Hillsboro's Bag&Baggage theater creates extensive equity goals
In perhaps the most consequential shift in its operations since its formation, Hillsboro's Bag&Baggage Productions theater company recently announced an extensive set of goals to be more socially and racially just.
The goals were a response to a nationwide social and racial justice reckoning following May's police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a call to action by Black, Indigenous and people of color theater-makers across the country.
"As a predominantly white institution located in a state that has a history as a 'white haven' founded on anti-Black and anti-Indigenous practices, our theatre company has traditionally been dominated by the white narrative — privileging white bodies, voices, practices, policies, and experiences above all else — and we know we have much work to do," an announcement from Bag&Baggage stated.
Cassie Greer, Bag&Baggage's artistic director and board member, says a list of "demands" put out last summer by the "We See You White American Theatre" movement was a "gift."
"They did not need to spell this out for us, but they did," Greer said. "It provides a really specific, detailed roadmap for how we can address some of the harms that have been systemic in our institutions for decades. A response honors that work and also is only just going to make our own institution better and stronger."
Months ago, Bag&Baggage formed a new committee, expanding the theater company's existing equity, diversity and inclusion committee, Greer said.
The committee, made up of board members, staff and artists, scrutinized multiple drafts of new goals line by line, adding "anti-racist" language to Bag&Baggage's existing policies and "re-examining our mission and values statement," Greer said.
One of Bag&Baggage's first steps was to define racism in its own terms.
Lawrence Siulagi, a resident artist at the theater who is directing a production of "Troy, USA," which premieres later this month, took up the effort.
Siulagi said he drew on the writing of Camara Phyllis Jones, an American epidemiologist and anti-racist activist, as well as contributions from his daughter to write the definition.
"The first sentence, 'Racism isn't personal' — I didn't come up with that one — it's brilliant," Siulagi said, referring to the institutional and systemic nature of racism in America. "It's like, 'OK, now I can keep reading.'"
Before Jan. 1, the committee released 12 goals for the next six months and beyond, including goals that will be effective immediately.
The theater company will now conduct verbal land recognition statements before all programming. Such statements acknowledge the traditional territory of Indigenous peoples before the arrival of white settlers. They're often played over theaters' public address systems before shows. Bag&Baggage has already included a land acknowledgment plaque on the wall of its lobby and in show programs, Greer said.
Bag&Baggage will provide ongoing anti-racism and cultural competency training and education for all leadership, staff, board, artists, and volunteers.
Greer said Bag&Baggage emphasized such training for volunteer ushers because they interact with audiences the most. She said BIPOC audience members often don't feel comfortable in American theaters because "they get shushed" or "told that their authentic responses to the work" are inappropriate.
Bag&Baggage will also immediately end the practice of hiring homogeneously white design and artistic teams.
Greer said it's a myth that in a state such as Oregon with a predominantly white population, it's difficult to find and hire BIPOC artists to produce exceptional work.
Among other goals, the theater company will invest in the creation of work by local BIPOC artists.
Bag&Baggage also committed to not use BIPOC artists' work to leverage funds for white artists' work. Greer said funding specifically available to support the work of BIPOC artists has become more prevalent recently, but American theaters often use those funds to also support the work of white artists.
Bag&Baggage's efforts won't be perfect, Greer said, adding that it will strive to be transparent about its shortcomings and efforts to include more members of the BIPOC community throughout the organization.
One glaring shortcoming is that it wasn't until 2019 that Bag&Baggage first produced work by a BIPOC playwright, Greer said. The theater company has existed for 15 years.
Audiences shouldn't take the goals to mean that productions at Bag&Baggage will never again be "fun" or only consist of "heavy dramas about racism," Greer said.
"This goes far beyond that," Siulagi said. "It's about bringing in diverse stories and letting people witness that. I'm more excited about the stories that are going to be told, joyful or hurtful."
On Thursday, Jan. 14, in its first meeting since the theater company released its goals, Bag&Baggage's expanded equity committee discussed how the community has received the goals so far.
Alex Lugo, Bag&Baggage's marketing manager, said the message was mostly well-received on its social media accounts, but there was a mix of positive and negative responses to an email newsletter containing the message.
There were "lots of people also who unsubscribed from our email list," Lugo said, adding, "In one specific instance, we had a patron who unsubscribed and left us a message that said, 'I am unsubscribing because of this propaganda BS.'"
In another response, a longtime patron said the theater company's messaging accused him of being a racist, criticizing Bag&Baggage for taking a political stance instead of being a forum for free expression.
Some committee members expressed frustration that the goal to broaden free expression by expanding what stories are told, and who tells them, seemed lost on some people.
Without coming to a decision, committee members discussed whether or not to reach out to people who responded negatively.
They debated whether or not it was also their duty to convince certain people that, at their core, the new goals serve to further basic human rights.
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