As a black, Muslim, woman, the stupidest thing I could probably do is walk into a room filled with white men who have weapons. Especially considering that if I ever stepped outside with one of those weapons--however clearly indicated it is that they’re blunted or fake--I could be murdered with no recourse. It’s in part because of that reality that I’m so into it. When I train and perform stage combat, I feel a lot of power that’s commonly denied me because of my race and gender and I have a ton of fun. Death is statistically more present in my life, so if the likelihood is that it could end for no particular reason at any moment then, why shouldn’t I just do what I want?
It’s so simple but not so easy. It’s the safest movement training I’ve ever received, yet it can also be the most damaging. Even outside of the Twin Cities, it’s a white dominated field, so stage combat can get racist to the teeth. However, over the last few years I’ve found effective ways to navigate that. Right before the Yanez verdict, I was in a stage combat heavy show where the director decided it was totally appropriate to have a white man cold clock me at the end of a fight. After that moment, I would be removed from the stage never to be seen again. Both my fight partner and I were clear that we were uncomfortable with it. When approached about it, he refused to change the show, insisting that the actors could “handle” the implications with their craft, thus eliminating the representation issues.
He really tried it, tho.
Here are some things I’ve learned:
CHECK THE FIGHT NARRATIVE.
If you see something, decide if it’s worth it to say something. Ideally, black and PoCI actors wouldn’t have to deal with people who are that unaware let alone point out what to us are glaring issues. But it was obvious from the fact that they gave the other black person in the show a spear for their fight that the level of just not getting it was too big to fail. I debated not saying anything at all and please know that that is also a viable option. You’re not here to be used for change. And people, especially people in power, tend to learn better when they trainwreck and have to deal with the consequences. But in this situation, because my name was attached to the show, fight choreo is a demonstration of violence, and some of these folks in production and in the show are my friends, I decided to call it out.
It was difficult. How was I supposed to trust these folks when they hired this guy? I started with the people I felt safest with--my fight partners. After that, I talked with the costumer, who was also a proven great listener, and then eventually I mentioned it to a castmate and board member. He apologized immediately. Context is always key, so I framed it. ”Look, I got people coming from equity work who write grants in this town” I said. “They gonna come for this show like they came for The Walker .” He asked permission to tell the other board members. Once I gave it to him, I was sent a full page apology from the president later that night, with a list of next steps that would be taken to ensure my safety. Rare as accountability is, it does happen. But it’ll only come if the narrative is brought into question. If you’re the victim, the choice is yours.
SET THE TERMS
Although it’s unfair, the fact is that if you speak up about it, you’re probably going to end up playing educator. So you need to set the terms. Stage combat folk tend to respond really well to set rules for safety as it’s the core of the discipline. The determination was made that the director needed to be removed. However, the board wanted a meeting with me to hear feedback on how they might move forward on the issue. I took that opportunity to control the already unsafe space by setting some ground rules. Please take them for use but credit me.
Who we are, how we feel, what we believe, and our behavior are totally different and inextricably linked. While I know you were participating and are complicit in problematic behavior the reason why I'm choosing to enter into dialogue about it is because who you are to me are lovable folk.
You may feel shame when we sit down to talk. Notes on shame:
1) It's an emotion, alerting you to a potential violation of your own beliefs. It may or may not be true depending on your values and what caused it to come out.
2) I expect us all to experience it because as far as I know, we all have access to the full spectrum of human emotion. I also expect that it will pass through you, as all emotions can when we deliberately recenter our focus on solving the problem.*
3) I'm not there to make you feel ashamed. I will tell you some things that may make you feel that way. Shame comes in to reinforce that yes, you did some stuff you're not proud of. Or no, what you've done is fine and the shame is like a fire alarm going off when all you did was burn some food. Just doing its job.
4) I am not to blame and will not take the blame for that.
5) Shame is not essentially bad and if we agree that emotions are indicators and have no hierarchy*, no emotion we may feel tonight is good or bad. They just are.
When strong emotions pop up, acknowledge them however you need to--including saying "I feel ___" out loud--and then return your focus to solving the problems. Acknowledging them cannot include any known self harming, negative self talk, or other harmful behavior.*
You guys are the ones with the power in this dynamic, both as acting officials and as white skinned people. Willingly accept* that to be true and equity among us can follow. Willfully ignore it and communication will break down.
We are all doing the best we can and we can do better. Both are true and exist in conversation.
* = I know this takes practice and behavior tracking. I was only able to do it with a whole team of medical professionals in a space designed for it. I accept that not everyone may be there and I ask that we all give it a shot. Reps are how you build fluidity.
KNOW WHEN TO LEAVE OR STAY
Leaving a show feels like a punishment and deciding to leave because you’ve experienced racist treatment causes pain so deep your ancestors cry with you. But when it’s time to go, it’s time and no one is going to know when that time has come better than you. Since racism is a given in stage combat, fight to fight and show to show, you’re deciding exactly how much and in what forms you can deal with it. To be honest, I should have left after the first time we had an all cast meeting with that director. In addition to the signs that if left unchecked it would turn into a harmful show, the guy was just a bad director from jump. Like many of who find ourselves in these situations, I stayed. Thankfully, it was resolved but we know this isn’t usually the case. If I’ve done what I know to be my best and I still consider leaving a show because of racist treatment or racist representation I only ask myself one question:
Am I contributing to the culturally accepted traumatization of little black children in the audience when I perform this show?
What white and white skinned adults think about it and how I’m coming off to them is irrelevant. They’ve been locked into a narrative that they can only escape if they do the work and that has nothing to do with me. Kids are vulnerable and susceptible. It’s a highly specific question that resonates with me and it may not for you. But you need to find your own version of the question that checks you. The question that when answered, will allow you to find peace no matter what your choice.
Harmful as it has the capacity to be, I recommend stage combat to black and PoCI actors who have the ability to do it and access to it. Even with the issues and missteps, I believe that the stage combat scene in the Twin Cities is one of the most well equipped to work with PoCI. Especially right now when we’re being visually assaulted with disempowerment at every turn. You’d be surprised how much working with a weapon for stage shakes loose the shackles of oppression Recent efforts from the Society of American Fight Directors indicate that these problems are noted and they out here checking for us right now. And if nothing else, know that I’m out here checking for you too.