While our country was taking a collective sigh of relief after the guilty verdicts convicting George Floyd’s murderer last week, systemic racism continued to flaunt itself in our society. Manifesting in blatant, outward displays of excessive violence, and in more nuanced microaggressions that constantly go unnoticed by those they do not directly affect.
There is still much work to be done, even in our most seemingly progressive bubbles such as our local theater industry. And focusing on this issue is Young Playwrights’ Theater (YPT), with a three-part web series titled Silence Is Violence: The Future of the Field presented in partnership with the Howard University Department of Theatre Arts.
The virtual show addresses the difficulties of BIPOC artists navigating a predominantly white-managed theater industry. Young and seasoned artists alike struggle just to be seen without the “aid” of a whitewashed lens to make their stories more appealing to the broader white audience.
In 2015, YPT’s Silence Is Violence Program was started to serve as a means for youth and the community to actively communicate concerns and, as their website further states, to create the “most immediate and direct route of addressing social justice issues affecting Washington, DC area youth through performance and community dialogue.”
“The cornerstone of YPT’s Silence Is Violence series is the voices of our youth front and center,” says Artistic Director Farah Lawal Harris. “In producing this year’s Silence Is Violence, we wanted to make sure that Ayanna [Fowler], Autumn [Angelettie], and Jaucqir [LaFond] had the support they needed to really take ownership of this project and the message they want to share with the world.”
For BIPOC artists, the support that Harris refers to is exactly what has been missing in most of the theater community.
Silence Is Violence: The Future of the Field follows the course of a show in virtual rehearsals: a show-within-a-show of sorts but with a real-time vibe. The piece is being produced in a white-led theater under the guise of lifting Black voices and giving power to the BIPOC community.
The three-person cast, all Howard theater students, play versions of themselves: Autumn Angelettie (she/her) as the director, Ayanna Fowler (she/her) as a performer, and Jaucqir LaFond (they/them) as a performer and the playwright.
Jaucqir is looking for this project to propel them further in their career after a highly successful debut production.
Autumn is coming off an acclaimed yet controversial directorial project and is thankful to be employed.
Ayanna is a budding performer, who enjoyed rave reviews in LaFond’s premiere and is thrilled to be working with them again.
Each team member has something to gain from the experience, but when the artistic director, Liz (voiced by Angelettie), accidentally sends an email intended for a production member to the entire cast, their positions shift. Liz shows her veiled racism (by acknowledging the theater’s deliberate underfunding of the project) and entirely disingenuous motives for supporting the BIPOC piece (by announcing the sole purpose of wanting to hit an equality goal mark).
The trio debate on how to digest the email and more important how to respond. The idea of refusing to bite the hand that feeds you seems far less logical and more of a moral challenge when the “feeder” is shoveling out bullsh*t.
Young Playwrights’ Theater (YPT) hosts a live Q&A session with the cast and co-writers of Silence Is Violence: The Future of the Field Friday, April 30, 2021, at 7:30 pm ET on YPT’s YouTube channel. Attendees are encouraged to watch or rewatch the web series.
In an attempt to smooth over the faux pas, Liz sends another email apologizing for the way her message was “received” (because clearly their delicate Black identities are to blame and not her white-privileged ignorance), condescendingly professing her love and appreciation for their beautiful Black and Brown bodies.
The cast struggle to navigate their own artistic paths: balancing the desire to stay true to their dreams as entertainers but simultaneously true to their ethics and self-value. And they are not all on the same page.
Jaucqir comes to own that they have been willing to sacrifice their own art, as well as the dignity of their fellow artists, for the sake of success. Autumn and Ayanna then must weigh their own capacity for forgiveness, in the spirit of an overall good.
The three episodes each have their own focuses to separate them but they have a clear beginning, middle, and end. While the pace is slow at times, the scenes retain an organic, conversational feel that makes these lulls forgivable. And perhaps that is deliberate. There is an anxiousness that lies underneath these conversations of equity, in the real-life and in performance. Sometimes the awkward silences are important to feel the weightiness of what’s been said.
Young Playwrights’ Theater’s production of Silence Is Violence: The Future of the Field is a thought-provoking piece that calls for change. No more stifling of Black voices and accusing art of being “too Black Power.” No more sifting BIPOC stories through white sieves to ensure their palatability to white audiences.
Support the local theater. Support diverse theater. Those largely white audiences would become as diverse as our world is if theaters stopped catering to them and made everyone feel represented and welcome.
Running Time: Three episodes approximately 20 minutes each.
Silence Is Violence: The Future of the Field is available to stream on YouTube for free. If you enjoy the work of these young artists, consider making a donation in support of this, and future projects and programs, at Young Playwrights’ Theater.
Young Playwrights’ Theater is an award-winning arts education organization and theater company in DC. YPT inspires young people to realize the power of their own voices through high-quality arts education programming and productions. Learn more at yptdc.org
Written and Performed by Autumn Angelettie, Ayanna Fowler, and Jaucqir LaFond
Director: Farah Lawal Harris, Editing: Anthony Amos, Sound Designer: Kevin Alexander