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It's not about my feelings

Guest Blog by Pandora Robertson

Photo by Steve Wagner

"Incendiaries" photo by Steve Wagner

I’m fortunate to be part of an artistic community that values and supports risky experimental work. By risky, I mean just that. There is a fair portion of this work that fails. It may confuse or perhaps even offend the audience. But that is what artists and innovators do, they embark on journeys often unsure of where they will end up. 

During the past two years, including my CPAC fellowship year, I’ve been working, with generous collaborators, on the play Incendiaries. Incendiaries is based on the 1966 Hough uprising. Six days of Cleveland history are brought to life by 7 actors in compressed space and time, that is literally a very sturdy table and three chairs. I began this journey, pretty much as a clueless white person, and in many ways I guess I still am. I jumped into the deep end with interpreting historical material from a highly charged period of racial conflict and strife. Needless to say, I got in way over my head.

I was creating new work, which by itself is a huge challenge. And I was working with a diverse cast from different cultural perspectives, and with varying degrees of exposure to physical ensemble devised work. I often tripped and fell. Working under deadline, I would dash off a new scene, and bring it to rehearsal for the actors to read and respond to. They would generously improvise, suggest and constructively criticize. During these sessions the actors would sometimes point out that I had written in racist stereotypes. For example, we reimagined a heated argument that purportedly sparked the Hough unrest, which according to newspaper reports began with a bar owner quarreling with a prostitute. I sketched out some of the dialog for the cast to interpret and they in turn protested that black women in bars are often stereotyped as prostitutes. They posited that the newspapers accounts could have very well been wrong. Here I was supposed to be the “leader” of the group when in truth my cast was leading me by giving me nuanced perspectives and layered understanding of the material. During many of these rehearsals, I had to confront the micro-aggressions that I had committed. At these times, the floor felt like it was giving away and that I was in a free fall. I was not the non-racist liberal that I thought I was. 

Being in free fall is terrifying. Becoming aware of some of the many implicit biases that I have absorbed and the many privileges I have not earned is painful. And not really knowing how to fix any of it can feel demoralizing. But the racial oppression, stress and indeed danger that many of our citizens suffer and fear are far worse, and unimaginable to most whites. It really is not about my feelings.

If my theater career ended tomorrow, I would be grateful for the opportunities to learn the simple acts of putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and seeing their point of view. These simple acts of listening and struggling to understand broaden our scope, and deepen our capacity for empathy. They help us begin to grasp the complexity of the human condition. As a white person I have to set out on the journey, even if I make wrong turns. I have to tolerate being uncomfortable and feeling foolish. I have to own the mistakes that I will continue to make and recognize when I have hurt people. These things are a small price to pay and are unavoidable if I am to educate myself and learn how to humbly move forward in addressing racism and injustice in our culture. 

Pandora Robertson from CPAC on Vimeo.

A 30-minute abridged version of Incendiaries will be performed by Ohio City Theatre Project and presented at the Martin Luther King Branch of the Cleveland Public Library on February 4, at 11 am. The performance will kick off a 4-consecutive-Saturday theater workshop.

Participants will examine the historic record of the 1966 Hough Uprising. Participants will be introduced to theater creation and collaborative techniques. And with these skills, they will be encouraged to express their unique perspectives and responses to this historic event and its parallels to current headlines.

The world premiere of Incendiaries was co-produced by Raymond Bobgan for Cleveland Public Theater with Ohio City Theatre Project.

This blog is used under license and was submitted by volunteer contributor Pandora Robertson, theatre director and 2016 Creative Workforce Fellow. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CPAC. CPAC does not endorse the purchase of products or services by its guest bloggers. We thank all writers for volunteering their expertise with us in order to continue to strengthen, unify and connect greater Cleveland’s arts and culture community. 

Categories: innovation, Neighborhoods, Race, Storytelling

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