In July, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival emailed a letter to its patrons, supporters and community members about its newfound mission to bring about social justice.
“You may have heard by now about the racist verbal assault directed at one of our actors, and about a death threat leveled at another female company member of color only days later,” artistic director Bill Rauch and executive director Cynthia Rider wrote.
“As far too many people in our community have experienced, these are not isolated incidents – they are happening daily in Ashland, and all over our country.”
English teacher Patricia Fels received the letter because SCDS high-school students have been attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland every year since 1977. The next trip begins on Tuesday, Oct. 4.
The letter said one of these incidents involved African-American actress Christiana Clark in June.
While she was walking her dog in Ashland, a man on a bike stopped and spoke to her.
He said that he could kill her and get out of jail the next day. He also said that the Ku Klux Klan still lives and thrives in Oregon, according to Clark’s June 24 Facebook post.
Days later another death threat was directed at a second female actress of color.
“The second occurrence came from a known resident with a mental illness,” Eddie Wallace, associate director of communications, said in a phone. “But our position is that it doesn’t take away from the fact that people of color still deal with it.”
Wallace said Oregon has always had a “bad racial history.”
In fact, he noted that it was only in 2002 that the state removed a controversial part of its constitution.
The passage read: “No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate.”
This isn’t the first time incidents like these have occurred in Ashland. Rather, it’s just easier for victims to speak up, Wallace said.
“Here in Ashland there are a lot of Confederate flags around,” Wallace said. “And it’s not uncommon for someone to be called the ‘n-word’ while walking down the street.
“It just doesn’t create an environment where it’s easy to come out and share these things.”
Other “microaggressions” often include people of color being followed around in stores or given inferior service, Wallace said.
Jag Lally, ‘16, said he was on the receiving end of one of these microaggressions a year ago.
Lally, a Sikh who wears a turban, was walking in the town to get food with two of his friends when three men in a truck pulled up beside him and told him to go back to his country.
“It was an unnerving incident,” Lally said. “It’s sad that people today still say things like that.”
But racist encounters with Country Day students are rare.
Biology teacher Kellie Whited has chaperoned the Ashland trip for five years and said she hasn’t heard about any issues.
“Everyone has always been very friendly and welcoming of our students,” Whited said.
And of the three college students of color contacted by the Octagon, none reported being racially harassed.
“Fortunately for me I had no such encounters on my class trips,” Savannah Symister ‘14 said.
Nonetheless, trying to prevent incidents like these is one of the reasons the Shakespeare Festival has taken this new mission.
“We feel we have the role of making this a welcoming community with the diverse audience and staff that we bring in,” Wallace said.
This year is the first time in the company’s history that more than 50 percent of its actors are of color, he said.
Part of this is due to the high number of minority roles in “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Wiz.”
“The Wiz” is a modern African-American telling of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
The company recently boycotted a local bookstore after an incident involving a banned children’s book that contains racist stereotypes about blacks.
“Little Black Sambo” was displayed next to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” at the Shakespeare Books & Antiques bookstore in Ashland.
The book was part of a banned-books section intended to educate store visitors about frequently challenged and controversial books, according to a story by the National Coalition Against Censorship.
“Little Black Sambo” was banned because it portrays blacks as unsanitary, having large appetites, and having a love for brightly colored clothing, Wallace said.
In July, cast members of “The Wiz” entered the bookstore to ask the shop owner to change the display of the books because they found it disconcerting, according to Wallace.
The owner initially moved “Little Black Sambo.” But after hearing that the actors had told their peers about the encounter, he moved the book back next to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
In response, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sent a private email to the bookstore stating that company would be boycotting it.
“We sit with our company members,” Julie Cortez, communications manager, said. “We’re not going to buy from someone who treats us disrespectfully.”
Another point of racial controversy is the company’s decision to use actors of color in traditionally white roles.
Brian Frishman, drama department head at Country Day, said that today, color-blind casting is used by most directors.
However, Frishman said he follows his own rules.
“My philosophy is that if the piece isn’t specifically about race, and using color-blind casting wouldn’t lessen the impact of the work, then I use color- (and sometimes gender-blind) casting,” Frishman said.
For example, in “The Paper Chase” last year, Gracie Strumpfer (‘16) played the lead professor who is male in the original play. And senior Jaelan Trapp played the romantic lead, who was written as white.
Wallace said the criticism OSF receives for its selections is directed to their box office employees.
The open letter states: “[Incidents] are happening to our Box Office employees, who bear the brunt of racially-charged and homophobic complaints about our approach to casting and season selection.”
But Frishman says he believes that the number of people that object isn’t very high.
“Audiences are so sophisticated these days that most people will follow the story and really not notice changes that don’t alter the storyline,” Frishman said.
Another part of OSF’s (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) effort to make a change has been their cooperation with the local Ashland police department.
The company sat down with the Ashland police chief and discussed what could be done to create a more friendly environment, Wallace said.
The company was pleased to know that the police force went through implicit-bias training, according to Cortez.
“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect the understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner,” according to the Kirwan Institute.
“Our job is to find out what (the implicit biases) are,” Ashland police chief Tighe O’Meara said in a phone interview. “If we don’t work through them, they have the ability to affect the decisions we make unconsciously.”
OSF is very pleased that the police force has shown the willingness to go deeper into the issue, Wallace said.
Although the company knows that their efforts have just started, they are confident that they are making a difference.
“The effort will continue, and hopefully we’re changing some minds,” Wallace said.
—By Adam Dean