“Instead of call-out culture, we’re calling them in”
Broadway Advocacy Coalition fights for change on a grassroots, and now industry-wide, level
The Broadway Advocacy Coalition began with a Facebook post. In 2016, Amber Iman was on Broadway performing in the musical Shuffle Along. That same year, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had been shot by police. In response to those numerous instances of police brutality, she posted the following on her Facebook page:
There's Broadway for Thanksgiving, Broadway for Shark Week, Broadway for Trader Joe's, Broadway for Ben & Jerry's, Broadway for this Mosquito bump on my arm.......
Broadway for Black Lives.
Iman’s Facebook post immediately went viral, garnering thousands of likes, comments, and shares in a matter of hours. Realizing there was support for the idea, Iman and a number of her fellow cast members of Shuffle Along organized an event on August 1, 2016, called Broadway for Black Lives Matter. There, artists, NYPD officers, and community activists gathered together to discuss racial justice and community healing. Entertainment titans Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Ledisi, and India.Arie performed, and over 1,000 people showed up.
“I was like, ‘Okay, Broadway, we sing for everything, but after we sing what else?’” said Iman. “I wanted it to be a moment for us to come together and celebrate and sing and dance and scream and lean on each other. But then I want us to learn stuff like, how can we go out into our community and be better citizens, better neighbors? How can we communicate better with each other? Because that's honestly at the root of all of these issues—people not communicating and acting off of assumptions and preconceived notions about each other.”
Following the success of that initial event, those actors—Iman, alongside Adrienne Warren and Britton Smith—met at a City Bakery and decided to codify themselves into something concrete. “We had no intention of starting an organization, it literally came from a one-night-only event that we saw there was a need in our community,” said Iman. “There weren't many social justice Broadway organizations.”
In its four years of existence, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC) has held numerous events around social issues like police brutality, immigration, education, and criminal justice. They’ve worked with former prison inmates, students, and politicians. They’ve partnered with organizations like Center for Popular Democracy and Columbia Law School. According to BAC resident artist Mikayla Bartholomew, who has worked with BAC since 2018, the organization is focused on the question of: “How can we use art as a tool or a vehicle for change?”
Recently, BAC has received new attention due to its three-day forum it held in June called #BwayforBLM. Like its inaugural event, this forum was sparked from new instances of police brutality, this time the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
The first day of #BwayforBLM allowed Black theater artists to gather and talk candidly about their experiences with racism in the theater industry without any white people in the room. The second and third days of the forum were open to everyone and were meant to troubleshoot and figure out a way forward that was not just lip service.
“The concern was, all of these funders are all of a sudden talking about Black Lives Matter: ‘We stand in solidarity,’” said Bartholomew. “And all of us have worked with these theaters and they've never, ever had that kind of solidarity with us before. There's no protection, there are no safe spaces for us.”
At the end of #BwayforBLM, BAC released a Public Accountability Pledge that said, in part, “I pledge to be held publicly accountable in making Broadway and the larger theatrical industry an anti-racist, equitable community. I pledge to continue to show up in the coming months and years to learn about my role as an ally.” More than 5,000 people have signed the pledge.
As for what the next steps are for BAC, the organizers are taking a slow-and-steady approach. “We want to take our time and figure out what the people actually need,” said Bartholomew.
BAC has been hosting monthly Zoom gatherings—called Days of Healing—with Black theater artists to decompress and strategize. “Having those conversations in private is the sacred space that I don't think [Black artists] ever really had before,” said Bartholomew.
And BAC is now being called into private conversations with producers and theaters, something they hadn’t anticipated. “We are finding ourselves in rooms with a lot of producers and organizations,” said Iman. “I think naturally it's morphed into a leadership position because we have a gift that people listen to us.” The organization is trying to balance giving Black artists tools to advocate for themselves, while building systems that will also discourage inequitable practices. It’s a two-pronged approach.”
“When you start working with a problem specifically and unpacking that, look at the policies that are making this happen—keeping it alive, maintaining it,” said Bartholomew. “Then you can bring stakeholders to the table and say, ‘We know exactly what it is. We've told you our experiences, we've told you our stories, we're showing you how it is to live in this space. And these are some things we think we could do about it.’ Let's work together so instead of call-out culture, we’re calling them in.”
It’s not going to be easy to find the answer to systemic racism in theater and on Broadway. But that’s why Iman is grateful for what the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth and illuminated. “The pandemic is probably the greatest thing to happen in American theater in a long time,” said Iman. “It has forced us to sit down and really look at these institutions, and look at the racism and the misogyny.” That’s why this time is a gift, to find those practices so that when theater reopens, hopefully sometime in 2021, “we're gonna just come back to more equitable spaces, and places where all voices can be heard and people are going to feel seen and affirmed,” said Iman.
BAC is truly a grassroots organization; most of the staff members of BAC are also working artists. Many of them had never run a nonprofit before. While in quarantine, both Iman and Bartholomew are working on not only BAC but also their own film projects, all while Iman also runs another organization called Black Women on Broadway.
And while BAC is working on addressing racism in theater, they have also recently held writing workshops with formerly incarcerated women of color, as well as a forum on how to make theater education less racist and white-centric. They've also launched a paid fellowship for Black cis and transwomen and gender non-confirming artists, along with a scholarship for students of color. And they’re no longer doing the work alone; Black Theatre United and Broadway for Racial Justice are newer organizations focused on advancing equality in theater.
To Bartholomew, one of the central ethos of BAC is to create change by centering individuals, not institutions.
“BAC is about making more room for the people who are at the center of our communities and our culture, and elevating their stories, their experiences, because they're the ones that can lead us to change,” she said. “It's not about the people that are in positions of power—who are creating these policies, creating the systems that are perpetuating the same issues over and over again. It's usually the person that is closest to the problem, the person who's being affected by the problem that has the answer, and it's a matter of getting them into the room. So if I can help get people into the room with a senator that will listen to me because I do a nice poem and a monologue, great.”