Check-in from Philip

Dear CoHo Community,

I hope this note finds you well.

I intended to check in with you months ago but between the state of the world and a personal health issue, I was delayed.

I am healthy now, with a treatment plan to full recovery. I have an auto-immune issue that put me in the hospital, including a brief stay in the ICU. This was my first time ever being admitted to the hospital, let alone the ICU.

There were times the ICU was scary. But thanks to the care of superstar nurses, including two very special ones, and of course the support of my beautiful warrior wife Maureen, the overall experience turned into an affirming reminder of the euphoria of living in this beautiful world.

Now when I contemplate this affirmation in relation to the state of the world and context of our society, I recognize how my perception is based on my personal privilege. My perspective is nurtured from years of opportunity, support, and positive reinforcement from the social systems built into our culture.

I recognize how different that is for my Black friends and colleagues and for all Black people living in America. The system that nurtured me, shuts Black people out, cultivates micro-aggression, excludes them from opportunity, and encourages violence against them, simply because of the color of their skin.

This recognition reminds me of growing up on segregated Long Island. In Suffolk County, Black and Brown people lived in the middle of the island between the Northern State Parkway and the Southern State Parkway. If you lived north of the Northern State you were most likely white and the further north you lived, the closer to the Long Island Sound, the more economic power you had. The same was true for the Southern State; if you lived south you were most likely white and the further south you were, the closer to the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, the richer you were.

My family and I lived just south of the Southern State, one block and one very neat small park away.

I think back on a time when I was about 10 years old. My liberal-minded progressive parents would not let me walk over the Southern State overpass to buy baseball cards at a convenience store a quarter of a mile away from home because ‘it was not safe’ to go in that direction. But it was OK for me to walk, on one certain path, a mile and a half to Edy’s Deli to buy baseball cards. It was not safe to go a shorter distance north because that is where the Black and Brown people live. This is how racism was instilled in my upbringing.

I am reminded of being on Long Island as a young man, working in the construction industry. The job required visits to multiple job sites each day. My partner Dominic, another Italian American fellow, would often find undeveloped tracks of land to stop on and eat lunch. These places were empty and wooded and kept us away from the bustle of the construction sites, allowed us to avoid parking and eating in front of people’s homes.

If we were in a Black and Brown neighborhood, we would invariably be visited by a police car, which would roll up and check us out. We would show our work gear and lunches and the cops would roll away with a warning: ‘Be safe.’ If we were in a white neighborhood the police would not stop. In a Black and Brown neighborhood, we needed a warning, and racism was reinforced.

I could continue this contemplation, particularly around my predominately white school where there were only two Black students in my large graduating class. But I hope that I have made the point that I recognize my racist privilege when I celebrate the euphoria of living in this beautiful world.

When the George Floyd execution occurred, I had two communications with Black colleagues who over the years I have grown to love. The information they both shared with me was blunt, transparent, and honest. I feel it was a demonstration of the love and respect they have for me. They reported that CoHo is not doing enough and that the Black community, audiences, and artists alike, did not trust CoHo’s invitation to participate in our programming and services.

I was immediately reminded of sitting in meetings wherein microaggressions were being demonstrated and I sat silent. My silence was born of my racism.

I remember notifying a young and talented Black artist that she was not selected for one of our programs. And in not extending myself beyond my usual business politeness for such notifications, I was perpetuating a system designed to keep her out and reinforce her lack of power and value. Had I made more of an effort to nurture further opportunity for her… maybe I would have stepped out behind my racist veil and acted as an anti-racist.

Since those conversations this spring, and when my health allows, I participate in a bi-weekly anti-racist workgroup comprised of local Artistic Directors. I am supporting the efforts of the PDX Accountability Collective, a local group of BIPOC artists organizing a Code of Conduct that is scheduled to be presented to the CoHo Board of Directors and adopted by CoHo.

I participated in the Theatre Communications Group annual meeting, which offered a flood of resources addressing race in America. I gravitate to the words and writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, completing the stirring and raw Between The World and Me and his beautiful work of fiction Water Dancer. I bathe in the writing of the great American playwright James Baldwin and have listened to his lectures, watched him on YouTube trounce William Buckley in a debate, and continue to seek out his wisdom. I plan to continue my work reading both fiction and non-fiction. Next up are My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem and M Archive by Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

So I make this pledge: I will act as an anti-racist. I will speak up and not be silent when I see and hear microaggressions and I will call out White Fragility. I will make changes at CoHo, generating authentic invitation and opportunities for Black artists and audiences. I will listen to my BIPOC colleagues and artists, seek and adopt their advice, bring them to the table, compensate them for their time, and make change. And in doing so I hope to become an anti-racist and for CoHo to become an anti-racist theatre.

  • CoHo will begin to increase BIPOC representation across all areas of the organization: the board, the Artistic Council, Staff.
  • CoHo will establish multiple relationships with Black artists and Black-led theatre companies and provide the CoHo Theatre space free of charge for rehearsal, performances, and use of streaming equipment.
  • CoHo will reach out to the Black theatre-going public to be partners in making sure CoHo programming is honest, relevant, and inclusive. To that end, CoHo vows to continue to educate our traditionally white audiences to create a safe space for all audiences.

I hope you join me together, even while COVID forces us to be apart, in inviting BIPOC people into our community, creating a safe place for us all to share in the euphoria of living in this beautiful world.

Philip Cuomo, Producing Artistic Director

Don’t Stop Here

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