An Interview with Dr. Indira Etwaroo: Visionary on a Quest to Expand Brave Spaces that Create Change

Photo : Hollis King

Indira Etwaroo, Ph.D, is a producer, educator, scholar, and non-profit arts leader. She has worked with institutions across the country and the world to explore the complex intersections between community, performing and visual arts and the topics-of-our-time. A Fulbright Scholar, Indira has received numerous awards and honors for her work, including being named one of The Network Journal’s “40 under 40” national leaders. Indira joined the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in 2015 to provide the vision, strategic direction, fundraising leadership, management and partnership expertise for one of Brooklyn’s cultural and artistic anchors. With her team of dynamic arts leaders, she has reimagined arts and culture at Restoration as a dynamic, 21st-century, world-class creative complex, proudly serving Brooklyn, which is the largest community of people of African descent in the nation.

Indira received her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and Master’s Degree in Dance Education from Temple University, where she taught undergraduate and graduate lecture courses. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Longwood University. She is currently an adjunct faculty at New York University. She is recognized as a powerhouse, trailblazer and visionary whose many contributions to the arts include being the Founding Executive Producer of the multiplatform, state-of-the-art Jerome L. Greene Performance Space at New York Public Radio, which produced the first-ever recordings of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle and the American Radio Broadcast Premiere of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

I first met Indira when she was running The Greenespace. I was deeply impressed by her creative brilliance and desire to produce the highest quality of events. I was delighted to learn of her move to lead The Billie Holiday Theatre and we have been working together over the past four years. My interview with Indira for Arts & Culture Connections demonstrates the integral value of exposing children to the arts and culture, and the potential impact it can have on their past, present and future experiences. Indira is an example of one child growing up in a working-class community in Washington, D.C., who was exposed to amazing arts and cultural experiences, and grew up to boldly envision, produce and direct great works of art that are influencing and transforming the lives of others.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?

Dr. Indira Etwaroo: I was exposed to the arts at an early age and kind of fell in love. My mom was a pianist. She took us to a lot of arts and cultural events and experiences as children in Washington, D.C. They were extraordinary events with artists from all over the world, and most of these experiences were free. I could engage with artists from Asia to Africa outside at the monument or in more formal settings. That a working-class family with five children was able to access these transformative artistic experiences was life changing.

I studied the flute early in my life and earned a music scholarship to attend Longwood University as a music major. I attained my Master’s Degree in Dance and my Doctoral Degree in Cultural Studies, with a focus on dance and African aesthetics. Looking back, I have always performed, directed, choreographed, and acted. In our backyard, I use to create plays with the neighborhood kids. I would direct them, as well as act and manage front of house. Little did I know I was literally performing my future. Before long, I realized that I liked producing works and putting people and ideas together.

Donna: How did you come to The Billie Holiday Theater?

Indira: I was shifting in my personal journey when one of my mentors and someone I worked with for almost a decade discussed over lunch the idea of passion. She asked me “What are your passions?” I had to pause and think about it. Then I thought, there are three things that wake me up in the morning. My bookshelves are full of these topics and it’s all I love to talk about.  They are arts and culture, the African-American experience, and social justice. If I am sick in bed and someone talks about any of these things, I am propelled up and pacing in my room before you know it, because I have so much energy in my body, I can barely contain the conversation. Someone sent me the job description for Restoration’s national executive search for leadership for RestorationART and The Billie Holiday Theatre. It was almost prophetic as this job was an embodiment of my passions.

Donna:  Where did you see you could have impact on the community and how do you define community?

Indira: As a young Black girl born in the southeast section of D.C., within a predominantly, disenfranchised community, I was surrounded by people of African descent; many of whom were living below the poverty line. I wanted to figure out how I could create the most profound way to think about community from my unique vantage point. I wanted to create brave spaces where people could collectively work towards change. I think about the underground railroad as a brave space. It broke beyond geographical borders, breaking both physical and imagined boundaries. It was about people imagining beyond their own circumstances. There are so many models like this that break borders beyond mere geography; models like the civil rights movement and global community acts of revolution. I want to create brave spaces where people can step out and create change. Central Brooklyn was a hotspot for this—launching Shirley Chisholm, Al Vann, Max Roach, Lena Horne and Annette Robinson—and launching community activists who galvanized the community around an idea that was about the betterment of people and human beings. RestorationART and The Billie Holiday Theatre are bold and brave spaces where people collectively work towards change.

Donna: How did you approach thinking about your work, what were the influences?

Indira: One word that embodies my work is intersections. I am constantly trying to figure out how things connect to each other. This is how I engage in any art form. If I was told to choose one genre, I have always been attracted to and am always drawn to, it is the African aesthetic, with its polyrhythms, call and response, and poly-art. We, as people of African descent, have owned that for centuries and it is embedded in the antiquity of our work. Music and dance share the same word in some African languages and help us explore the inherent connection between things. I would hope as a civilization we could move to that place and focus on where we intersect as human beings.

Donna: What were the challenges and how were they addressed?


Indira: It goes back to intersections. When I first arrived at Restoration, there were silos in place. There was The Billie Holiday Theatre, the Skylight Gallery and the Youth Arts Academy, and they did not interact in a consistent way. They each had different business models despite sharing similar audiences and staff. I knew we needed to break out of these silos and reimagine how these cultural assets could be working together with the audience at the center. Any effort that fails to think about how people live their lives and experience the world; that doesn’t put the audience at the center, is artificial and inauthentic. We have tried to build something that puts the audience at its core. It is not easy because it means the day-to-day operations work differently. You have to check your egos at the door, galvanize people, energy, and passion around a powerful mission that everyone can buy into.

We also looked at how to create a more user-friendly Restoration and came up with RestorationART. ART stands for “A Revolutionary Tribe at a Revolutionary Time.” In fact, I don’t think there has been a time in recent history, perhaps more than now, when African-Americans need to be radical and revolutionary. This is what art needs to do. Through RestorationART, I paid homage to the Black arts movement—the Black power movement to the Black nationalist movement—which is all very much alive in Brooklyn. I can think of no more fitting place than here at Restoration, the nation’s first community development corporation, which was born out of the community’s challenges by community activists, the late United States Senator Jacob Javits and the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy to work together beyond a mere photo-op, and reimagine this community for the better.

Donna: What are the trends you see in bringing multicultural voices to the stage?

Indira: In my four years at The Billie Holiday Theatre, what I see is the ecosystem of African-American culture in New York. What is happening is that diversification of content is a challenge for smaller and mid-size institutions doing that work. It is making it more challenging to capture the imagination of artists of African descent because they tend to go to larger, mainstream institutions with bigger audiences, bigger platforms, and greater resources in place. While there is a move towards equity and diversity, it creates a further disenfranchisement of institutions that have birthed many of these artists and, in fact, a further disenfranchisement of the artists themselves. I am very interested in this move towards equity and inclusion. I am not interested in a conversation; I am interested in acting, reaching out, and exercising integrity in the field of arts and culture through meaningful partnerships. Partnerships with small and midsize institutions is critical. We spent the last 10 years moving towards diversity and philanthropy has been a big part of this and now the conversation is equity. I want to ensure everyone understands how and why leveling the playing field is critical.

A survey revealed that two-percent of the mainstream institutions of arts and culture in the US, receive nearly 60-percent of the funding. The remaining 98-percent of arts and cultural organizations are splitting the other 40-percent; communities of color or organizations of color art best get 10-percent of that. In order for small to mid-size institutions like RestorationART and The Billie Holiday Theatre, who are building brave spaces where people can work towards change, we have to create models that don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. There are a lot of conversations about changing paradigms without anyone actually changing. We have to challenge ourselves, and be ready to change even if its uncomfortable, in order to create greater equity for all.

Donna: How did you come to create the project “50in50: Letters to Our Daughters” and what did you hope to accomplish?

Indira: “50in50” came out of work with the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop and brainstorming with playwright/director Garland Lee Thompson Jr. Both of us inherited these beautiful artistic institutional treasures and we were looking at how to ensure that we hold our institutions to a high level of equity and excellence. We looked archivally at who and what was being presented. Black theater, like the Black power movement, had a largely patriarchal voice; even in Brooklyn theater. With the re-launch of The Billie Holiday Theatre, I wanted to ensure that the voices of women were at the forefront and not an addendum to fulfill a quota. I also wanted to ensure that all women knew they had the right to write; they didn’t have to attend an Ivy League playwriting program. I wanted to cut across class, education, geography and say, “Every woman who has something to say ought to write and be produced.” With the support of MacArthur Fellow Dominque Morriseau, who provided us a powerful and provocative curatorial statement, we were shocked, surprised and honored and deeply moved that in the first year we had 222 women respond. Black women from all around the world picked up their pens. During the last three years, we received 700 letters, and we produced 150 of them. This year was quite powerful because there were so many lessons I heard that were written for our daughters, but I felt were just for me.

At the same time, several writers have contacted me and what comes forward is that they did not think that their work would be good enough. That is a powerful through-line that we navigate; that I watch my daughters and sisters across the globe navigate. I wonder when will the moment come when we know we are enough.

Donna: How did you approach collecting the letters and casting the actors and musicians?

Indira: We sent out the call with a link to send in their letters. Garland and I read all the submissions. No one story was the best story, but all were so powerful in their own right. We also intentionally looked for unique voices. We individually narrowed the stories down to 80-100 stories that deeply moved us. Then we got on a call together and spent six to eight hours whittling it down to the final 50. We still didn’t know who the authors were—this was a blind adjudication process. We then looked at the letters and realized the similarity in our choices. That got us down to 45. For the remaining stories, we looked for narratives that have not been told; Black womanhood in its most exquisite form. It was pretty thrilling when we get to find out who the writers were.

I wanted to ensure a diverse cast of Black women—age, background, size, and complexion—and we looked for all of this when we cast the actors who would read the letters. This was the first year we had a Transgender woman, and the first time we had a white woman, who was raising a Black woman. We will continue to reflect on all the different ways womanhood expresses itself across the globe.

Donna: What has been the result of this innovative project?

The most important result is that women feel empowered and realize their strength. We were thinking of how to create an incubator space to develop their letters into One Act plays and full-length works; a safe space. We are thinking about a national tour of “50in50” that would bring actors on tour, as well as allow us to use local actors. I would love to do a tour of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We performed “50in50” at the WACO Theater Center in LA as an experiment. They sold out two shows, with standing ovations. We learned that the template works, the footprint works, and audiences are responding. We have created a network to connect in an intentional way; a network of  Black women supporting each other

Donna: I can attest to the power of that intentional network of women—much to my surprise, my letter to my 17 year-old daughter was randomly chosen to be performed in the “50in50” reading performed earlier this year at The Billie Holiday Theatre and in March in Los Angeles. It was a surreal, exciting and humbling experience, and a great opportunity for both my daughter and me. Indira’s vision and efforts to bring this project to life, are a reminder of both the importance and value of sharing our stories through the arts.