Oakland playwright Judy Juanita alleged being subjected to racist treatment at a recent performance at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. As reported by the East Bay Express, Juanita was invited by a member of the theater staff to the final dress rehearsal of Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter. Prior to the performance, Juanita and her friends (who are all Black) were told by ushers to leave their reserved seats, according to a Facebook post by Juanita.
In her own words, here’s what happened:
My friend K., who happens to be a white, Mohawk-wearing lesbian, invited me and four other blacks. K. stayed in the lobby waiting for another friend but directed three of us upstairs, center front row – great seats! A young white female usher looked at our tix, stamped general admission, and refused to seat us. Okay. We politely pointed out the reserved seats. No go. Okay. We waited a bit, saw two friends (black) sitting in the seats and went in. As soon as we got seated, the usher came over to unseat all five of us. We showed her K.’s names on the reserved signs on each seat. She said the seats were for the tech crew. We begged to differ, politely. She walked away. Momentarily, a young black female usher came over and politely asked us to move. We politely told her about K. She was adamant that we needed to sit somewhere else, but we adamantly pointed to K.’s name on the seats.
Ironically, the production is about how black youth transition from school into crime, and the theatre wanted to make the public aware of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and gave away 1,000 free tickets and 1,000 half-price tickets, said Polly Winograd Ikonen, Director of Marketing, Communications and Patron Engagement for the theater.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre has since issued an apology letter, which stated that an usher believed that Juanita’s seat was reserved for a technical crew member. Juanita posted on Facebook that she was initially refused to be seated, and multiple ushers then told her to leave her seat, even after she explained that her friend, who is white, had reserved their seats. Ikonen also wrote in the letter that the play’s message needed to reach a diverse audience. The theater also expressed in the letter that it has one of the largest and most successful examples of audience diversity among arts organizations nationally. According to Ikonen, the theater has many programs on an ongoing basis to reach “as wide of an audience as possible.”
The theatre did the right thing by issuing an apology to Juanita, however, what might also be helpful is to train staff on customer service. Perhaps giving Juanita and her friends the benefit of the doubt instead of outright refusing to seat them would have spared both the theatre and the ushers the embarrassment of being seen as racists.