white people. The group, headed by two white men, does not explain why they may believe that. Instead, a spokesperson claimed this isn’t controversial.
“Our ‘Brown Out’ performances aren’t designed to be any different than the other performances in the run of the shows,” Jeff Fickes of Seattle Shakespeare Company told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “All are welcome to attend, and no one will be turned away if they’d like to purchase a ticket. We just made an extra effort to encourage audiences of color to come see the shows on certain performances. We have done the same thing for other shows that we feel would be of particular interest for a particular group of people (i.e., a ‘sensory-friendly’ performance for families with autism, a vendor ‘thank you’ event, etc…).”
Comparing this to a “sensory-friendly” performance is curious since those events are literally “designed to be different than the other performances.”
Group admits the real intent
By pitching the “Brown Out Matinee so that Seattle’s BIPOC community can come together,” it implies white people aren’t supposed to attend. In fact, Fickes sent me a link to a BroadwayWorld.com article about the first known “Black Out” event on Broadway, along with a New York Times feature.
BroadwayWorld.com notes the event was created “to provide a freeing environment for Black-identifying audience members to experience the unflinching new work free from the white gaze.” The New York Times explicitly says the event was purposefully “reserving all 804 seats in the theater for black students, artists, journalists and performers.”
In other words: The performances were meant to exclude white people.
It appears that the only difference here is that the Seattle Shakespeare Company wouldn’t directly turn away white people because the would-be white patron is supposed to self-select themselves out of purchasing tickets. This is likely so the group isn’t sued for racial discrimination, or so it doesn’t lose out on tax dollars.
Tax dollars to the segregated events
The City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture and the Washington State Arts Commission sponsor this organization. Both government agencies hold policies that supposedly reject racial discrimination.
A spokesperson for the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture confirmed they gave the theater group $87,500 since 2021. The Washington State Commission of Arts doled out $14,069. It came from its Pandemic Relief Grants to Large Organizations and CARES Act Relief funds.
A spokesperson for the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, Erika Lindsay, refused to answer questions about whether or not the event violated city policies. She would only provide information on funding.
Michael Wallenfels is a spokesperson for the Washington State Arts Commission. He does not believe the Brown Out Matinees to be segregated on the basis of race, even though they’re specifically pitched so that “Seattle’s BIPOC community can come together.”
“We understand this to be simply another outreach strategy — common to all organizations, arts or otherwise — to expand their audience base,” Wallenfels said.
This isn’t the first time, however, the organization introduced segregated programming.
Safe space for BIPOC only
Seattle Shakespeare Company’s SEE program (Shakespeare Equity Engagement) hosts “safe space” gatherings exclusively for “BIPOC artists.”
Diversity Programming Coordinator Lamar Legend said the event was “to meet and discuss issues that we currently face funneled through Shakespeare’s text.”
“Each week we’ll have a topic to open up rich conversation in a safe space, with just us in the room, while learning tools on Shakespeare performance. It’s completely free and open to BIPOC artists,” Legend said.
Where did these segregationist ideas come from?
The group appears to be inspired by activism around the death of George Floyd.
After reading Ibrim X. Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist,” the group says that “we began the deep, company-wide work of unstitching ourselves from our investment in whiteness.”
“We are becoming collectively aware of our company’s identity as a primarily white institution who has produced theater exclusively by white, Western European, male authors and how this creates and holds oppressive spaces in our community,” the group says on its website.
The white leaders of the group aren’t stepping down. They won’t stop performing work by white author William Shakespeare.
Instead, they’ll signal their virtue to earn some social currency by calling out their own supposed racism or blind spots. But they weren’t likely racist until they decided to push a segregationist attitude towards attendance.
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