by Sam Levin
My friend K., who happens to be a white, Mohawk-wearing lesbian, invited me and four other blacks. K. stayed in the lobby waiting for another friend but directed three of us upstairs, center front row - great seats! A young white female usher looked at our tix, stamped general admission, and refused to seat us. Okay. We politely pointed out the reserved seats. No go. Okay. We waited a bit, saw two friends (black) sitting in the seats and went in. As soon as we got seated, the usher came over to unseat all five of us. We showed her K.'s names on the reserved signs on each seat. She said the seats were for the tech crew. We begged to differ, politely. She walked away. Momentarily, a young black female usher came over and politely asked us to move. We politely told her about K. She was adamant that we needed to sit somewhere else, but we adamantly pointed to K.'s name on the seats.She said that it appeared to her and her fellow patrons that the black usher "had been sent as a black emissary (used to be called Uncle Tom) to get these Negroes out of these prime seats." Only after K. and another white friend arrived did it become "clear to all that we weren't trespassing," Juanita wrote. "I settled in and soaked up the theatrical racism, keenly aware of the audience being about 80% white, of the scarcity of black males in the venue, of the abundance of black female ushers, and of my group's profile - novelist (me), entrepreneur featured in Fortune mag, doctor's wife, non profit exec, labor leader. Thought of Dick Gregory (what do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?). Enjoyed the provocative Anna [Deavere] Smith. Enjoyed my friends. Didn't appreciate the bull."
As you know, Friday's presentation was not a public performance, but a final dress rehearsal, which is still a working session, with technical staff seated throughout the house. Because we had invited an audience in for the first run-through of Act 2's group discussions, our house management staff were tasked with making sure that technical crew still had access to their reserved blocks of seats. Unfortunately, they were not aware that seats had been reserved for anyone other than technical crew, which is what led to your group being questions. This was our error, and as you note in your blog post, was resolved once they fully understood the situation.Still, Ikonen continued in the letter, "Berkeley Rep has a deep commitment to making all patrons feel welcome in our spaces, and we clearly failed to meet that standard last Friday night. For that we sincerely apologize."
As demonstrated by our longstanding partnership with Anna Deavere Smith and other artists, Berkeley Rep is committed to presenting work and building audiences that reflect the community and world in which we live. As you rightly point out, Judy, this effort cannot and should not be limited to special presentations. We completely agree.You can read the full letter here.
Currently, twenty percent of our audience consists of people of color. While we do not consider this to be anywhere near what it could or should be, we are proud that this number constitutes one of the largest and most successful examples of audience diversity among arts organizations nationally. At the same time, we continually strive to increase that number.