When Bay Area actor and educator Aldo Billingslea began leveraging Facebook to market an ambitious $1M Fund for Black Theatre in the US, his goal was to raise awareness and money. What he hadn't expected to raise was the ire of racist strangers.
“I did not know,” Billingslea says now, “that when you say you’re raising funds for Black theater, you’re opening the door to hate.”
Inspired by an idea voiced by his friend Margo Hall, another local theater luminary, Billingslea launched the GoFundMe campaign with a nine-member steering committee (which includes himself and Hall) a week prior to the public debut of his Juneteenth Theater Justice Project (JTJP). The JTJP is a response to systemic racism in our culture and in theater, which Billingslea created in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
The JTJP’s inaugural outing was a free Zoom performance on Juneteenth (June 19) of emerging playwright Vincent Terrell Durham’s play Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids, which addresses police brutality against Black people.
With San Francisco’s PlayGround as the main host, a total of forty-two Bay Area theaters signed on as co-presenters and marketed the event to their lists. “As the number of theaters grew, we realized that we were going to have a lot of eyeballs on the reading and a prime space to encourage donations to the campaign,” Billingslea says.
The JTJP performance concluded around 9pm on Juneteenth with an appeal to viewers to donate to the Fund for Black Theatre. By 7am the next morning, the Fund had soared from $20,000 to nearly $93,000. Over the next few weeks, it rose to $137,000 given by nearly 2,000 donors.
Then, the donation flood slowed to a drip.
Billingslea, who in addition to acting, organizing, and creating theater has been a fulltime Santa Clara University theater professor for almost 25 years, seized on a Santa Clara alum’s offer of marketing aid.
“A [past] student of mine had $1,000 in Facebook ad credit,” he explains. “She read about the Fund on my Facebook page and told me she wanted to use her credit to promote the campaign.”
That's when the trouble began.
The alum used Billingslea’s freshly-created Facebook fan page to send ads about the Fund for Black Theatre broadly. Without demographic targeting, irate and overtly racist reactions began populating Billingslea’s feed almost immediately.
“How much did he raise for WHITE theater?? NONE!! because he is a black RACIST!! He discriminates against all other races!!” wrote one punctuation-mad poster.
“So as usual you want 100% of yours and 50% of everyone else's!” wrote another, whose Facebook page says he lives in Warren, MI. His feed features an eagle-bedecked invitation to a Sept. 11 “American Freedom Road Rally,” where motorcyclists will “show their patriotism for our fallen soldiers!”
A third poster, whose Facebook page indicates she is a grandmother from Oklahoma City, conflated several flavors of tangential prejudice into her succinct reaction: “Be American or get out.” Five people “liked” her comment.
All in all, 200 mainly vitriolic comments—some of them considerably less polite than those reprinted here—poured into Billingslea’s fan page, which currently has just 358 followers. Billingslea was taken aback.
“At first, I thought, ‘That’s not what I want people to see,’ ” he says. He deleted the earliest negative posts. “But then, the number and severity of the posts that kept coming...I realized, I need to leave these so people can see exactly why we need Black theater.”
Margo Hall, who learned about the posts from Billingslea during a Fund steering committee call, traversed a similar arc. “At first I felt: That's so sad,” she says. “And then I said, I’m not surprised. If people feel they are not included in something, they feel that thing is against them. We have such a long way to go to address antiblackness in this country.”
Vincent Terrell Durham, also a Fund steering committee member, agrees. “It’s always interesting to me that some people notice when they’re not a part of the story. There’s hatred in the comments. But I think they mainly reflect that the writers didn’t see themselves in the heading ‘Black Theatre,’ and that struck this racist-hatred chord with them. But they never notice when people other than themselves are missing from the picture.”
After assessing the Facebook pages of people who left negative comments on Billingslea’s page to ascertain that they are likely real (rather than fake accounts created to spread misinformation or dissent), EBX reached out via Facebook Messenger to four posters for additional comment. None responded.
Dr. Rob Eschmann, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work who studies the intersection of race and social media, wrote in a 2019 scholarly article that, “Racism—which has long been masked by color-blind norms, subtle offensive interactions, unconscious bias, and covertly embedded in institutions—is being unmasked through online racial discourse.”
Just days after racist comments began filling Billingslea’s feed, Facebook released a statement vowing to “stand against racism” and “to amplify Black voices.” “Hate has no place on our platform,” the statement avers. This meant little to the Fund for Black Theatre committee members who found their campaign attacked online as racist.
Billingslea and his colleagues are trying to raise money for an art form they love, that brings joy to others, that badly needs fiscal support. It didn’t occur to them that leveraging Facebook to share their passion beyond their existing networks would land them in a cyber-universe where, as Eschmann writes, “Users are disconnected from societal norms that make overt racism taboo in many mainstream spaces.”
Durham experienced the Facebook reaction as particularly ugly, he says, because, “There was absolutely nothing negative about the Juneteenth project—it was a tremendous wave of blessings. But with the Facebook comments, I got to see behind the curtain. I saw that not everyone is receptive to an idea that is really quite neutral. How can you be against supporting Black theater?”
Billingslea extends that idea, saying, “Calling a Fund for Black Theatre racist is like complaining that a childrens’ hospital fundraiser is ageist, or a fund for a battered women’s shelter is sexist.”
Billingslea, Hall, and Durham are moving forward. The Fund committee is planning their next event while also surveying Black theater companies across the US about their needs and inviting funding applications.
They have been delighted by the support they’ve received from peers, including leaders of local theater companies that have long been run by white people, which are themselves struggling to stay afloat in the face of pandemic closures.
Aurora Theatre donated several thousand dollars of over-goal funds raised during their July virtual gala. “And Lisa Mallette of City Lights [Theater Company of San Jose] just pledged 10% of the $30,000 raised during their [Aug. 30 virtual] fundraiser. Nice to be supported by our artistic colleagues,” Billingslea wrote in an email.
While the distance to raising $1M is still substantial, Hall is adamant about the value and importance of the work. “Anyone who is serious about addressing what this country has done or not done to and for black people will applaud this and every effort to lift up black people, who built this country,” she says.
The 200-some racist comments on Billingslea’s Facebook post about the Fund for Black Theatre are still up, but they are tempered by the nearly 8,000 “likes” the same post has garnered.