We know that when there is cultural and racial equality in theatre, it makes room for artists from all walks of life to contribute to the history of theatre. This past year has reinforced what we have been doing at LAFPI – putting women of all kinds first! It is vital that we make space and open doors wider for women from all cultural backgrounds if we are to have a bold, forward thinking American Theatre that reflects America.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan is one of the busiest actresses working in L.A theatre, and one of the most beloved and talented comediennes doing work that’s outside the box. Her new show, Happily Ever After, is a prime example of her righteous spirit as she takes us on a glorious, hilarious and heartbreaking emotional rollercoaster to find her “prince charming.” Diana is like a real life princess – chosen by the people, not anointed or given the title through marriage – and hers is a solo show I don’t want to miss!
Constance: How long have you been sitting with this work? Why Fringe? Why this year?
Diana: I have been working on Happily Ever After for several years. It started as a short storytelling project when I took a Story Coaching Workshop with Tanya Taylor Rubenstein. It has grown from a ten-minute story into what it is now. When it comes to producing at the Fringe, my “Why” is” Why Not?” It just felt like the right time. If I have learned anything in the past year and a half, it is that life is so unpredictable. I was honored with a Diversity Scholarship and the Fringe Staff could not be more welcoming and supportive. I have also surrounded myself with an amazing support system and team including Women of Color Unite founded by Cheryl L. Bedford, my director Paul Kampf, my sound designer Alexander Tovar, my costume designer (aka my mom) and many others. This really is taking a village and I could never do this without them.
Constance: What are you enjoying most as you create your show?
Diana: I am really enjoying everything, even the most challenging things like finding time to sleep. (LOL) Seriously, though, I think I have been enjoying some of the non-acting things like picking out my props, and some of the production side of things like creating visual images. It has been fun. For example, I talk about two childhood friends in my show (whose names I changed) and chose not to use their actual pictures, yet I found visual images that kind of remind me of them.
Constance: What has been the most surprising discovery?
Diana: Honestly the most surprising discovery has been learning about the business decisions I have had to make in terms of ticket sales, along with the best use of my limited funds. It really is wearing two hats with completely different goals. I have also learned a lot about delegation of responsibilities. I have often served as a Disability Accessibility & Inclusion Coordinator on projects but for my show I’ve handed those responsibilities over to members of my team.
Constance: And what’s been your biggest challenge in terms of your development/creation process?
Diana: My biggest challenge with anything I do continues to be to trust myself. Like a lot of people, I can be my worst critic. My critic, “Mrs. H.” (named after a mean music teacher I had as a kid), can be incredibly loud sometimes. I also think it is a challenge to tell my truth in a way that is entertaining. I have been to storytelling events where people just share stories and there is value in that. But sharing diverse stories is a bridge builder and connector. I am intentionally creating a piece of entertainment. So, the challenge then becomes how do I both share my heart and my truth in a way that is entertaining.
Constance: What do you hope audience members take away after experiencing your show?
Diana: I am a Black woman who has a disability (cerebral palsy which mildly affects my speech and gait); I am proud of the intersection of my identities. That is not what I focus on, though. My show is about my journey of finding true love, without the assistance of a fairy godmother or talking mirror like a lot of the princesses had in the fairytales I used to read as a girl. So I hope audiences members see themselves in the stories I share.
Constance: The work will be given away soon – how does that feel?
Diana: I have felt every emotion from sheer terror to giddy girl excitement and that has been within this past hour. I was watching a video of my 14-year-old nephew the other day, marveling at how fast these 14 years have flown by and realizing he is going to be a man before I know it. I will just blink, and he’ll be a man. This show feels the same way. The preview and performances still seem so far away yet I know it will be here before I know it – like this week (my first preview). It is a lot to take in so I am just saying my prayers, trusting my faith and taking it moment to moment right now and enjoying the ride.
Constance: Anything Extra? Please Share!
Diana: One of my favorite mantras is “Don’t Step Outside Your Comfort Zone Expand It.” It is one of the mantras I live by. It may not always be easy, but the journey of continuing to expand my comfort zone is worth it.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan (www.dianaelizabethjordan.com) is an actor, solo artist, theater & filmmaker, artist educator and disability influencer. For more information on “Happily After (One Woman’s Journey To Find A True Love)” in #HFF21, visit http://hff21.co/6896
Last summer, the murder of George Floyd shook the world and started a long overdue conversation about the history of white supremacy in institutions, especially in the theater. More and more artists who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are sharing their experiences of racism in the arts and calling on theatrical institutions to reform the way we write, direct, cast, work, teach, and perform theater—most notably, the collective “We See You, White American Theater” (weseeyouwat.com).
But what does that reform look like? What can theater institutions do to better represent BIPOC artists? How can theaters measure their level of anti-racism if, historically, theater has never been anti-racist?
One exemplary organization that is doing the work of providing tools for anti-racist self-reflection in theater companies and organizations is based in the LA area: the Joy-Jackson Initiative.
The Joy-Jackson Initiative (JJI) works to build systemic equity in the arts by providing organizations with the guidance necessary to formulate and implement changes to create the safest possible spaces for the BIPOC collaborators who enrich them. JJI is currently creating the Racial Equity Assessment for organizations to take and learn about how they can better represent and care for their BIPOC artists and collaborators. I (digitally) sat with the Initiative’s founder, Gabrielle Jackson, to learn more about what went into creating the Assessment and how the Assessment will be used to introduce a better, more equitable theater culture.
LAFPI: First, can you share briefly how you founded the Joy-Jackson Initiative?
Gabrielle Jackson: The Joy-Jackson Initiative was founded out of a deep sense of disappointment and urgency. Disappointment that, at a time where we were encouraging each other to help flatten the curve and save human life, so many of my friends and colleagues could remain unaware of the violent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless other Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality. The urgency that followed was an understanding that immediate action was required to rectify the rampant white supremacy and willful ignorance that allowed for people in my community and in my industry to witness racial violence and do absolutely nothing.
I was going to do something. I was going to show people that this violence was happening in their own communities, in their own organizations. People had to know that it was so much deeper than a protest or a political movement. This was about real people and real life.
LAFPI: The Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment is a huge undertaking, yet extremely necessary and relevant, especially after last summer’s call for anti-racist practices in the arts. You have said before that the assessment went under a rigorous review process. In a few words, what was the process like from concept to debut? What kind of collaborations were needed to make all of this happen?
Gabrielle: There’s an African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. This assessment is the product of so many collaborations and incredible connections. Initially I was using my own personal experience to create the Assessment’s questions. I spoke with some friends after I developed the initial draft and they called in their friends and hooked me up with some really wonderful organizations who were interested in helping me continue to build the work.
One such org was Black Theatre Girl Magic. With the help of BTGM’s incredible team, we were able to gather a group of incredible Black women from across the professional theater spectrum to review and advise on the initial assessment. We organized a 3-day summit where we story-circled and shared our professional experiences and gathered the information that would help me develop the first Beta Version of JJI’s Assessment.
We beta tested with a small group of theaters from across the country and gathered data and participant feedback.
In a little over two months we had developed and tested a great first draft of the Assessment. We took this feedback and immediately went back to the drawing board. I personally read every set of “requemands,” as I like to call them, put out by every collective, organization and student group I could find. These folks were all calling for change and had very incredible plans for progress. I distilled the information from these resources and turned these demands and action steps into questions for the assessment. Then JJI’s Managing Director Julie Oulette, who is one of the most knowledgeable people I know and someone who has really worked in this business from every angle, took the assessment and organized it and edited it so that it was digestible and made sense to people who were leading these orgs that we were addressing.
We then organized another peer and professional review of the assessment with industry vets and folks who really knew the business and the people who made it. We also invited students and entry level professionals who were just starting out and had some really excellent ideas and paths forward. We then hand selected our second beta cohort and conducted a second beta test of the assessment. As with the first Beta test period, we culminated in a data share and town hall where the leaders of participating organizations were invited to share their experience with the assessment. Now we are rounding the corner on our publicly accessible version of the assessment and will, again, be hand selecting a small cohort of organizations from across the country to participate in our first full rollout of the assessment and its accompanying facilitation program. We could not have done any of this work at this pace without the power of collaboration. We’ve turned something that could very easily be a 10 year undertaking into something that has been vetted by industry professionals and is ready and effective in a very short period of time.
LAFPI: Companies will be able to take the assessment and, ideally, commit to implementing more anti-racist culture. What are the next steps after that?
Gabrielle: A huge part of all of the work we did in our last round of beta was holding office hours. Initially, Managing Director Julie and I were only there to answer technical questions. And that’s how it was for the first few days. Participants were in and out asking us questions and giving us great feedback. But about a week in, people were starting to be confronted with some pretty unsettling data. And the fact that these were numbers written out in black and white made it inescapable. There was a shift in the way office hours were happening. People were coming to visit, and vent, and seek community and validation and guidance.
This was no longer just a Q&A. We knew 2 things: the Assessment was working and more space needed to be held for these arts leaders to understand their data and create real solutions. So we went right to work on developing a facilitation program. I went to a leader in the field of Equity, Diversion and Inclusion (EDI) and intimacy and begged up on her guidance and mentorship, I started taking classes and using the office hours as another study, taking every conversation home with me to decompose and explore. We also started developing practical tools, like glossaries and reflection sheets that would help folks find deeper meaning in the concepts they were encountering in the assessment. Now, I can proudly say that what comes after the work with JJI’s Assessment is a fully personalized period of reflection and facilitation guided by myself and other key members of JJI’s team. The work is so delicate and important and we are ready and eager to help unravel the stories behind the numbers and help organizations find new and bold paths forward.
LAFPI: A huge issue that was raised this past summer was that there are theater companies that have reputations for disregarding and even allowing racist practices, as well as hiring artists who have historically exhibited severe racist behaviors. Are the results of the Assessment meant to solely inform a company about their culture and create a plan to solve it, or will the results also be used to inform outside artists?
Gabrielle: My ultimate goal with this work, once we have collected enough data, is to partner with data analysts and create a report on the macro data from the Assessment. The great thing about a study like this is that each individual theater remains anonymous. We only view the data in aggregate and are able to analyze the numbers on the whole. I think granting public access to the aggregate data – the way we do in our town halls and other online media – will really help to create transparency in our industry. I think once we have all the information and the numbers are clear, we can start getting honest and calling in organizations to make real change. The numbers of course will also help the individual organizations themselves as they will have exclusive access to their own micro data and will have a view of their personal numbers and information. This will help orgs to assess areas for improvement and create space for real and actionable change in their operations.
LAFPI: What kind of questions can companies expect in the Assessment?
Gabrielle: We’ve tested the efficacy of this Assessment with almost every type of theater company. So we are asking questions about everything from above title billing for theaters who are Tony eligible to whether touring companies are vetting hotels and accommodations for a history of racist action. We’re asking about what Black and Indigenous texts are being used in curriculum, and whether or not there is specific language in an organization’s bylaws that outlines anti-racist policy.
There’s truly something to be gained for every organization at every level.
LAFPI: This Assessment, undoubtedly, is aimed to create lasting impact in theater arts culture. Once the Assessment is released and artists can start creating post-pandemic theater, what do you hope theater will look like for theater companies? For BIPOC artists?
Gabrielle: I hope theater companies will use this time to actually do the work of change in their orgs. In the span of 7 months, we’ve been able to accomplish so much. It’s honestly made me realize that there is nothing a well-teamed organization cannot do if they are truly dedicated to their cause. And that’s the thing, right? An organization has to be dedicated to the cause and not just the lip service around it. So, I hope that theaters will have really backed up all those solidarity statements with action and accountability and that they are safe for us to return to when we can.
For BIPOC artists I wish us all the comfort, peace and stability that makes it easy to be choosy. More than anything, I’ve learned that wherever one or two are gathered, even if it’s in a Zoom room, art can be created. So, we now have this smorgasbord of opportunity in front of us. One of the questions I’ve been pondering in my own creative work is, “What are we going to do with all this future?” I hope that BIPOC artists have the means and the support to seek healing from all the compound trauma stemming from this time in our history and a lifetime of intentional othering by forces of racism and white supremacy. I hope that BIPOC artists find it within themselves to create work that speaks to their souls and sparks joy for them. I hope that Black artists, Indigenous artists, and other artists of color can finally have the space to be truly, truly free.
LAFPI: When will the Assessment be available for companies to take?
Gabrielle: The Assessment will be available to a hand selected cohort in 2021 and is preparing for wide release in 2022. JJI is currently looking for its first cohort of Full Program participants. Anyone interested in taking part in JJI’s 2021 Rollout should contact us through our website at www.joyjackson.org/theassessment.
Despite the grave uncertainty American Theater is facing amidst the pandemic and the plummeting economy, one great gift theatermakers have been given is the gift of reflecting on our own internalized racism and white supremacy. There’s no doubt that the Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment will be one of many programs paving the road toward true racial equity in American Theater, so that BIPOC artists may not merely survive, but thrive in an industry that so often uses their voices. It’s not about diversity and inclusion of BIPOC people—it’s about telling stories for us, by us, and with us in mind. And that starts today.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.