Roger Ebert said that movies are like a machine that generates empathy. I feel the same way about theater. But one local theater director's empathy failed him after the terror attacks in Paris.
On the night of Nov. 13, Jerome Davis, artistic director of Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre Company, took to Facebook to laud Parisians as "beautiful, intelligent, artistically inclined people." Meanwhile, he derided Middle Eastern culture for "generation after generation of incompetence, stupidity and failure."
Like many in the theater community, I was flabbergasted, especially because Davis has often staged highly political pieces with heroic Middle Eastern characters. Just last year, he brought in Palestinian activist Abdelfattah Abusrour to direct The Diary of Anne Frank.
I followed the resultant stream of outrage on Facebook and Davis' apology the next morning. Then I got in touch to ask how his outburst squares with his stated views. While he didn't really explain it, the conversation became a springboard into urgent issues of diversity and the responsibilities of artistic leadership.
INDY: What was going through your mind when you posted that Facebook comment?
JEROME DAVIS: I turned on the television, saw the news, made the posting and then went to bed. When I got up the next morning and saw a number of negative responses to it, I immediately realized what I had said and posted an apology, and then deleted [the original post]. It was a stupid thing to say; it doesn't make any sense. It's diametrically opposed to what I believe, which is that people have this terrible habit of trying to pigeonhole people by group, good guys and bad guys. Life would be very simple if it were that easy, but it's not. I wish I had a better answer.
Is it fair to say that was a simplification of your understanding of the Middle East?
It doesn't represent my understanding at all. I don't want to make excuses; I literally do not know why I said it. It was a stupid mistake and I wish I hadn't done it. It doesn't reflect what I hold valuable and true. I believe people should be judged by their actions, characteristics and talents, not collectively. I have said that many times, both on Facebook and in the work I've done over my life.
How do you see your role in the community as the director of Burning Coal?
I think an artistic leader has three responsibilities to the community: Know everything one can about one's art form, know everything one can about everything else and then put that knowledge into action. We're very fortunate to live in a community where there are a lot of small, forward-thinking arts groups, especially in the theater. A large number of theaters are inclusive and have a diverse worldview, and that has been at the core of our company's work. In fact, it's our mission statement. We're interested in global issues.
How do you see Burning Coal as fitting into the theater community here?
Professionalism is something we've been interested in from the start—the question of how an artist can live in a place distant from the great metropolitan areas but still do work that will have an impact on the world. One way to do that is to be able to put your entire focus on it. We don't ask the banker or the butcher to do that after they've earned their living elsewhere, but we do ask artists to do that. I think that's a gross oversight in our society, and one Burning Coal has been working on incrementally.
What kind of work does Burning Coal do to fight racism, hatred and ignorance?
Our space is situated on the borderline between historically black and historically mainstream Raleigh culture, in the building where the vote to desegregate the school system took place in 1960. We have made that story the forefront of our work.
We only have two salaried employees. But one of our first salaried positions was an African-American woman as director of education. A gay man held that position for a number of years; a Jewish-American woman holds it now. So within the narrow confines of our staff, that's some level of diversity I think we have a right to be proud of.
We do a lot of plays by and for minority populations. In the last three or four years, we have hired a Muslim or Latino director on a number of occasions. We did a play by a Spanish playwright bilingually, not just so that one community could hear a play in their native language but also so that the rest of the community could hear it in the language in which it was originally written. When you bring people with different worldviews into the room, then, almost by definition, you're changing your own.
We have worked with Arts Access and were one of the first companies to offer with every production an audio-described performance for the visually impaired. We work with an organization that provides scholarships for homeless children to participate in our summer camps.
We also make our space available for a very low rent to nonprofits, school groups and artistic endeavors. We're trying to be inclusive, and it's difficult, when you're a small arts organization, to get out into the world and also maintain a high level of excellence. One way we can do that is by partnering with other organizations. There's a lot of stuff we do that doesn't get a lot of publicity but I think goes in the direction that you're talking about.
It's difficult to separate the personal from business. How do you navigate that as the public face of Burning Coal?
I don't know how to separate them. If I were running a large organization where I could turn things over to other people, then possibly I could leave some of myself at the door, but when you're the overseer of everything, you're going to be part of everything and it's going to be part of you.
You have to bring the world into the theater; you can't seclude yourself. Some artists become so engrossed in the minutiae of putting a play together that there's an impulse to shut everything else out. But if you do that, you're not fulfilling your responsibility to the community, and then you're not fulfilling your responsibility to the art form.
Even for a nonprofit, do you think there's a different standard of responsibility to the community for a theater company that gets money from government agencies?
Absolutely. It means we have the awesome burden of presenting work that's meaningful to that community. I think that really is the reason why public subsidy is so critical. What you are looking for in a theater is what's happening in the actor's eyes, face and body. But to pay for it, you need more seats, which means pushing the audience further away from that value. It's a lousy delivery system. That's the tension of the larger community and the nonprofit sector. We're essentially asking for tax dollars to pay for something we believe is foundational to the human experience, but it's very difficult to convince people of that.
Moving forward, what are the big issues you want Burning Coal to focus on?
The environment is the big issue. Another critical concern is the Syrian refugees and other refugees. We're seeing this incoherent but far too common desire to segregate people based on the accident of their birth. Over and over again, we are reminded that this is not the way to judge people, and yet when crises happen, that old saw gets trotted out again.
Nuclear proliferation is another major concern, as is overpopulation. And the Citizens United law is contorting our political process. That's a U.S.-based idea, versus these other, more global things. But we are, for better or for worse, the strongest country on Earth, so how we behave affects everybody else.
So these are issues that we're going to start seeing in the next few seasons?
I think you have already. The first play we did, in 1997, was Rat in the Skull, which deals with the issue of people who segregate themselves and work out complicated narratives of why the other is responsible for all the bad things happening in the world. In April, we're doing Spoonface Steinberg, which is about looking at the world through the eyes of the other. That's what theater does at its best. You're asked to enter a world that you don't know and engage with people you have not understood. I'm concerned about the question of quality versus political action, but I think one leads to the other—art that fully engages its audience is art that will most thoroughly impact its audience.
Has the controversy over your Facebook comment led to new ways to hold Burning Coal accountable?
I'm still mulling that over, and certainly our board will be involved in that process. But the community is the major barometer through which I think any artist would judge the decisions that they make. Any time you make a mistake of this magnitude, you realize that you're human, and it is bound to call you to question every other decision that you're making. That has certainly been the case with me over the last few weeks.
Caitlin Wells is a local actor, producer, director, designer, stage manager and teacher. She currently works with Delta Boys Theater Company, Haymaker, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and Burning Coal Theater Company. This article appeared in print with the headline "About face."