May 30, 2021—Every year on my birthday, I am always filled with tremendous appreciation for my parents, as well as for the good fortune to welcome another year of excitement and opportunity to share my passion for the arts.
I will always be indebted to my mom for taking me and my twin sister to see the Bolshoi ballet at McCormick Place in Chicago when we were five, which first kindled that passion. I will always be grateful to my dad for paying for my first dance lessons. Inspired by the memory of the Bolshoi’s performance of Swan Lake and my first ballet teacher, I have been able to forge a 40-year career, driven by my determination to make the transformative power of the arts accessible to all.
Every day, I am made abundantly aware of how crucial the arts are to our emotional and spiritual well-being, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The arts allow us to witness beauty, experience wonder, imagine possibilities; to be provoked or consoled, as well as help us build community. Whether it is theater, music, dance, the literary or the visual arts, every cultural encounter can leave us feeling encouraged, uplifted and hopeful—the type of support our entire world needs right now!
My birthday also affords me the opportunity to reflect upon the pivotal moments in my career that completely affirm that I am following my mission and the best career for my life’s purpose. I want to share those life-changing encounters with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections in this week’s blog. I hope it will inspire you to re-examine the genesis of your passion (whatever it is) and encourage you, during this re-opening phase of the COVID-era, to renew your determination to pursue your life’s purpose.
My first pivotal moment for me occurred in South Africa. The Dance Theatre of Harlem’s planned tour could not have come at a more fortuitous time—the walls of apartheid (legalized segregation and discrimination based on skin color and facial features) were just beginning to crumble. For the first time, an African-American ballet company was guiding and navigating the marketing of its performances in a country that had not afforded any semblance of power to its Black residents.
During a tour of the newly renovated Johannesburg Civic Theatre where the company was to perform, there was a group of 10 Black workmen. One by one, they stopped working and put down their tools. They stood up and stared at me.
“Do you know what they are doing?” my white escort asked.
“No,” I replied, trying not to feel self-conscious about this group of men who watched my every move without speaking or smiling.
“They are paying homage to you,” my escort explained. “They are honoring you. You are the first Black person to enter this theater who is free; not a worker, but an individual.”
At that moment, I envisioned the profound impact DTH’s performance would have on what would likely be its white audience. But more important, just being able to stand, let alone dance on this stage would empower millions of Black South African children to dream.
The second pivotal moment occurred during my tenure at the Public Theater, in the wake of September 11th. The Public is located below 14th Street, an area that was cordoned off following the attack on the World Trade Center. We could not work for two weeks. When we finally returned, we all were struggling with our roles as artists, performers and arts administrators. We wondered: Should we perform? Would it be disrespectful in the light of this inconceivable tragedy that killed thousands of people?
With George C. Wolfe at the helm and guiding us through our own shock and disbelief, we decided to forge ahead with our programs. My team was producing the monthly “Free at Three” events—an hour performance, reading, or panel discussion. We already had scheduled for that day an afternoon of poetry, featuring the nation’s then-poet laureate, Rita Dove.
The room was packed with all kinds of people—diverse ages and ethnicities. As Ms. Dove recited her poetry, I looked around the room and saw so many of the audience members with their eyes closed, their faces uplifted as if to receive the warmth and soothing light of her words. At that moment, I witnessed the healing power of the arts—Ms. Dove’s poetry was the calming, reassuring and affirming message that we would get through one of the greatest tragedies of our time and we all basked in the hope her poems offered.
The third pivotal moment in my career was in Moscow. In the fall of 2016, I was invited by the United States Embassy in Moscow to lead a week-long Forum for Cultural Engagement. The workshop was titled “Innovation! Community Engagement and Digital Marketing for the Arts.” The 50 participants travelled from throughout Russia, and it included representatives of a cross-section of arts organizations—theater, dance and visual art directors and managers.
During one lecture, I discussed the need for engaging communities of color. I shared examples of the steps we successfully had taken in the U.S. to do that. One of the students raised his hand to interrupt me. With sincere and open eyes, he asked: “Why are you talking about Black, Latino and Asian? Aren’t you all Americans?”
At first, I was taken aback by his question. Still reeling from the most recent report on CNN about the shooting of another unarmed black man in the Midwest by a police officer, I assumed these incidents were receiving international coverage. I couldn’t imagine that this student didn’t understand the history of racism in America and the need for arts organizations to specifically reach out to culturally diverse communities.
But as I took in the look of innocence etched on his face, I realized he really didn’t understand what I was talking about. And as I looked around the room, I could tell others had those same questions, too. So, I abandoned my text.
For the rest of the session, I talked about the evolution of racism and discrimination in the United States, from the advent of slavery to the current impact of racial discrimination and injustice. I did my best to explain how the effects and the scars of dehumanization, legal segregation and violence still burn and sting today.
Then I gave the Russian workshop participants an example of how audience development can positively impact a community. The previous year, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Faith-based Advisory Committee requested the screening of the award-winning film, SELMA directed by Ava DuVernay. They wanted to share the history and legacy of the civil rights movement with their youth ministry. We worked with the local churches in Newark arranging transportation for the youth, who were affiliated with a broad cross-section of churches. We also provided popcorn and drinks.
Even though NJPAC is the largest cultural institution in the state and the most prominent in Newark, the majority of those 600 youth had never been there. I will never forget the awe on some of their faces as they entered the building. After the screening, there was a fantastic panel, which we organized in conjunction with the advisory committee and local leadership. The panel discussed the relevance of the civil rights movement today and why young people should be engaged.
At the end of that night, I knew this program had done three things well: We listened to the community leaders; we made possible programing relevant to their needs, and we planted seeds for the next generation of cultural ambassadors by exposing them to NJPAC.
The Russian students were quiet when I finished speaking and we ended our session. The next day, the students came to me with tears in their eyes, but I had no idea why. They told me they went back to their hotel and gathered together to watch SELMA online.
“Donna,” one of them said. “You should have started the workshop with SELMA.
This is what I know now: In addition to our desire to open the doors of our arts institutions to diverse communities, our role as leaders in the arts requires that we understand all the aspects of our nation’s history of systemic exclusion of people of color from access and engagement with arts and culture. Once we have that understanding, we can then cultivate the empathy and compassion necessary to develop, create and implement meaningful programs that serve as bridges to cross the divide.
Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access are not buzz words. Instead, the mission of EDI&A programs structured for the arts is to close those divides. As I outlined in my first book, Invitation to the Party, we are not seeking to “rescue” forgotten, neglected or excluded groups of people. Instead, our mission is to open wide the doors of our arts organizations and cultural institutions and extend a welcoming invitation while contributing to the building, strengthening and well-being of our communities.
It is for these experiences and insights, along with many more, that I am truly grateful to celebrate another year around the sun. But I also cannot imagine celebrating my birthday without expressing tremendous appreciation for my parents. Because of them, I exist. I love them both deeply and carry them in my heart daily.
As always, I want to know what you think. What’s your reason for being grateful for another year around the sun?