Today is Juneteenth, the nineteenth day of June. It marks the date, two months after the official end of the Civil War, when the last group of legally enslaved people in the United States received the news that they were free.
For the Croswell, which opened nine months later to the day, it provides an opportunity to reflect on our own past, present and future with regard to the ongoing struggle for justice in our country — both the good and the bad.
We often talk about the great crusaders who spoke on our stage — people like Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who after the Civil War continued to fight for equal rights for all. We like to mention that unlike many theaters of its era, there is no evidence that the Croswell was ever segregated. But there’s another side to our history. The Croswell hosted many blackface minstrel shows, in which white performers painted their faces and acted out skits that reduced African-American culture to a degrading parody, well into the twentieth century. We also rarely mention that the Croswell, in 1915, was the first theater in Michigan to show the deeply racist film The Birth of a Nation — ignoring the voices of many Black citizens of Adrian who had spoken out in protest.
We must also reflect on the present, because although we try hard to create an inclusive environment and make our shows reflect the diversity of our community, we have not done enough. Our board, staff and creative teams remain predominantly white. The voices of Black, indigenous and other people of color have not always been adequately represented in our programming choices. With rare exceptions, our shows have not reflected the rich Latino heritage of our city.
In a time of mass protests for racial justice, it can seem almost pretentious for a theater to talk about joining the fight. We are entertainers; can anything we do match the impact on society of those who work for justice every day? But entertainment doesn’t just reflect our culture — it also shapes our culture. It shapes how we view other people and the world, and the Croswell must take our role in that conversation seriously.
So what will we do in this moment and moving forward?
- We have begun the process of educating ourselves about the often subtle effects of institutional racism.
- We will increase our efforts to make sure we are telling stories that reflect a diversity of voices.
- We will increase the diversity of our board, staff and artistic teams to more accurately reflect the makeup of our community.
No single gesture or program can make us a better organization. This process requires a sustained effort, and it never really ends. When we are able to make theater again, we will use our voice and our platform to create meaningful moments and further the cause of justice and understanding. But even though our stage is empty by necessity, we can set things in motion for the future.
So much work remains to be done if the promise of freedom is to be fully realized in our country. Our part may only be a small one — but we will do our part. This Juneteenth, that is our promise to our community.