The “In Our Own Words” series began shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March as a way of giving voice to members of Atlanta’s arts community as we all struggled to adjust, cope and survive. The premise is simple, based on the old 12-step recovery wisdom of gathering resolve and insight through sharing our experiences, strengths and hopes.
The focus of the series shifted along with the shifting turbulence of 2020, turning to experiences with racism as the Black Lives Matter movement gained force and then touching on the political upheaval of the presidential election.
This year has been unlike any other, and we’ll likely feel the aftershocks for quite some time. What follows are highlights from the “In Our Own Words” series. Together they act as a powerful chronicle of 2020 and a testament to the despair, determination, resolve and reinvention that it demanded of us.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Tinsley Ellis, musician: It went down really quickly. We were on the West Coast and they were talking about theaters limiting capacity to 250. I thought, “That’s going to look bad in a big building.” That Thursday, everything was looking OK. Then on Friday, they told us to come home. We had to drive 37 hours back to Atlanta. I’ve done some long drives in my time, but that one takes the cake.
Cynthia D. Barker, actor: My prayers have changed. I still pray for my loved ones, but my heart has expanded to the world. I am acutely aware of our interconnectedness. My hope is that we all know that and hold on to it. I hope the grace, mercy, kindness and patience we are extending to one another remain long after social distancing. Like it or not, we are one. We have one life and one Earth to share.
Lauri Stallings, dance maker: As artists, we have spent our entire lives creating from ideas that can’t be seen. This virus cannot be seen. We will stand right now and have the courage to do the work and face those fears.
Topher Payne, playwright: This is not the end of the world, but it is the end of the world as we know it. These moments as a culture are always terrifying because we’ll have two hurdles to clear on the other side. There will be the moment when we are granted permission to gather again and the moment when we actually do. I’m excited to see what that looks like.
Sue Schroeder, dance maker: We’ve been talking about the recalibration of the planet. This is it. This virus is hitting everyone. It’s equitable in hitting all layers of society and affecting all areas of our infrastructure. Things as we know it will not be the same. Right now, it’s like a snow day. We’ve yet to see the full impact. The longing for human contact is where art will come in. People are starving for human connection and the arts will be part of that response. There was a huge fallout from 9/11. Like then, the creation of art will be important.
Michelle Malone, musician: I have good days and bad days. Every day it seems like I’m reminded of something I can’t do. I’m a rebel and when somebody tells me I can’t do something, then I want to do it. When the sun is shining, I try to get outside and ground myself. I’ve stopped watching the news. It made me sad and neurotic. I feel like I’m living in a little bubble in my kitchen by the refrigerator.
Tom Junod, writer: People ask me all the time how Fred Rogers [a Junod article in Esquire magazine inspired the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood] would react to this. I think he’d be saying to find a way to shelter at home but also find a way to help your neighbors. I think he’d tell us to be present for each other in this time of great absence.
Shanequa Gay, visual artist: I look for the silver-lining moments. I believe there will be a burgeoning flow of new creative modes, thought processes and art movements to be birthed from COVID-19. Artists have a tendency to do their best work when they are responding in chaos.
Kevin Gillese, actor: I’m so inspired by all the people I see helping in so many ways, folks are making masks and giving them out for free, running errands for higher-risk groups, preparing food for the homeless, messaging friends just to make sure they’re OK. This is what I want to remember, and what I hope everyone remembers: When things got bad, we showed up for each other.
Christina Smith, musician: One thing I’ve learned is that we are not in this by ourselves. The pandemic is an absolute wake-up call that we are all part of a much bigger picture. It’s made me sit down and ask: “What is important in my life?”
Brian Ashton Smith, actor: I’m sincerely hoping that in 20 years, we look back at COVID-19 not just as a dark bit of history but as the catalyst that forced us to evolve into a more just and equitable society. I think we’ll look at grocery-store employees who have been seen as low-skill, minimum-wage workers and are risking their lives and collectively decide everyone deserves to earn a living wage. I hope that we look at the flaws of our for-profit medical system and collectively decide that we deserve better.
Joseph Guay, visual artist: I think Georgia’s made a giant mistake. We’re the first to open up and it’s random things that didn’t need to be open. It’s almost opened up the floodgates that it’s over and everything’s good. I go to the grocery store or to get gas, and people aren’t wearing masks. We’re a very advanced country and we’re doing nothing to advance knowledge. It’s the times we live in, the time of complaints, not solutions.
THE BLACK LIVES MATTERS MOVEMENT
Nina Gilreath, dance artist: My first reaction was immediate rage, just rage. Then I started feeling anxiety and fear because it’s very real. I am married to a Black man. I’ve been in the car when the police have stopped us, and you can’t say anything, and all this protocol has been drilled into us. You don’t have to be doing anything wrong and someone can snuff your life out.
Lee Osorio, actor: The industry that I have dedicated my life to is not innocent. We are complicit in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others. We are complicit in 400 years of war waged against Black lives, 600 years of war waged on indigenous lives and the injustices faced every day by those communities. By dedicating a disproportionate share of our resources to the creation of art that upholds the status quo we are not only enabling, but promoting White supremacy.
Charmaine Minniefield, visual artist: I am driven by the history and narratives of my people, which are oftentimes diminished or erased, misrepresented and/or manipulated by others to further hierarchies of power and oppression. Social symbolism plays deeply into this process. Confederate monuments are an example of this assertion of power at the erasure or demise of our people. The resulting racism is pervasive and it creates the very environment in this society that breeds emboldened bigotry today.
Masud Olufani, visual artist and actor: I have been angry, rocked by grief and tired — a kind of tired that feels ancient and deep. But I am also hopeful and resolute that humanity will ultimately emerge from the long night of bigotry and injustice into the inevitable daybreak of unity and peace.
Arnika Dawkins, gallery owner: I am still in utter disbelief. Not only are we in the midst of a global pandemic, but our nation is also confronting centuries-old issues of racism and inequality. This moment is defining our lifetime. I am hopeful for a positive change.
Skye Passmore, actor: As an “ethnically ambiguous” actor I run into well-intended microaggressions all of the time. Fellow performers love to come up to me and tell me how lucky I am because I can play any part due to the way I look (hint: please don’t do this to your ethnically ambiguous actor friends). I’m always at the mercy of the expectations of how minorities are “supposed” to look.
Jon Carr, theater maker: No White person could fully understand what it is like to be Black in America but by showing these lived experiences of racism, Black playwrights help build empathy with audiences. If we want to dismantle systemic racism in our nation, we need to show it, name it and let audiences see its ugly face. My desire is that my fellow Black and Brown theater-makers will be given the space to translate their own experiences of systemic racism into works that will move audiences. This is how we can build empathy and create lasting change in our community.
Minka Wiltz, actor: As a Black woman in America, racism has always been a part of my experience. For me to think about moments of racism I may have encountered during my career in theater is not unlike asking marine life to describe water. I am never hopeful about the future in regards to racism. Until we can truly address the many layers of greed and evil that created the institutionalizing of a thing to benefit some at the detriment to others, I cannot place hope and racism in the same category.
Matt Torney, theater maker: I was raised Catholic in Belfast, Northern Ireland. While I think there are some obvious parallels in terms of what it means to grow up as part of an underclass, the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the learning around it have taught me how little I understand about race in America and how little I think most White people understand about race in America. Part of being a good ally means understanding what I don’t understand. What I can do is listen and learn with extraordinary sympathy and humility.
Howard Palefsky, arts philanthropist: The fact that recognition of this toxic issue has moved to the forefront in our society bodes well for some improvement. Last year, I was quoted in ArtsATL saying, “Before you expose a young person to the symphony, you have to expose them to breakfast, because a hungry child is not going to hear the violin.” I believe that if we commit ourselves to meeting children’s basic needs by addressing economic and social injustices today, we can cultivate Atlanta’s next generation of ticket holders, patrons and board members — and see a better and broader reflection of our society in the audiences, offices, stages and board rooms of our performing arts organizations.
Fahamu Pecou, visual artist: Combating racism is not so much for me a matter of strength as much as it is a sense of obligation. As a human, as an artist, I recognize and accept that my words and work can and do connect powerfully to others. It is a responsibility I do not take lightly. In the face of racism, the greatest form of resistance is always hope. Hope isn’t about fantasy, it is about aspiration. Hope allows us to imagine a better world. If we can imagine a better world, we can create a better world. One of the greatest superpowers an artist has is the ability to see something before it even exists.
Layla Felder, arts lover and high school student: I expected George Floyd’s death to pass unknown, unacknowledged and meaningless to those with the power to do something about it . . . but it didn’t. And I was shocked. At my school, classmates were embracing conversations they’d tried so hard to avoid in the past. Teachers were letting us skip class for our mental health and all of a sudden White friends of mine were reaching out to me. It’s been two months and every day I wake up in fear, expecting people to forget. And every day I am shocked and relieved that they haven’t. We still have a long way to go, but I am so grateful that we’ve finally started moving.
Kevin Sipp, artist and curator: What we understood then and now was that Black and Brown bodies, minds and expressions were being disrespected and unremembered. The aesthetic destruction went hand in hand with the physical one. Not respecting our creativity was not respecting our humanity, and not respecting our humanity was the sin of bearing false witness to our right to be here. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and others have died because they were never considered fully alive by the ones who killed them, never considered fully human, never considered worthy of thoughtful, expressive life. How we begin to change these evil assumptions and outcomes comes down to empathic commitment and care. Forgetfulness and false narratives of privilege are no longer an option.
Anjali Enjeti, writer: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about disruption and art’s role in it. Certainly, we must continue to pressure artistic institutions to eliminate White supremacy. But as our nation sinks even deeper into authoritarianism, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we non-Black people, artists or otherwise, are not doing enough to keep Black people safe. Black lives matter, first and foremost, everywhere and always. Our art may inspire resistance or revolution, but it will not manifest Black liberation. And in this day and age, in this new civil rights era, this must be our collective goal.
Gordon Vernick, jazz musician and professor: Four hundred years of unequal treatment of human beings has created a wide gulf between Black Americans and White Americans, which keeps manifesting in political and social unrest. If we don’t bridge the chasm, I don’t believe we’ll see forward motion in my lifetime. The first people totalitarian governments typically arrest are writers and composers because truth-tellers are so powerful. What artists do is take all the intangibles you can’t put into words, and put it into sound — sound that has the power to heal, connect and bring people together. The door is open. . . . We need to start listening, learning and improvising to foster connections, find harmony and finally achieve forward motion.
Indra Thomas, soprano: Racism is definitely a problem in the opera world. For example, tenors are typically cast as the romantic lead but because Black men are rarely imagined in such roles, Black male tenors have been at a distinct disadvantage. I have never had the privilege of being paired with a Black tenor as my leading man in more than 20 years. I have, however, sung with plenty of Black baritones and basses — who are often cast as the villain or the old man. This is microaggression at its finest. I’ve anticipated civil unrest for a long time, but never expected ally ship. Following the news of George Floyd’s killing, [I received] messages from friends worldwide — all in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Their support was a comfort. We still have a long way to go, but I believe the act of listening is a critical first step to finally achieving justice.
Nathan McCall, author: The thing that’s foremost on my mind right now is, simply put, November 3. The outcome of that election will end so much speculation among Blacks about what this country is and what it is not. As for me, I’m already pretty disgusted about the fact that we’re in this delicate place in 2020 after centuries of Black suffering and struggle. At this point, there is no one who does not know what Donald Trump stands for. Unlike in 2016, when people claimed to have voted for him because they believed he might be good for the economy, etc., it is clear that the only thing this incredibly incompetent man offers this country is a commitment to preserving vestiges of White supremacy. He’s a racist, and yet he solidly maintains millions of devoted followers.
Jamil Jude, theater maker: I don’t profess to have the solution to solve the persistent problem of the color line, but I posit this — if we all, especially White people who have the most “opportunity and privilege,” don’t actively work to root out the systems, unseat the politicians and rewrite the laws that got us here, the sun will set on far too many more summers before those of us on the sweet end of the color line will gain access to the abundance of the American experiment.
Adam Fristoe, actor: The racism built into the fabric of our country has been clear to me from a young age. Big events — the murder of George Floyd, the beating of Rodney King, the Crown Heights riots, the tragic gun death of a friend in middle school — always bring me back to activism, marching, responding with storytelling, re-examining and retooling. And these actions matter. But if I’m not vigilant, I become complacent. It’s this sort of complacency that thwarts change. Is there hope? Oh, yes. The Atlanta theater community has been engaging in serious reflection and reckoning. It has been painful and messy and will bring real change as long as we stay vigilant.
Scott Stewart, conductor and radio host: In 2020, it is incredulous that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has one Black member. Yet this demonstrates the struggles faced by Black musicians from high school through conservatory study. As the Black Lives Matter movement exposes inequalities in American culture, anti-racism is an imperative. Moving forward, the classical music industry must confront its racism and move intentionally to challenge White supremacy, discriminatory assumptions, practices and barriers that marginalize people of color. More voices — composers, conductors, players, teachers, staff, audience — must be a part of classical music and feel belonging, not “othering.”
REFLECTING ON 2020
Michelle Pokopac, actor: The world has gone through a huge wake-up call. The pandemic has forced us to slow down and face the ugly realities. The fact that only a few months ago I objected to a theater producing an outdated musical that further encourages the idea of barbaric Asians being saved by White saviors proves how much work there still needs to be done. I had a Black friend tell me at an event recently, “You know, I always try to support my people, but I never thought to also support other minorities. I’m going to change that.” Same, my friend. In more ways than I thought imaginable.
Jeffrey Wilcox Paclipan, mixed-media artist: Looking back on 2020, a combination of events stand out to me. Mandates to shelter in place due to COVID-19 in conjunction with rising protests in response to racial inequity and social injustice gave me an intense feeling of déjà vu. While clearing out works in storage, I came across a painting I had not seen in more than 25 years. In that self-portrait, I was 25 years old and sitting in front of a European bullet train in a desert. I imagined myself speeding to the future and wondered what it would be like. The visual gave me hope and, ever since, I have focused my work toward positive energy, transformation and a celebration of life.
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, scholar: I am hopeful about the future. I am a scholar, an educator and the mother of two sons, and it is important for me to have hope about my future and about their future. I can’t give up. But I am also weary. James Baldwin directed this response at White Americans who told him that racial progress takes time: “You’ve always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time . . . my niece’s and my nephew’s time. How much more time do you want? For your progress?” I feel the same way.
Gillian Royes, writer: My takeaway from this year is that nothing is as it seems. I came to the United States thinking that it was a sort of utopia, a place of opportunity, development and civil behavior. How wrong I’ve been! My home country, which is looked down on by some as a s**thole country, has done far better in controlling the virus and holding peaceful elections. The past eight months have impacted my hope for the future. Absolutely. I’ve thought of repatriating back home or having a home in another country. America may not be my last stop, as I had thought.
Lauren Tate Baeza, art curator: After I mourned all the things I wasn’t going to be able to do and embraced the uncertainty of institutional employment, I became my most creative and entrepreneurial. When things around you crumble, you have no choice but to rebuild. And that process can be exciting. These moments are opportunities to imagine great new options and outcomes. This year reminded me that so much of what we need is within us, not outside of us, and cannot be taken away.
Tomer Zvulun, The Atlanta Opera: Few of us walked into this year expecting a world pandemic, racial unrest, devastating fires, record unemployment, contested elections and murder hornets. My company, just like other performing arts organizations all over the world, dealt with a severe existential crisis following the cancellation of our season due to COVID-19. We often found ourselves telling each other an anecdote about the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perlman was to perform in Avery Fisher Hall in the ’90s in a major concerto. As soon as the concert started, one of his strings popped and broke. The packed house was silent. Changing a violin string takes time and Perlman . . . made a decision to keep playing with the strings he had left. The performance was riveting. He was on fire. At the end, the audience erupted into a standing ovation. Perlman said to them: “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” Individuals, artists and organizations all over the world were dealt with unfathomable challenges in 2020. The performing arts found out exactly how much music we could still make with what we had left.