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BWW Previews: #VOTEOFFENSIVELY at The Theater Offensive

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Tonasia Jones and Harold Steward Chat with Andrew Child

Point: For many theatres, a pandemic has meant that they need to find new ways to create and present productions. While that is certainly easier said than done, at this juncture, recurring themes, practices, and platforms have arisen. New ways to relay text, to fuse design and performance, to tell stories, and even new ways to solicit funding. The team at The Theater Offensive, alongside many of Boston's leading theaters, has traversed in conversation along these lines. A production of Tarell Alvin McCraney and Tina Landau's Ms. Blakk for President, which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2019 and was set to be mounted by The Theater Offensive at the A.R.T.'s Oberon, has unfortunately been cancelled. Harold Steward, who has been involved with the Ms. Blakk project artistically and logistically since last November, explained how this major event was meant to give Bostonian's a vessel to respond to the 2020 presidential election- whatever it may bring. Counterpoint: TTO's mission encapsulates goals which supersede the current concerns of most theaters when it comes to transferring to the virtual realm. "We're mourning the loss of the main stage production right now too, but that's not what we are known for, so more significantly, we are mourning the loss of our community events."

"We're The Theatre Offensive," Harold Steward pensively snickers. For them, a major tenet of leading a Queer organization means questioning every facet of the status quo- including reexamining the priorities of arts organizations while in transit to a temporarily virtual universe.

Tonasia Jones, TTO's Interim Director of Programs, sums up the unique challenges facing the organization in its adjustment to a virtual platform succinctly. "The virtual world cuts people off. There is a specific 'Zoom aesthetic' but how do we make it ours?A lot of organizations are putting out work,

(absentmindedly pantomimes dealing out cards from a deck in a neutered, irreverent mechanization)

but we want to talk about how we build a sense of community when we are all just little pictures on a screen."

(opens arms into a broad hug and welcomes an invisible progeny of QTPOC Bostonians into a mimetic embrace)

"TTO has known forever that we create community by creating the kitchen- bringing elders into conversations with young people over food. Now we need to talk about how we create THAT in a virtual space."

Steward jumps in to add that, the idea of bringing art to where the people are is one that has long been explored by Black storytellers. "Stories were told in Africa after the men got back from the hunt. This methodology about community and connecting art back to our daily practice was integral for the Black arts movement as they moved from a Civil Rights politic to a Black Power politic." When the world goes virtual, they reason, our theater must become virtual. He explains how the Free Southern Theater, which was founded at Tougaloo College in 1963, used the idea of story circles, in which members of a community where all given equal time to respond to the same prompt, to combat a "dominant voice within distinct communities". Usually, that overbearing perspective was informed by the worldview of a male preacher. "(Free Southern Theatre) relied on their African origins around unity to create a space where everyone was given equitable space to share their experiences." This, they continue, sat otherwise outspoken community members in a new role as listener. "The listener role might not be comfortable for some and it might not be one that certain people visit often because of their relationship with power. But it expands our perspectives. It's important that we don't assume we know everything about issues that don't affect us."

TTO's upcoming programming, #VoteOffensively, will use story circles inspired by the work of Free Southern Theatre as well as Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed to respond as a community to prompts about the ways upcoming elections affect QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color). I am excited to touch base with Jones and Steward again after this Tuesday's circle, as the nature, content, and focus of this project is still elusive, yet to be informed by the voices present to share. Ultimately, both feel that, rather than pushing a particular stance on voting or promoting specific candidates, this event will let the community consider information from outside of their own lived experiences. Pulling from traditions of open mic nights, town meetings, and even theatrical monologues, this circle will be recorded and archived so it can lead to concrete, actionable steps.

From their own histories, Jones and Steward reflect on their community-oriented, familiar relationships with voting. Steward reminisces about their Dallas roots, toting, "elections are part of my DNA." He describes the rec center at the end of his street where the community would gather to vote, lovingly mocks the intense community accountability in making sure each family cast their ballot, and recalls coordinating chicken dinners for poll workers and their families to make sure all went smoothly. His Aunt Ruth was a precinct chair for the city council and a house situated on a corner lot made his family prime candidates to display campaign signs. "I remember the colors. I remember the slogans."

Jones shares about a similar but different early relationship with electoral politics. She recalls her community's polling place at the church across the street from her. While both share frustrations, funny anecdotes, and imbedded associations with election day customs, those perspectives will not necessarily take centerstage in TTO's upcoming story circle. They acknowledge that being brought up in "civically-minded" communities (even if their own families did not necessarily identify under a civic-minded lifestyle), seeing familiar faces at a polling station, and belonging to a neighborhood where friends will feed your kids so you can vote after work are all privileges and not realities for some. The story circles, they anticipate, will give space for both of them to hear about experiences with voting outside of their own. For instance, neither of them has been affected by controversial ID practices at the polls. For many trans people at any stage of transition, government identification can be a fraught, triggering, exclusive, and even inaccessible dilemma. Of course, this is just one example of many lived experiences they do not share but are about which they interested to hear testimony.

Steward is blunt; "There's an assumption that Massachusetts politics align with the best interests of the QTPOC community. 'Going blue' doesn't necessarily mean we're good with our Queer and Trans siblings. 'Going blue' doesn't necessarily mean that Queer and Trans- especially non-conforming- bodies are going to get what we need."

While they cannot promise audiences exactly what to expect at this virtual circle, Steward urges, "the parameters not the content should intrigue you. bell hooks asks 'Where's the healing place?' and these offerings are the container to be that healing place. So we give you the instructions on how to get to that container and hope you will join us."

Jones, reflecting on a former conversation with Steward, epitomizes what seems to be TTO's unified stance on the shifting, uncertain nature of artistic work right now. "Remember you said; 'It's a white supremacist idea that we can control twelve months at a time.'?"

Jones justifies her own palpable excitement at the prospect of an uncertain process for artistic work, "If the systems allow us to be changeable, how does that allow us to be more open and changeable in the ways we think and interact?"

Perhaps this story circle will shed light on unconsidered issues facing QTPOC at the polls and perhaps it can generate a community like those of Jones' and Steward's childhoods; calling each other to 'make sure grandma votes' and discussing the best options on the ballot. Whatever the stance or perspective, TTO is committed to moving the ideas from this story circle forward in their programming.

More about TTO's programming and this Tuesday's story circle is available here.

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From This Author Andrew Child