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Talking to J. Holtham: A Cultural Democracy in the Performing Arts Interview

The Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, led by Kyoung H. Park, has designed an artist survey to invite artists to share their experiences working in the field in order to open up public discussions regarding diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. Over the course of the next few months, we will highlight interviews with artists who are in conversation with the Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, and we invite members of our community to help us gather more information by completing our survey here. Our team will synthesize our findings and share these interviews and our findings online.

J. Holtham

J. Holtham

1.  How do you identify yourself? How does your identity influence or inform your work?

As an artist, I identify as an artist of color, specifically a black writer. My personal identity is more complicated than that simple label, however. That identity combines parts of being raised in a biracial home in a white, upper-middle class town, of being a (nearly) lifelong New Yorker, a comic book/sci-fi/fantasy geek. All of that is part of my identity and all of that influences my work. No one part is more important than any other, at least not for me. As an artist, I try to describe the world as I see it and live it. My identity, patchwork that it is, is where I start.

2. Do you face challenges in the field based on the way you identify yourself?

As an artist of color, in today’s field, identity is, in many ways, destiny. Artists of color are employed to bring “diversity,” the “other.” The main audience of theatre (as well as most of the fine arts) is made up of older, somewhat conservative, upper-middle class white people. Being an artist of color means having to cloak yourself in some form of exoticism, some form of outsiderness in order to justify the act of choosing your work. As a writer who identifies as an artist of color, but does not write from a place of “otherness,” I’ve often felt that there was little to justify choosing my work. My identity isn’t always on display. As an artist of color, that’s the expectation, sometimes even from other artists of color. Without a “hook” or a “gimmick,” theatres just pass you by. I don’t mean that the successful artists are doing something dishonest or cynical. It’s just that the market (and, make no mistake, it is a market) rewards work that lives within the bandwidth that theatres can think in. Most writers I know have their “black” play, their play about “being black.” It’s not necessarily a part of their artistic life, but it’s a necessary part of their portfolio. On the flip side, though, artists are often punished for being too “ethnic,” too much a part of their culture, not “mainstream” or “accessible” enough. It’s a tightrope path that artists of color have to navigate.

3. Where do you (or can you) locate representations of your culture [community] within contemporary performance?

This is a complicated question for me because the questions of community and culture are tangled for me. My formative years were spent in a small, majority-white, mainly upper-middle class suburb that largely embraced me (while still often making me feel like the “other”). Is that culture, of TV, comic books and 80s pop music my culture? I have spent most of my professional career in majority-white institutions, often being the only black person in any meeting. As an artist, though, I’m expected, by both administrators and other artists, to prefer the company of other artists of color. Which I do sometimes. Sometimes I don’t. Is that my community?

I’ll say this: I don’t see the country I live in on stage very often. The world I live in is multicultural, often effortlessly, comment-free. My white friends and I don’t have racially fraught moments all the time. Race is rarely a factor, even if it’s always present. The America I see on stage is far more segregated, far more angry and uncomfortable, far more polarized than the one I live in. I don’t see what I consider as my community on stage very often at all.

4. Are there moments in which your cultural identity [community] is misrepresented or underrepresented, and how do you address this?
5. Have you been a working artist in another culture [community]? Has this experience exposed something about current practices that we can learn from?
6. Have you worked in other cities/regions and can you tell us about the reception of your work there in comparison to NYC?

I’m taking these three questions on with an omnibus answer. I recently moved to Los Angeles, to pursue work in TV and film. While it’s not another city or region, it is another world. One thing I’ll say about that world, especially as an artist of color, is that it is venal, commercial, competitive, acquisitive and status-conscious. It’s just that it’s honest about that. It’s honest about wanting artists of color to check diversity boxes or appeal to certain segments of the audience. It’s honest about the commercial underpinnings and that art is a secondary concern. Theatre has all of the same concerns, all of the same issues and failings, with added elements of cronyism/clique-ishness, a nearly unbreakable caste system and yet it’s also frustratingly dishonest about all of that, constantly putting forth the notion that “art” is the most important thing and if a theatre passes on something, it’s because it’s not art, it’s not good enough. This dynamic works against artists of color more than most, because it reinforces the idea that what matches the taste of aging, white upper-middle class patron is “art.” There are a lot of problems in the world of TV and film, but I found the underlying honesty refreshing.

I don’t want to tell tales out of school or name names or anything, but I think we can all think of great work by artists of color that’s relegated to readings series, second stages and tiny black box theatres with short runs that go largely unnoticed by the wider world while obviously and apparently substandard work is put up on major stages. We can all think of those times when, in the wider theatre community and even among audiences, there’s work that is clearly off the mark, clearly not good, but receives critical accolades. And vice versa; the great plays undone by one tone-deaf reviewer who pigeon-holes it as “that kind of theatre.” Work by artists of color is always tagged as such, as being separate from the “actual” art, the work done by white writers. The same thing, of course, happens to female playwrights, gay and queer writers, disabled writers. The theatre community is ruled by the tastes of older, upper-middle class white people and, as such, deems anything outside of those tastes, in form or provenance, as a lesser form of art, a special form of art.

I found it frustrating as an artist to fight against this tide. It’s hard enough choosing to be a playwright. The constant fight for legitimacy wore me out.

7. Describe an ideal situation in which your work is presented. Is there anything you’d like your audience to know about you before viewing your work?

The only thing I want my audience to know about me before viewing my work is that I’m a black writer. Even if the work isn’t obviously dealing with race, that fact impacts everything I do. And it should impact how the work is received and considered. Beyond that…there’s really nothing else.

J. HOLTHAM Recent plays include Snakeskin Suit (Unknown Artists, 2013), Doing Something Good (Red Fern Theatre Co., 2013), Nice Guy (Brimmer St. Theater Co., 2013), The Miss Julie Dream Project (Fell Swoop Playwrights). Other plays include January 2nd, Posterity, School Night and Togetherness. Commissions: EST/Sloan Project, Time Warner/Second Stage. Webseries: In The ‘Wood, Straight Out Of The Closet (post-production). Memberships: Fell Swoop Playwrights, Ensemble Studio Theatre (NYC). Co-Founder of The New Black Fest. He is a proud product of New York & New Jersey public education.


About kyounghpark

Artistic Director, Pacific Beat Collective


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