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BWW Interview: Elizabeth Addison & Maurice Emmanuel Parent on BOSTON'S BLACK-OUT PERFORMANCES

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What is a Black-out performance? What do they offer and why are they important?

BWW Interview: Elizabeth Addison & Maurice Emmanuel Parent on BOSTON'S BLACK-OUT PERFORMANCES

The first time composer/ lyricist Elizabeth Addison saw Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play on Broadway, she felt self-conscious. The piece takes an unflinching swipe at racial tensions in ways that famously ignited passions of theatre goers of all races. Amidst a sea of bawdy cheers, applause, and laughter, Addison felt herself looking around at the many white faces near her. "I was thinking, 'You don't have the right to laugh at that joke. You don't have the history to laugh at that joke.'" To her, the play seemed frozen and not entirely framed in a way that was productive. Flash forward to a few months later when the production announced a black-out performance, an evening of the show specifically reserved for an entirely Black audience. Addison, knowing one of the producers, was able to attend again and, aside from some qualms with a row of white patrons watching from the back, felt her second interaction with the piece was significantly more meaningful. Although the play had not changed much, the shift in the audience had a monumental impact on the way she engaged with the work. "There was a huge difference because I knew what everyone was laughing about and that we were all coming at this production from a similar place. There was safety. It gave me something I didn't know I was missing."

A few years ago, Maurice Emmanuel Parent had a realization when performing in SpeakEasy Stage Company's The Scottsboro Boys. The musical's finale sees the black men of the cast entering in traditional minstrel attire and strutting around jauntily with tambourines. As Parent looked out at the crowd of mostly white faces, he wondered what a powerful experience it would be to perform this show for a predominantly Black audience. "I carry my 'ism' with me everywhere I go. Racism is a daily occurrence. When I walk downtown and the only other person I see who looks like me is a homeless person, I carry that history with me." Addison agreed with this analysis, adding that, while she brings her own experiences as a black woman into any theatrical space she occupies, white people do not often acknowledge that we carry with us, "a legacy of racism."

When the Slave Play black-out performance was announced via Twitter, Parent was in the middle of directing Choir Boy at SpeakEasy. He immediately loved the idea and saw the benefits Black Boston audiences and artists could gain from experiencing theatre in similar environments. As the co-founder and executive director of the Front Porch Arts Collective, he knew just the right Boston organization to coordinate such an event. The Speakeasy administration loved the idea, reserving one of the show's extension dates and ensuring that the front of house staff for the evening would not be entirely white. "Jim Torres is an incredibly fast marketing director," said Parent, noting how quickly from concept to execution the black-out was undertaken. "The beautiful thing about the folks at SpeakEasy was that they helped us set up, and then they backed away. They made space for us."

Both were present the night of the first black-out performance, and though neither was raised in a Black Church, they felt the inherited community in their DNA as audience members sang along with the Gospel, hip-hop, and R&B songs that were performed in the show. "The whole performance turned into a call and response," Parent beamed. While Addison cited negative experiences in theatre when she has even made small reactionary sounds in the past with white audience members overbearingly patrolling her, she did not feel the need to remain quiet in this space. "In predominantly white spaces, Black people may change the tone of their voices, speak more quietly, do what ever they have to do so that they are not perceived as threatening. We stay quiet. I even get looks if I let out an 'mmm'. But in this space, we are free from all of that."

Once social media got a hold of what was going on, there was a huge outpouring of support. Those who could not attend wished they had been there, and the Front Porch Arts Collective was contacted by representatives of the BBC World News and The New York Times. While The Porch was originally aiming for a majority Black audience which welcomed in Black patrons alongside their partners or family members of any race, the success of Choir Boy's black-out assured them that a space held exclusively for Black audiences was a viable option for Boston. Since then, The Porch has coordinated Black-out performances for Marie & Rosetta at Greater Boston Stage Company, Pass Over at SpeakEasy Stage, What to Send Up When it Goes Down at The American Repertory Theatre, and the Umbrella Theatre Company organized their own event for their production of Fences.

The two noted how Black-out performances can effectively work as a tool to shift Boston's theatre-going public. "These spaces have always belonged to (white people). All the time," Addison explained. "I have always been one of very few Black people in any audience." She explained how feeling unwelcome in a space can act as a barrier against people purchasing tickets. However, she and Parent agreed that theatres hoping exclusively to expand their subscriber bases should confront their intentions behind hosting Black-out events. "If there are 10 audience members present, that is a success. If you don't agree, maybe (Black-outs) are not for you."

Parent explained how at New Repertory Theatre's production of Trayf, which centered around Jewish characters, he noticed audience members around him laughing at cultural humor that he could not access. "I enjoyed that show, and the fact that I didn't get some of the jokes was perfectly fine, because I'm not part of that culture. Those jokes weren't for me." He believes more marginalized groups should be allowed to access their stories in theatrical spaces without facing repercussions or judgement. However, a difference for Black audiences, he explained, "is that for us, this can be more than a matter of comfort, but a matter of emotional safety." Though Boston theatres have begun programming more shows that promote Black artists, he feels that many of the shows chosen take a limited view of what Blackness looks like. "PWIs (primarily white institutions) producing Black plays is a good thing. I've been in several and had wonderful experiences. However often times these shows deal with stories that, when experienced in mixed audiences, can be emotionally triggering for Black folks. Black narratives don't always have to be about trauma, or our Blackness in relation to whiteness. In Boston, Black people on stage usually are suffering trauma in an African-American urban narrative. Though this narrative is powerful (and one that is part of my personal heritage) and should indeed be explored, through The Porch, I'm interested in adding to the arts ecosystem a sustainable organization that- from ticket takers to board members- is representative of the diaspora and all of it's varied narratives, be they Afro-Latinx, African, Afro-Caribbean, stories of Black wealth and power, examinations of ways we've made lasting positive impacts on this nation, etc."

I met with these two artists at home.stead Bakery & Café in Dorchester this past February to write up this article to closely follow Black History Month. Because a fleet of new conversations needed to come to the foreground of theatre spaces over the past few months, this write-up has sat as a draft on my desktop for an uncharacteristically long time. Reflecting on questions that would not make sense to our February selves, Addison muses, "Honestly, I'm not sure if there will be an increased need for Black-out performances once we 'return'. I do think Black or non-Black audiences will engage with this type of programming differently, however. I think white theater goers will understand the need for Black-out performances more than they once did. I think there will be an even bigger push for diversity on and off stage and in the audience."

She continues with thoughts she hopes arts leaders can take away from hosting Black-out performances. "I think they really need to grapple with the why of it. Why did we feel the need to create a separate space for us? What were they not doing that made us feel this was necessary? How do we come to a place where everyone feels welcome at the theater? Where there is no big I's or small you's? Where there isn't even a need for a Black-out performances? I hope they really, truly, understand why we needed them in the first place but then how can we move on from there? That doesn't mean get rid of them, but how do we create something so inclusive that it almost feels like we don't need to create something separate? I hope this has helped them take a long look in the mirror."

Elizabeth Addison's musical "Chasing Grace" (Formerly "This is Treatment") will have a virtual run in December through Rider University. The show centers around a group of women of color in recovery from addiction and radically calls for the compassion usually reserved for white people living with substance dependencies. She promises the piece features characters not usually shown on stage, they are fully formed and three dimensional. Catch Elizabeth's new in depth interview series, "Chasing Beads," on facebook.com/thisistreatmentllc.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent has also been busy in his role as Executive Director of the Front Porch Arts Collective. Amidst their cabaret programming at Central Square Theatre, friends of the company have expressed a concern over the amount of state funding allocated to them. Read more about the call to #PayThePorch and sign your name here.



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From This Author Andrew Child