I participated in a panel as part of The Fire This Time Festival this past Monday, and I can’t say enough about how amazing it was. Entitled "Submitting, Self-Producing and Survival Skills for the Day to Day," this panel featured several artists and producers who have created their own opportunities. Libby Emmons, of Sticky (a short play festival) said something that stuck with me:
Get your friends together and make the work. It almost doesn’t matter whether it’s good.
That statement is at all times true, poignant, and loaded. I loved it.
When presenting work that purports to tell the experience of any people, particularly marginalized people, it has to be “good.” One forever feels the pressure to tell the best stories of our people. But who defines what is good? Who defines what is best? And why don’t we feel empowered to make that choice for ourselves?
Keith Josef Adkins (The New Black Fest and THE ABANDON), at this same panel, said he was tired of handing his power over to others: agents, producers, directors, nameless valorizing institutions, etc. That prompted him to both create an alternate path for himself and examine the work he was making. I am asking us as performers of color to also examine our collective paths: by fighting to create a “good” yet monolithic tale of our experience, whom are we serving? By self-censoring, are we just reallocating the same power without correcting the inherent imbalance?
I challenge all artists thusly: go see work that you don’t like, then both challenge and support it. Examine what you find wrong and how you’d make it better. Talk to the makers of that work about their process. Expand the field in both breadth and depth by recognizing that making work happen is in itself a victory, and that work that doesn’t speak for OR to you doesn’t have to.
The ability to take risks with our image* is a sign of freedom. It allows us to make work that only speaks for some, which may mean it reaches fewer, but also means that more of us can tell an honest story about ourselves.
*By taking risks with our image, I don’t mean make crap that is offensive and calling it risky. If you don’t know the difference, please refrain from taking the risk.