During the pandemic and prohibition of large public gatherings, the most progressive acts the California Shakespeare Theater performs are not brashly futuristic re-imaginings of classic plays pulled from the archives and unleashed online. Instead, the contemporary theater company largely known as Cal Shakes is engaged in multiple, deliberately bold and nakedly candid conversations exploring and hoping to cast aside historical, racist demons lurking behind their own curtains.
Like all performing arts organizations stripped of the ability to perform live theater, and long before announcing, on March 27, the cancellation of its 46th season at Orinda’s Bruns Amphitheater, Cal Shakes had established a tradition of searing self-examination. Led by Artistic Director Eric Ting and Managing Director Sarah Williams, three pillars define and can be found at the core of Cal Shakes’ forward-thinking mission: make, learn, engage. A robust outreach platform includes Artist-Investigators, Life is Living, Community Tours and rich resources for schools and educators. Collectively, the programs serve to springboard theater into local communities and back up the troupe’s secondary purpose: to bring theater to the people, not just bring people to the theater.
Onstage, Cal Shakes’ vision manifests itself in radical retellings of classic stories and newly commissioned works that invite post-show discourse—especially prickly conversations that permit ambiguity and different points of view to prevail as long as meanness and judgement are deferred. Authentic action to affect equity means adjustments to the voices heard and bodies seen onstage are ongoing, subject to constant scrutiny. The New Classics Initiative program expands a typically Euro-centric canon by opening the library to new works written by playwrights across all cultures. Along with emphasis on excellence and equity in casting, the initiative has resulted in more plays by people of color, women, Indigenous writers and other under-represented communities.
Even so, enormous, inequitable gaps exist. Generations of systemic white bias has left Cal Shakes as vulnerable to criticism as other theater companies in the Bay Area and across the nation. After George Floyd’s death and with the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized, the choice of response was to hide history, or stand accountable and heal.
Which is why on June 12 Cal Shakes launched a panel called Direct Address: A Conversation on Allyship and Anti-Racism. The ongoing series of moderated conversations and lecture-style classes is overseen by Ting and Artistic Associate LeeAnn Dowd in collaboration with guest artistic producers and course leaders. Topics presented in July included Unlearning White Supremacy and an Introduction to Accountability. (The July 17 panel, Anti-Blackness in Non-Black Communities of Color, has been rescheduled for Aug. 14.)
“You can’t ask of someone else what you won’t ask of yourself,” Ting says in an interview on July 27. “There are basic fundamental values that revolve around transparency, vulnerability, accountability. Transparency is about visibility; being willing to (publicly) communicate your role. Accountability is owning up to your personal or organization’s role in the perpetuation of oppression. Vulnerability is where it gets real. It’s the desire to communicate in such a way that moves us forward. It’s saying, ‘I did this and I’m sorry and I’m still trying to figure it out.'”
Full candor means awareness that “bridge-building” and similar jargon-esque terms come to naught if perilous complacency rises. Words are incredibly important to Ting.
“In my personal life I feel it all the time: this notion of urgency,” Ting says. “How do we get to the place where we’re just speaking truth to each other? How do we get past the vocabulary, the words that are in fashion right now? What are the actions we can do to solve this? That urgency often motivates actions that are ultimately ineffective because the foundations have not been addressed.”
While solutions require time to examine systems and the language of oppression, Ting says words hold power. Language that reclaims lost stories or disrupts the mundane and forces conversation about things people assume do not need to be re-examined—like Blackness—are especially potent.
“Say anti-racist as opposed to not racist,” Ting says. “Or anti-Blackness as opposed to racism, which doesn’t mean Blackness is a part of it. These are evolutions of language. As much as any other theater, we concern ourselves with language. That’s our thing. It’s an evolution of human desire for justice.”
Cal Shakes is a civic institution in Ting’s definition and as such, must serve the public good by unwrapping injustice in America. White supremacy is terminology he uses with clarity and intentionality as a description of a system of oppression and not the practices of the Ku Klux Klan or a few individual extremists.
“I’m talking about it as a system upon which this nation was built,” Ting says. “The country only exists because of white supremacy. The way (White America) could get to the point of dehumanizing African Peoples was through slavery and in dehumanizing Indigenous Peoples, genocide and stealing of the land. We’re all a part of it. We (may) even benefit from it, living in this country.”
Awareness stripped of stage costumes and scenery makes pre-show land acknowledgements common—and soon, stale and routine, according to Ting. The Bruns amphitheater, along with much of the Bay Area, stands on Ohlone land. Ting says the public acknowledgements become valuable when backed with action: donations to The Shuumi Land Tax supports the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust’s preservation of Lisjan Ohlone territory.
“It’s a kind of reparation,” Ting says. “I keep learning about this notion of exploitation: it precedes even slavery in this country. It carved the path for so many of the original sins of this country.”
Reviewing the twin tragedies of the pandemic and Floyd’s murder May 25, Ting says cancelling the entire season followed trustworthy science and demonstrated decisions made to insure longterm financial stability and public health safety. A scramble to produce online programming ensued.
“That was the bridge,” he recalls. “When George Floyd was murdered, it took a while to catch up. At Cal Shakes, we’d been working to be in the right relationship with our community for a long time. We had to release a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder. We were supporting the movement.
“It hadn’t grown complicated—as it would as people started having strong responses to legacy white organizations releasing statements that felt performative at best, outright false at worst. It was a profound moment of reckoning in American theater. We were being called to account for past practices that felt at odds with these statements of support. These are not two separate things, the pandemic and racial justice. They are tied to very real inequities in our country.”
If one role of theater is to lead people into uncomfortable spaces, in 2020, the buffer of art is missing. Reckoning what it means to be human in conversations or telling stories that venture into the painful truth of violence against black and brown bodies describe the landscape ahead.
“Let’s have these conversations,” Ting says. “Let’s look at ourselves in not the most forgiving ways … because on the other end of this is revelation. I am learning every day. I come to this as a fellow traveler.”
Ting asks himself questions that connect to his origins.
“Everything I know about running a theater I learned from my mother,” he says. “She ran a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Appalachia in West Virginia. I always knew people came to see my mom. They came to see people they knew and had come to love. What you could count on was really good food, laughter and good music. A welcome smile of recognition.”
He wonders: Can Cal Shakes capitalize on its outdoor venue and temporarily turn itself into a physically distanced but civically ambitious dinner theater aimed at social justice? Will picnic table talks and Zoom panels gain steam and power the company to a radical, all-out better normal instead of simply the old normal parading behind art?
Ting doesn’t have all the answers but says a fourth value, de-centering, applies to power, privilege, the Classics and Cal Shakes’ past. Expanding the voices is a risk, he suggests. Without diminishing Shakespeare’s voice, moving forward, language used must wrestle with the legacy that forces people to separate, to mask or to be blind to truth.
“We have to dismantle that and we’ll use every available tool,” he says. “Whether those tools are art or uncomfortable conversations or the stories of students or moments of self-examination; we have to dismantle all of the things in the way of truth. We’re not going to get to that truth quickly. There is no shortcut. Our work and our purpose on this planet as human beings, as artists, is to try to get to the truth. I defy anyone who tries to disagree with me on that.”
The challenge is there. Leap onto Zoom, join the conversation: make, learn, engage.