Oakland playwright alleges racist treatment at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Jessica Gleason/Staff

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An Oakland playwright said she was subject to racist treatment while attending a Berkeley Repertory Theatre event Friday night.

Judy Juanita had been 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.” At the theater, Juanita and her friends — all of whom are black — were told by ushers to leave their reserved seats, according to a Facebook post by Juanita, as was first reported by the East Bay Express.

According to an apology letter issued by the theater, 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 that multiple ushers then told her to leave her seat, even after she explained that her friend, who is white, had reserved their seats.

Once the friend who reserved the seats arrived, “it became clear to all that we weren’t trespassing,” Juanita said in the post.

“I settled in and soaked up the theatrical racism,” Juanita wrote in the post. “Enjoyed my friends. Didn’t appreciate the bull.”

In regard to Juanita’s experience, Michael Dumas, assistant professor in the campus’s Graduate School of Education and African American studies department, said “the fact that she recognized this” means that this is likely not the first time Juanita has been viewed with suspicion because of her race.

“These interactions feel heavy, and they’re not rare in one’s life,” Dumas said.

The theater, in an effort to make the play — about how black youth transition from school into crime — more accessible to those who have experienced this “school-to-prison pipeline,” 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.

According to Ikonen, the theater has many programs on an ongoing basis to reach “as wide of an audience as possible.”

But Dumas said that in Berkeley, it is common for “white liberals” to have “righteousness that prevents them from being critical about racism in their lives.” Dumas said people need to understand that they have racial biases and that the employees of the theater could help prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future by accepting their own biases.

“We can’t single out Berkeley Repertory as uniquely sinister,” Dumas said.

In the theater’s apology letter, Ikonen wrote that the play’s message needed to reach an audience that is racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. 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.

Contact Sally Littlefield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @slittlefield3.