Anti-racist theater and the #WeSeeYou movement: A Q&A with Nicole Brewer

The Howard grad who leads training workshops all over the U.S. says theaters in the DMV have a long way to go.

I had the chance to attend Nicole Brewer’s Anti-Racist Theatre workshop at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, last year, and it was an eyeopener. So when I thought about someone from the local BIPOC theater community to share insights about what’s happening now in American theater, I was super pleased that Nicole agreed to speak with DC Metro Theater Arts. In particular, I wanted Nicole to discuss the #WeSeeYou White American Theatre movement and its local relevance. 

Nicole Brewer will offer her next Anti-Racist Theatre Workshop October 3 and 4, 2020. For more information, click here.

As an actor, director, and educator, Nicole Brewer facilitates theater training that confronts implicit racism and bias. She has deep roots in the Metro DC area, where she now lives, with a BFA from Howard University and later as faculty in Howard’s Department of Theatre Arts. Since earning her MFA at Northern Illinois University, Nicole has created an inclusive method of training to decolonize theater and to disrupt white cultural identifiers as the default. Fostering a culture of belonging, she calls this process Conscientious Theatre Training. 

Ramona: Is there anything on your mind that you would like to share up front?

Nicole: I am in a moment of being quite hopeful about what innovation in American theater is going to come out of this pandemic—because I feel American theater as a whole has lacked innovation for a few decades.

Lately I am turning to lift up and appreciate other people’s vision around what is possible after this. And I’m excited to see how this generates new thinking about the industry and how we gather to tell stories.

In one of your articles you talked about your graduate training program in theater at Northern Illinois University. You had expressed concerns about racism and bias to the faculty and administration—problems that you had with the curriculum you were taking—but your outspokenness got you kicked out of the program. Even though you hadn’t missed or failed any classes, you were kicked out and you had to appeal outside the department to get back in to finish your studies. Can you tell us about that experience and what was happening with you during that time?

Nicole Brewer

In order to tell that story, I have to back up and say that I am a graduate of Howard University, I have a BFA in acting. And that experience really was affirming my Blackness and building my confidence in telling stories—both Black stories and stories that were written by white playwrights that had been adopted for the Black experience. So I had this really strong foundation. When I went to this predominantly white institution for my graduate studies, 99% of what they taught was white—and that other 1% was For Colored Girls, an August Wilson play, and Raisin in the Sun. That was imbalanced and it was wrong.

When they were talking about the way that I sounded, saying I had to learn this general American accent, I knew that wasn’t true for the stories I was going to be asked to play in professional theater. They were telling me how I should have a relationship to my body in a way that lacked any kind of analysis around racism and trauma, and what could be triggering for me as a Black person, and how tension can be useful for people as a survival mechanism. There just wasn’t any of that.

I had natural locks and I would tie my hair up and put my head scarf on. My movement teacher would be irritated that I was doing that. She told me, “I’m not racist and no one else is in here tying their hair up.” And I’m like, Nobody else in here is Black! So it was these constant issues—being asked to assimilate to the culture and to stretch myself as far as I could possibly go, but not being met with the needs that I was bringing to them—ways they set me up to fail.

But I knew that what I had been taught at Howard they couldn’t break down. They couldn’t make me believe that I didn’t have a space in theater and that I had to be as close to white as possible to get a role.

How did they let you know you were kicked out?

The woman who was the head of my MFA program didn’t even have the heart to do it. So the person who was the head of the BA program called me into her office and said, “We as the faculty have met and decided that you were unteachable and that you are immature.” That was the word. That I was immature.

Do you think your experience at Northern Illinois created the fire, the motivation, for the work you’re doing now to develop theater training programs addressing racism and discrimination?

Without a doubt that set me aflame. Once I was reinstated, I officially became someone who was to be tolerated. My faculty wouldn’t talk to me, nor would they give me feedback on my work. My classmates wouldn’t talk to me. I was isolated and alone and treated as if I was the problem—because I spoke out and said this isn’t right.

The acting class was a very tight-knit cohort—and that program was built on the idea of rigor equaling exhaustion. It was 14 hours, sometimes 16 hours a day, six days a week. So to be in these spaces and have such hostility and tension against me, I was very, very close to having an emotional breakdown. When I got out of that program and finished, I just wanted to heal, but there was also some part of me that was angry.

I wanted to create something that would reduce harm, that would prove it was possible for people to engage in being educated in theater without needing racism to be present. That got my brain churning. The day I graduated, I hopped in my car and drove to Washington, DC. What I experienced in DC as a professional actor was eye-opening because there were all of these ways in which racism was and continues to be centered in how theater is made in this city and in this region. And I wanted that to be better too.

What exactly is Conscientious Theatre Training?

That is a pedagogy I’ve created. A year or so out of graduate school, I learned about EDI, and I was like, People are really doing this work! This is amazing! I quickly realized that the global-majority folks in these circles were still talking about racism, still talking about the shenanigans that were happening. And I thought, We have this theater industrial complex that says, “We want to create equity and we want to cultivate diversity and we want to be inclusive—and yet we’re still racist as ever.” It got to a point where white people were actually weaponizing that terminology against the BIPOC community. And I thought, Nope. This is where I’m supposed to be. And I moved on to this idea of decolonizing theater.

I put out a call for people to be part of a cross-cultural collaborative committee. I asked global-majority folks to come in from across disciplines in the theater industrial complex, and for us to meet monthly to vision a new curriculum together. I took the information from those meetings, I took my experience and sense of belonging at Howard, I took what I didn’t want to do from my MFA program—and I mashed all those things up and came up with a curriculum that was centering cross-cultural collaborations. When I got hired at Howard, I was able to take these principles and ideas and use them in my classrooms, essentially test them out and deepen my analysis around them.

I worked at Howard for seven and a half years. Somewhere around the five-year mark, I had something that was sturdy and would hold up, so much that I remember one of my colleagues coming up to me, a full-time faculty member, and he goes, “What are you doing with these students? When they have to do their jury at the end of the semester, they’re so connected to their body and their voice.” And he was like, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but there was a huge difference between this cohort of students and what you’ve done before. Keep doing it.”

What I had done was move away from white thinking and apply principles around trauma and racism: How does that show up in our education, and where am I gatekeeping that, and how can I begin to meet people where they are and have more open learning outcomes for students? My syllabus was radically changing every year as I was getting more information and shifting.

You wrote an article last year titled “Why ‘Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’ Is Obsolete.” It was one of American Theatre’s most-read articles. But isn’t EDI where we need to be focused?

When we say equity, diversity, inclusion, and access, where have we said racism? Racism is still able to hide off in corners and we aren’t shedding a light on it. Racism is still being centered in how the infrastructure of these organizations and even people’s minds were working. I wanted to call that out.

Anti-racism covers equity, diversity, inclusion, and access. When I think about Angela Davis talking about anti-racism being anti-oppression, then these things are already subcategories of an anti-racist ethos and belief system. So how are we making sure that we put the word racism in people’s mouth, have them sit with that discomfort and have a self-analysis around how they have been complicit in the harm of others, through racist ideas or policies or practices, and what they are willing to do to actually step into their own power and create anti-racist practices and policies to counter the racist ones?

So EDI is evasive, is what you’re saying?

Yeah. It gives way too many places for people to hide behind, like “But there are three BIPOC people on our board of 20 people!” or “We did two nonwhite shows last year with all-white design teams!” It’s not enough.

What does your Anti-Racist Theatre workshop look like and what are its goals?

It looks a little different depending on who has engaged me and the timeframe we have. And now that COVID has happened, everything I’m doing is digital. In person, I try to have experiences for people to be able to embody the work, but also to create ways that people can trust the folks in the room. And I mean that visceral response that happens for me when my Black body is against a white body or near a white body, or there are multiple white bodies. There’s something that overrides my brain.

So what are the ways that we can be in community in relationship with one another? If you’re going to have these kinds of conversations, you’ve got to find the window of tolerance that allows for people to send messages and also receive messages so that listening can occur. Then you gotta hold that space for folks, with different people. I try to be nimble in responding to the community needs.

My goals are to let people know that talking about racism is a survival event. And for people to feel confident that they have a role in our collective liberation. And to help them, or introduce them, to their own analysis around positional power that they might be leaving on the table because they still believe these myths that have been force-fed to us.

My goals are for people to go, “What is it that I still believe or still hold on to be true that’s not? It’s a myth. But because I still believe it, I abdicate my own power to actually push for change.” Those are the things I hope people walk away with.

Who comes to your workshop? Who should be attending from your point of view? And are you preaching to the choir with whoever shows up?

I work with everybody. I teach in educational systems and I teach for professional theaters, large and small. So white people are right there with the global majority. My work centers Black people as a vulnerable community, also Indigenous people as a vulnerable community. And that means I am actively holding the space trying to make sure harm is being reduced, versus spaces that center whiteness and white learning.

People have a right to come to one of my sessions and decide: not for me; they never have to come back. Global-majority always come back. I only had one person opt out, a white man. In centering Black and Indigenous folks, it got too real for him when I wouldn’t allow him the space to center himself or his experience.

The online classes I’m doing are all at capacity, 400 people. And that is across the theater industrial complex—people who run theaters, who you would never think would be in these spaces, and high school teachers doing what they can in their community. So it’s quite vast the reach of the work and the people who are seeking to do it now.

Am I speaking to the choir? Kind of, but I am trying to be specific. For people who already have analysis around equity, diversity, and inclusion, I’m saying anti-racist; and I think we all have work that we can do in self-inquiry about the ways we are gatekeeping white supremacy. What is the work that I have done for anti-Blackness? What’s the way that’s showing up in what I’m doing? There is always some place to find yourself and deepen your analysis or understanding of the work.

I’ve read the #WeSeeYou White American Theatre’s Principles for Building Anti-Racist Theatre Systems and the 31 pages of BIPOC Demands. I know you don’t speak in any official capacity for that collaborative work with theatermakers who created the documents, but based on your firsthand knowledge of theater in the DMV, how are we doing here in terms of how far we have to go in addressing the demands?

To download the complete BIPOC Demands, click on this image.

I think really far to go. Really, really far. Every theater organization and educational organization that considers themselves a part of the DMV theater industrial complex needs to create committees within their organization to go through every last page of the BIPOC Demands and ask themselves how they have perpetrated the harm that is being listed there and what they are doing to counter it. To go through and say, “What are we doing here? What are we doing well? And what could we be doing better? How can we implement this?”

There’s not one place that gets a pass on doing this work. What we have here is a document that took so much labor from the BIPOC community to share their trauma again, dig it up, make it fresh, put it into written word, then edit it into this document. How could anyone pass this up? Some of it’s low-hanging fruit. Some of it is much more strategic and a longer plan. But none of it should be ignored.

What are obstacles that you see to implementing the demands?

I think white people get very afraid about change that lives outside of their imaginations. I have found in the work that I do that when white people are talking to me about their fears or whatever, there’s this underlying assumption that the BIPOC community wants what they have. Sometimes I listen and I don’t interrupt. Other times I interrupt and I say, “But you’re making the assumption that I want what you have, that I want to be just like you. And I don’t want to replicate your patterns of harm. That doesn’t speak to me. So we have to fix that before we can continue in conversation because that’s what you think.” And when a white person will say, “Well, I know what I have to do. I have to quit my position” or “I have to back down and make space for a BIPOC person to come in,” I’m like, “If you quit your position without any analysis other than the fact that you’re white and then you take a BIPOC person into that position working in a racist organization, that doesn’t fix the racism. So where is your accountability to dealing with your own discomfort while you call your people in and begin to change infrastructure in a way that is more than likely going to be harder or impossible for the BIPOC person to achieve?”

What local coalitions or local networking should or could there be for ensuring that these demands are addressed?

Quanice Floyd has an organization, Arts Administrators of Color Network, that just launched an Accomplices Leadership Institute that’s about offering support, guidance, and training to white art makers. And there’s a focus around the theater. That is an incredible community to be able to be in while this learning is happening. You’ve got these incredibly skilled facilitators, this deep analysis of the work, and this invitation to come and do the work that’s going to go out and impact the community. That’s an incredible resource, home-grown and local, and I support the work they’re doing,

What can white allies do to support the cause?

The best kind of support allies can give is to really develop their own anti-racist theater ethos, to really use that to guide their practices and their behaviors and decisions that get made and to call out and to call in racist behavior. How are they willing to now switch places with us and put their bodies on the front line to make sure that racism can’t find its way back into the new vision of American theater?

Do you think this moment is only “performative wokeness,” or do you believe there’s a real momentum to take real action toward change in American theater?

Something is different. How long this moment is going to last, I can’t begin to say. For me, I’m going, Let me plant as many seeds as I can right now, where people can see themselves doing this work without having to carry that backpack of shame and guilt—so they can find joy in this work as they move forward in repairing relationships with people and coming up with strategies to reduce and prevent harm as the theater re-emerges from this.

Do you have anything else you would like to share before we close?

I want to end hopeful. That’s still how I feel in my heart. I have seen some extraordinary stories here in the DMV, some extraordinary theater. And I want to uplift the local Black, Indigenous, and POC actors and designers here.

We have some incredibly magnificent people; the talent in this area is overwhelming for me. And these people should have artistic home. They should have places where they are working and able to do their artistry and able to show up in their full personhood.

 

RELATED:

“The #WeSeeYou White American Theatre movement is ready to end a battle it didn’t start” by Ramona Harper

Can white arts leaders become anti-racist “accomplices”? by Ramona Harper

Nicole Brewer is a passionate advocate for anti-racist theater. She has spent the last seven years refining and practicing an inclusive method of theater training and practices that she calls Conscientious Theatre Training (CTT). She has authored four articles about the need for the theater industry to shift from racist and oppressive models to anti-racist and anti-oppressive. Her article Why ‘Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’ Is Obsolete” was reported by American Theatre magazine as one of their top ten most read stories of 2019.

Nicole is invited all over the U.S. to teach and speak about CTT and facilitate anti-racist theatre (ART) workshops. She’s also facilitated ART workshops in the UK, providing workshops for The Globe and Cambridge University. 

Nicole is one of the four producers of the COVID-19 Freelance Artist Resource. The producing collective also partnered with HowlRound to produce six webinars that centered the needs of freelance artists impacted by the pandemic. 

Nicole has worked at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the premier performing arts high school in Washington, DC, as visiting faculty (acting). Nicole was visiting faculty at the National Theater Institute (NTI). She worked as faculty in the Department of Theatre Arts of Howard University for seven and half years. Nicole has also worked as faculty at Northern Virginia Community College and Montgomery College teaching acting and introduction to communications courses.

Nicole is frequently invited to share her work on CTT and ART at conferences such as ATHE, SETC, TCG, The Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Nicole earned her MFA in Acting from Northern Illinois University and her BFA. from Howard University. She’s worked professionally as an actor, director and educator. 

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