Open letter calls on Persephone Theatre to take anti-racist action
Theatre's artistic director and associate producer have resigned
A group of theatre workers and artists is calling on Saskatoon's Persephone Theatre to address what they describe as a long-standing culture of racism and intimidation in the company.
In an open letter sent to the theatre's board of directors earlier this week, more than 150 signatories called on Persephone to make changes to their hiring, casting, training and education.
"For years, Persephone Theatre has neglected to appropriately respond to incidents of racism and racially charged violence within its walls," the letter reads. "Instead of acting to protect and support BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour], Persephone Theatre has established a process of silencing and dismissing acts of racism."
Among the letter's requests are that Persephone prioritize working with BIPOC-focused Canadian theatres and staging BIPOC-written shows, require all staff, employees and board members to take anti-racism and anti-oppression training, undertake a policy review and commit to hiring more BIPOC artists at all levels of the company.
Logan Martin-Arcand, one of the main authors of the open letter and a former Persephone employee, said these issues are not new — he said they have existed in some form since the theatre was founded in the '70s — or unique to Persephone.
However, he said the theatre's decision to post, then subsequently delete, a black square on its Facebook page as part of #BlackOutTuesday was a catalyst for many to speak up.
"They're willing to use activist language and activist terminology, but we've seen no policy change," said Martin-Arcand.
Before the post was deleted, artists and theatre professionals had started commenting on it with questions and concerns.
"Do you have an ongoing plan to address systemic racism that your organization partakes in?" asked Martin-Arcand on the comment thread.
Yvonne Addai, a former Persephone employee and artist who now lives in Toronto, said posting a black square seemed like an empty gesture from a theatre company she said has not been proactive about racial justice.
"How are you as a company going silent for blackout Tuesday when you have not really been vocal about anything?" she commented.
Thinking back on her time at Persephone, Addai recalled being one of the only Black people working at the company and feeling unsupported by management.
"I feel like if the theatre company represented or spoke about how they supported Black, Indigenous and people of colour, patrons would not have felt like they had the right to call me the n-word, or ask me if I speak English, or make slight remarks that were racist," she said. "There should have been an open communication where I felt comfortable knowing if I spoke, my voice would be respected and heard, but that was not the case."
In the days after the social media post and subsequent vocal calls for accountability, Persephone's artistic director Del Surjik and associate producer Johnna Wright resigned.
"The world is changing and needs to change," Surjik wrote in a public statement. "Fast-moving events in our society are creating an opportunity — a necessity — for Persephone Theatre to be a part of writing a new chapter, and to change with a hopefully improving world. It is in that interest I have decided to step aside as Artistic Director to make way for new leadership."
The authors of the open letter clarified that these resignations came after BIPOC artists met with Surjik, Wright and the board of directors.
"Certainly, Del [Surjik]'s statement posted on Persephone Theatre's website did not acknowledge the work and pain that BIPOC artists put into publicly and privately holding Persephone Theatre accountable over the past weeks — and years," the letter reads.
I really wouldn't be putting all this work into Persephone Theatre if I didn't want to believe in Persephone Theatre.- Logan Martin-Arcand
On June 16, Persephone's board of directors released a statement thanking the individuals who have reached out to them and committing to anti-racist actions.
These include developing anti-racism, anti-discrimination, anti-oppression and whistleblowing policies, increasing diverse representation at all levels of the organization and revising the theatre's strategic framework through an anti-racist lens.
"This is not an exhaustive list, and our work will be ongoing as there are many systemic issues that will take time to dismantle," wrote board president Nikki Hipkin. "As we continue to hear diverse voices in our community, it is our sincere hope that those who have engaged with us will continue to do so to eradicate racism together. We are committed to the journey of taking action and making changes in order to be an arts organization that is welcoming and inclusive to all in our community.
Martin-Arcand acknowledged that the theatre has taken "first steps" in recent weeks, but said the work is far from over.
"I want to be optimistic," he said. "I really wouldn't be putting all this work into Persephone Theatre if I didn't want to believe in Persephone Theatre, if I didn't want to have a relationship and I didn't want my community that I represent to have a good relationship with Persephone Theatre."
He said people in positions of power at Persephone need to change their mindsets.
"They need to be willing to embrace an anti-oppressive model, and they have to be willing to let go of some of the things that are comfortable for them."
- A previous version of this story stated that Johnna Wright was artistic producer for Persephone. In fact, she was an associate producer.Jul 20, 2020 2:25 PM CT