Live theater is intimately connected to the audience watching it. But with the arrival of a global pandemic and social distancing, theater and many other artistic endeavors have been shuttered. For the moment, live theater is a super-spreader event. At the same time, there is upheaval occuring around the country as Americans reckon with racism, and more and more artistic leaders are being asked to confront white supremacy. This was the backdrop for a recent “Aspen Leadership Series: Conversations with Great Leaders: In Memory of Preston Robert Tisch” discussion between Anna Deavere Smith, an actress, playwright, professor, and Institute trustee, and Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater and our Harman/Eisner artist in residence.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: How is The Public Theater responding to this moment in world history? As you know, African American artists and artists of color from different disciplines are speaking up.
OSKAR EUSTIS: We are being faced with our own community, who is asking to hold us accountable for the words and the values we use. I am spending a lot of time listening to my own staff, who have a lot to say, and also to the artistic communities that are also speaking up. The job of the Public Theater right now is to recognize that we are entangled in white supremacy, we are entangled in the racist assumptions that have built this country, and we—white leadership—do not see those things as clearly as we must. We need to listen, learn how to see each other better, and figure out collectively how we’re going to change to be more just, more equitable, more inclusive, and more democratic, which are values that we deeply believe and have so far insufficiently upheld.
ADS: Let’s think for a second about the mission of The Public Theater. I arrived in New York at the end of the ’70s, walked into The Public Theater, and saw Ed Bullins—a Black playwright who was really hot in the ’60s cultural revolution—walking around. I wouldn’t have seen Ed Bullins standing in the lobby of any other nonprofit theater or for-profit theater other than Black theaters. But other white theaters? I can’t think of one where Ed Bullins would be standing and where Ed Bullins had a writer’s workshop that you could just come to on Saturdays. That’s what I call a radical welcome. So, there’s something in the mission of The Public Theater that perhaps you can cultivate further.
OE: The Public Theater has the most perfect mission of any theater I’ve ever been associated with. We’re being faced with one of those moments right now where we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say: “Can we live up to these values better? Can we do this mission more completely than we’ve been doing it?” And the answer to that is yes. The public is demanding that we live up to what it stands for.
ADS: Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which is so eloquent, includes one very simple sentence (not many of the sentences are simple), which is: “Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” It takes resistance; it takes rebellion. What privileges are leaders of American artistic institutions going to have to give up? What
are some of the things you’re hearing loudest?
OE: There are decision-making processes that feel organic and natural to me that other people feel are completely secretive and opaque. To many, how decisions are made, how the levers of power are moved, feels impossible to see—like some kind of illuminati working. It feels private and secret. I never would have thought that; that was not how I look at it. But I’m hearing that criticism, and I’m taking it really seriously. There is a call for radical transparency. That’s the kind of thing that I’m hearing: unexamined assumptions about who has power, who has control, who gets privilege
I come from a Marxist tradition, and the genuine criticism leveled against that tradition is that it privileged class struggle over racial struggle. It saw racial oppression as secondary to class oppression. It saw racism as a class phenomenon, not a root cause. I’ve known for a long time that that analysis was flawed. But in the last weeks, I’ve been educated about how racism and capitalism have been utterly entwined from the very beginning of this country. Of course, we always knew that freedom and slavery stood side by side as seemingly contradictory elements: the good America and the bad America. But when you realize they were interdependent from the beginning—that freedom for white males was absolutely dependent on slavery and genocide and was never separate from those—that’s beautifully radical.
ADS: What can art do? What are the limitations?
OE: Art has so many limitations, it’s almost embarrassing to talk about. People don’t walk into our theaters thinking one thing and walk out with a new ideology. I don’t think we transmit ideology. I don’t think we transmit information. The most politically effective piece of theater I was ever personally involved with was Angels in America. When I say, “politically effective,” I don’t think many people walked in being right-wing homophobes and then walked out saying, “Let me have a drink with Larry Kramer.” But I do think people walked into that theater—I know personally a number of homophobic people who walked into that theater—and had the experience of identifying for seven hours with these brilliant, complex, proudly gay characters, and they walked out having had incredible empathy with people they had previously “othered.” That actually changes people’s hearts. But there was no legislation that happened because of Angels in America. I do think it was part of changing how this country looked at gay people—and only a part of it. But a part that
I’m proud of.
ADS: What can we, as theater makers, do to uplift other stories? Do we need to leave that to artists of color? I’m very concerned about the extent to which my students feel that what we can say is connected to our birth race.
OE: It’s a very tricky question because there aren’t any simple answers to any real artistic questions. There’re a couple of different values that are warring here. One is the fact that you have to make sure you are giving space to people to tell their own story. Every great movement in theater history has come about because we’ve expanded the enfranchisement of the stage. We’ve given the stage over to more people who get to be the subjects of their own history, not the objects of their own history. So, empowering voices of color is absolutely necessary. Yet at the same time, we as Americans are all bound up together in a system that is built on racism and oppression, and that implicates all of us. We are responsible for our own actions, we are responsible for our own lives, we’re responsible for the art we make. If we want the art we make to change the world, we have to find ground on which we can stand to talk about changing the world—and that’s always going to
be vexed ground.