Can Theater Enable Community Transformation?
A Conversation With Curt Columbus And Joe Wilson Jr
The Business Innovation Factory has been a tremendous partner with Trinity Repertory Company for more than a decade. Since the arrival of artistic director Curt Columbus in 2006, Trinity has hosted the BIF Summit as a part of our desire to engage with our community, as well as to be an innovation leader.
It may seem unlikely that a theater where a 2000-year-old art form is practiced could be an innovative space. However, we believe that theater is a quintessential 21st century form. Theater is live, it is local, it is immediate. It is constantly being made and remade, and thus, innovated. Most importantly, theater holds the mirror up to our nature as humans and therefore reflects the audience who comes to witness it.
Trinity Rep is also home to one of the last, long-standing resident acting companies in America, with 16 members in the current company. Our most senior company member has been working at Trinity for 43 seasons, and our most junior has been with us for one season.
These artists are the core of the work that we do, not only on our stages, but in our city and our state. They are artist/activists and artist/leaders, and Joe Wilson Jr is one of the most active community leaders in this company.
Curt Columbus and Joe Wilson Jr will engage in a conversation at the BIF2017 Summit. This conversation is part of an ongoing dialogue at Trinity Repertory Company, a dialogue that began with our beautiful, yet controversial, production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in the spring of 2016. In that production, Wilson played the role of Judd Fry, the outcast farmhand and traditional villain of the piece.
Here’s a sample of this ongoing conversation.
Wilson: This broad view of civic responsibility, as it relates to my art-making, has not always been central to my reality as an actor. Simply finding the next job, paying the rent or mortgage, and living up to others’ expectations of success have been the core of my career concerns. And by most measures, I have had a very successful career. I have worked continually for more than 20 years, on Broadway, off-Broadway and around the country. Being a part of an acting company over the past 13 seasons has afforded me the consistency of employment enjoyed by .01% of working actors in this country.
And yet, I still felt unfulfilled. After applying for, and receiving a national fellowship for developing a play about the music and life of Billy Strayhorn, I was set on a path to examine the meaning of my own art-making, and how my privilege has allowed me to stop asking the fundamental questions we must all continue to examine: Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I doing what I am doing? Why now? And what is the impact it is having on my community?
Columbus: I wanted Joe to play the role of Judd because, in the original story on which Oklahoma! Is based, Judd is clearly not white, clearly the racial outsider of the community. It seemed an opportunity take a part of the story of this country, one that regularly whitewashes the treatment of people of color in order to valorize the actions of the white majority, and feature it at a moment when race was a polarizing conversation in our community. Also, Joe could sing the hell out of that role….
What we weren’t prepared for was the backlash we got for this portrayal. In the play, Judd is encouraged to hang himself by the supposed hero of the show. This image had real resonances of lynching, and some audience members felt strongly that Trinity had not done enough difficult, foundational work to prepare for the conversation we wanted to have about race in America. We are a predominantly white institution, one that has benefited from years of Eurocentric privilege, and many questions were raised about how diverse and inclusive our organization is at its heart.
Wilson: My desire to explore this particular role, and the confidence of my theatre in my ability to do so, created an opportunity and an urgency to have a conversation about race, diversity and inclusion at Trinity Rep. Our story is about the convergence of events which led to the beginning of the transformation of our theatre, our artists, and our collective relationship to our community.
Theater and Art must be by, for, and of the people. Art is not a luxury item which exists solely for the purpose of consumption. Art-making is an essential human activity which give each of us voice, reflecting back diverse images of humanity, while serving as a constant reminder of our collective responsibility to each other.