British Columbia

Vancouver theatre scene faces its own racial reckoning

Vancouver's theatre world is not exempt from systemic racism, and some recent events have led to increased calls to do better.

Recent events have led to increased calls for change from many in the arts community

The PuSh Festival has highlighted the work of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) artists, like this still from the 2016 play Concord Floral, which involved a plague, 10 teenagers and an abandoned greenhouse in suburbia. (Erin Brubacher)

While anti-racism and police brutality protests across North America have grown into one of the largest social movements in recent memory, nearly every industry is taking a closer look at its own biases, and Vancouver's theatre scene is no different.

Coupled with the crippling effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on performing arts, some recent events have led to increased calls to do better.

Vancouver's pre-eminent performing arts festival, the PuSh Festival, announced "an organizational restructure," due to the impacts of the coronavirus crisis. 

However, it chose to eliminate the position of its full-time associate artistic director, a position held by Joyce Rosario, a woman of colour. Another position, held by Janelle Wong-Moon, also a woman of colour, was eliminated.

Reaction was swift. 

"The optics of that were horrifying and were really kind of upsetting," said actor and playwright Marcus Youssef. 

"There's absolutely no question in that context, Joyce Rosario, one of the senior curators and one of the only female, brown people of colour in the international art scene was let go in a restructuring context."

The board responded to widespread criticism with a statement saying it was "deeply sorry for the distress, anger and disappointment we have caused the PuSh and broader arts communities."

"You have called into question PuSh's longstanding commitment to ensuring that the voices of Indigenous and Black folks, people of colour and women are as vital to our operations as they are to the art we curate," it read. 

"You have rightly held us accountable for recent decisions and the manner in which they were communicated; they were not consistent with our core values."

The board also announced the festival's executive director, Franco Boni, was let go.

Youssef said Boni, who is white, is well known across the country for his track record of supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) artists and BIPOC work.

"So it's complicated," he said.

In a Facebook post, Rosario said her position was eliminated without notice but was unable to fully share her thoughts.

"I am heartbroken to see PuSh in this situation now," she wrote, but added she had faith in Vancouver's arts community. 

"Everyone will have a key role to play in these times, as we try to rebuild the industry together."

Addressing racism in Vancouver's theatre scene is not a new problem. 

Omari Newton, an actor and writer based in Vancouver, along with Youssef and a group of signatories, circulated an open letter to the president and board of directors of the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society in 2015, calling out the lack of diversity and representation on boards and juries.

Newton says while it's still a work in progress, some strides were made.

"The Jessies were very receptive and they opened up their juries. They let us look at how juries were selected. We implemented a diversity committee," he said.

But only eight of the 41 award winners this year were BIPOC — a sign, Newton says, that more needs to be done.

"There's massive upheaval happening the world over and particularly in the performing arts, because due to respecting COVID restrictions, we really can't operate our business," he said. 

"You can't fill a theatre if you can't let people in, so there's a lot of people under a lot of stress that exacerbates existing tensions and issues of systemic racism that we already have."

Youssef agreed.

"For me, in this time when things are so heightened and so intense, we try to remember that this is just the work we need to do."

Listen to the segment on Vancouver's theatre diversity here:

With files from On The Coast