Ahmed Dents Discusses Online Forum ‘We Are Listening’ and How to Bring True Diversity into Performing Arts
By Cori Wilbur
June 15, 2020
On a surface level, the theater appears as the perfect place for diversity and inclusivity. However, just as any institution or industry in this country, covertly discriminatory practices in the arts have been allowed to perpetuate for far too long. To truly incorporate and embrace the Black experience in theater, we must first, listen.
This Friday, in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement to finally put an end to systemic racism in America, The San Diego REP will be hosting a forum to illuminate various Black artists in San Diego. The panel, titled ‘We Are Listening’ and hosted by Ahmed Dents, will be an opportunity to allow these artists to speak their truths about their experiences as Black artists in the theater industry and Black persons in America.
“This is going to be an honest conversation that happens all the time among ourselves, but this is going to be a forum where it is a public conversation,” said Dents. On the panel will be Artistic Director of MOXIE Theatre Delicia Turner Sonnenburg, The Old Globe board member and founder of Theatre Corner Michael Taylor, CEO of San Diego Urban Warriors Dajahn Blevins, La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Programs Manager Jacole Kitchen, Guest Artistic Director of Common Ground Theatre Yolanda Franklin and prominent San Diego actor Antonio “TJ” Johnson.
Dents, a prominent voice in San Diego radio, currently works as the REP’s Development Coordinator. When approached with the idea for the forum from Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse, Dents agreed to host as long as it could be a “real, open conversation” with no interruption from outside influence. ‘We Are Listening’ will give attendees an honest perspective on the prejudices that still permeate the theater industry and insight on how to reject those conventions.
As the radio personality put it on the phone, “Just because you have a play that has Black people in it, it doesn’t mean that it’s from a Black perspective, it doesn’t mean that it’s Black playwriting, it doesn’t mean it was conceived out of the Black community or of the Black experience.”
Moreover, he explained why hiring actors of color is not enough. “If none of your leadership has the experience to understand and have real empathy for what’s going on, there’s no way that you can understand what’s happening on the cultural level because you’re not really part of that culture and you don’t understand.”
Because a lot of popular playwriting is devised by white minds, any depiction of the Black experience is going to stem from a place of privilege, a viewpoint that inherently lacks true understanding of the Black experience. “We still have these two-dimensional images of [Black] people and [white] people are still not able to break into that third dimension because they’re not really exposed to what’s really going on in the culture.”
He noted that theater constituencies still lack diversity because the material being presented does not appeal to the sensibilities of a more diverse audience. We are at the point where theater companies and audiences must ask themselves: Do we want more diversity in the room or are we comfortable with the existing constituency? “In this day and age, you have to make up your mind–which one are you going to [choose]?” Dents added. Using the REP as an example, the theater’s mission statement does encompass the diversity of the community but over the past 10 or 15 years, the REP still has not produced a lot of work of Black playwrights. Dents noted that, with the upcoming forum, the REP is striving to honestly act in accordance with its mission statement.
An unfortunate reality is that San Diego’s mainstream media, particularly revolving around the theater in the community, does not highlight enough Black artists. However, places like Common Ground Theatre, San Diego’s Premier Black Theatre, is a great bridge for all people to explore Black artistry in more depth.
Since there still remains a significant ignorance about the energy that it takes to be in the theater as a Black artist, Dents hopes this forum will answer questions that many people have been too afraid to ask. “[The theater] medium is supposed to be about artistic expression and all of us [on the panel], in some way, are artists but we all want to be able to communicate our art in an honest way.” When you do not allow free range of expression, there still exists oppression.
What will be brought to light in this forum, Dents says, is the diversity within the Black community itself. A lot of people believe they are being inclusive but in actuality, they are just being inclusive of what they perceive as an ethnicity or gender and “not being inclusive of what that all entails.”
The other side of the coin as to why theaters have been slow to diversify, Dents said, is that, for Black people, it has been instilled that the theater is not a space for them or a space that anyone would want them. However, he added that “if you look at the real history of the arts, that is the furthest from the truth.”
He also wants this forum to show other minorities that there are multiple paths in which they can take to break into the theater industry. As an individual within this industry, his main experience has primarily been in tech and software. “People think of theater in this country and they only think of Broadway and they don’t understand the extent of the jobs and different types of minds that it takes and the different skill sets that it takes to actually be a part of this industry.”
Current events taking place, such as ‘We Are Listening,’ are opportunities to reflect on what we can do, as companies and individuals, within our own practices to create a space that acknowledges diversity and honors those differences. In Dent’s words, this also “provides a spotlight for those companies who are doing it right and have been doing it right and are making the honest attempt to open their doors to these communities.”