Oakland Playwright Says Berkeley Rep Theatre Discriminated Against Black Audience Members

Judy Juanita, an Oakland-based playwright and novelist, has accused the Berkeley Repertory Theatre of discriminating against Black audience members at a performance of the company’s new play about racial disparities in California’s schools and prisons. In a Facebook post she published on Sunday, Juanita, an East Bay native, said that the theater’s ushers refused to seat her and five other Black audience members in her group in a section where they had reserved seats. The incident at Berkeley Rep resembled one earlier this year at a Berkeley cafe involving Black comedian W. Kamau Bell.

The latest incident happened during a special Friday evening preview performance of Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter, a one-woman play by Anna Deavere Smith, a writer and actor whose works have often touched on social justice and race relations. Notes is about the “school-to-prison pipeline” — in which students of color are disciplined and incarcerated at disproportionately high rates — and was based on extensive interviews Smith conducted in California.

A white friend asked Juanita and the other members in her group to attend the performance Friday night, because Berkeley Rep is “is doing outreach to bring Smith’s play [to] an audience beyond its typical white, upper middle class Berkeleyite,” Juanita wrote in her Facebook post.

[jump] The special preview event apparently involved group discussions during an intermission in which the audience brainstormed ideas and responses to themes in the play. Juanita said she and the others were “recruited” to be vocal in those conversations. But soon after her arrival at the theater, she wrote that the “opportunity to contemplate racism … turned into an opportunity to experience racism.” 

In her own words, here’s what happened: 
My friend K., who happens to be a white, Mohawk-wearing lesbian, invited me and four other blacks. K. stayed in the lobby waiting for another friend but directed three of us upstairs, center front row – great seats! A young white female usher looked at our tix, stamped general admission, and refused to seat us. Okay. We politely pointed out the reserved seats. No go. Okay. We waited a bit, saw two friends (black) sitting in the seats and went in. As soon as we got seated, the usher came over to unseat all five of us. We showed her K.’s names on the reserved signs on each seat. She said the seats were for the tech crew. We begged to differ, politely. She walked away. Momentarily, a young black female usher came over and politely asked us to move. We politely told her about K. She was adamant that we needed to sit somewhere else, but we adamantly pointed to K.’s name on the seats.
She said that it appeared to her and her fellow patrons that the black usher “had been sent as a black emissary (used to be called Uncle Tom) to get these Negroes out of these prime seats.” Only after K. and another white friend arrived did it become “clear to all that we weren’t trespassing,” Juanita wrote. “I settled in and soaked up the theatrical racism, keenly aware of the audience being about 80% white, of the scarcity of black males in the venue, of the abundance of black female ushers, and of my group’s profile – novelist (me), entrepreneur featured in Fortune mag, doctor’s wife, non profit exec, labor leader. Thought of Dick Gregory (what do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?). Enjoyed the provocative Anna [Deavere] Smith. Enjoyed my friends. Didn’t appreciate the bull.”

You can read her full post here

Reached by phone this morning, Juanita said she did not want to comment about the incident beyond her written statements, but told me that a Berkeley Rep marketing official has reached out to her by phone to apologize. Juanita said she told the Berkeley Rep representative that she would like a formal apology and would like to see the theater produce more plays by Black writers and other playwrights of color, train the staff in diversity, continue to give out free tickets, and partner with Lower Bottom Playaz, a local Black theater group.

Juanita also elaborated on her experience at Berkeley Rep in comments on a blogpost at Black Bird Press and on her Facebook page. There, she added, “It’s not enough for Anna [Deavere] Smith to come for three weeks and leave, and [Berkeley Rep] to go back to biz as usual.”

Polly Winograd Ikonen, Berkeley Rep’s director of marketing, communications, and patron engagement, sent me a copy of a letter she sent to Juanita this morning, which included an apology. The letter, however, contended that the situation was the result of a miscommunication between the theater’s technical crew and house management staff: 
As you know, Friday’s presentation was not a public performance, but a final dress rehearsal, which is still a working session, with technical staff seated throughout the house. Because we had invited an audience in for the first run-through of Act 2’s group discussions, our house management staff were tasked with making sure that technical crew still had access to their reserved blocks of seats. Unfortunately, they were not aware that seats had been reserved for anyone other than technical crew, which is what led to your group being questions. This was our error, and as you note in your blog post, was resolved once they fully understood the situation. 
Still, Ikonen continued in the letter, “Berkeley Rep has a deep commitment to making all patrons feel welcome in our spaces, and we clearly failed to meet that standard last Friday night. For that we sincerely apologize.” 

And regarding Juanita’s comments about the lack of diversity at Berkeley Rep, Ikonen wrote:
As demonstrated by our longstanding partnership with Anna Deavere Smith and other artists, Berkeley Rep is committed to presenting work and building audiences that reflect the community and world in which we live. As you rightly point out, Judy, this effort cannot and should not be limited to special presentations. We completely agree. 

Currently, twenty percent of our audience consists of people of color. While we do not consider this to be anywhere near what it could or should be, we are proud that this number constitutes one of the largest and most successful examples of audience diversity among arts organizations nationally. At the same time, we continually strive to increase that number.
You can read the full letter here.
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