Based on the poem by Amaya Jenkins, Slaying Our Inner Demons is an experimental visual essay about a generation of young people of color dissatisfied with the current geopolitical climate and alienated by colonial politics, and their need to transform themselves to bring change in this world.
Jenkins was a stand-out participant in Rysing Womyn, a 2015-2016 Cal Shakes Artist-Investigator project led by Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera. Rysing Womyn supported young women of color to find their voice, unearth their stories, and tell them in their own words and on their own terms. Jenkins performed “Slaying Our Inner Demons” at Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue The Construction of Gender: Actualizing Women’s Empowerment, and we are proud to have partnered with United Roots to help spread her message as a counterpoint to a political climate of alt-facts, open bigotry, and fear.
Amaya Jenkins (black shirt) being filmed at United Roots by UR Media Program Manager Rafael Flores (black baseball cap) and video editor Venus Morris (pink dashiki).
Amaya Jenkins (poet, performer) was born in a small town in Mississippi and moved to California at the tender age of six. About “Slaying Our Inner Demons,” she says, “I have endured so many prejudiced and racial encounters over the course of my life in both states. I want my poem to resonate the struggles of myself and my ancestors as well as give a prominent hope for the future.”
Venus Morris (video editor) was born and raised in Oakland for a majority of her life. Growing up she always had a passion for cultural arts. She started performing early on and and knew that her light would shine the most on stage. Ever since the moment she had that revelation she made a vow to be the voice of the many voiceless people through her bright spirit and gifted presence.
Amaya Jenkins (left) and Venus Morris (right) against a mural memorializing Anthony Fossett, outside of United Roots.
UR Media is a production company of United Roots, training young people of color to be the next generation of socially conscious media makers and providing youth-led media and tech services to the community. In partnership with local media companies, like Green Eyed Media and The Hidden GEM Arts Incubator, UR Media industry professionals supervise and manage media production with young adult media makers & tech innovators for our projects and contracts.
United Roots was born from the convergence of several East Bay organizations that collectively envisioned a youth-led movement to harness arts and media to promote unity and peace in neighborhoods struggling with violence. United Roots houses many programs and community projects, and these programs create an ecosystem of opportunities for our young people.
Cal Shakes’ Artist-Investigator program explores how the tools of theater artists can be applied outside the rehearsal room and is made possible by the James Irvine Foundation. The Rysing Womyn project also received generous support from the California Arts Council.
With xenophobic extremism roiling through our country, Cal Shakes’ 2016 production of Othello intentionally explored the presence of Islamophobia in the play. But how could we ensure that a 400-year old work could speak to the lived experiences of Muslim Americans in the present? How could we confront our own assumptions and biases in telling a story about someone “othered” in a culturally-specific way that most of the creative team was not?
Cal Shakes partnered with the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California to better center community members directly impacted by the themes we sought to explore. The Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC) provides space for the cultivation of ideas about Islam through art, culture, and education programs. This collaboration taught us more about how theater and community-based organizations can learn from each other, lift up each other’s work, and create social impact on the issues that matter most to our communities.
Othello Story Circle
Photo credit: Den Legaspi.
At the start of Othello‘s rehearsal process, Cal Shakes invited artists and cultural workers impacted by Islamophobia to gather at the ICCNC and share their stories. In a circle led by Assistant Director Denmo Ibrahim (featured earlier that season in Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing), participants discussed the personal impacts of Islamophobia, popular depictions of Muslim Americans, and more. In the second half of the circle, participants were invited to give Cal Shakes feedback on concepts for the production through an exchange with actor Aldo Billingslea (playing Othello) and Director and Cal Shakes Artist Director Eric Ting.
Photo credit: Den Legaspi.
Through our ICCNC partnership, community voices shaped what happened on our stage and revealed what’s at stake in the story we were telling. Key quotes from the story circle were featured in an art installation that audience members passed on the way into the theater. Story circle participants were invited to see the play and share feedback through previews and after opening.
Othello Story Circle art installation at the Bruns. Deep thanks to contributors Badreddine Assioua, Sabiha Basrai, Abdulrahim Harara, Mahsa Kashani, Sabereh Kashi, Zahra Noorbakhsh, Aidah Aliyah Rasheed, Amir Sulaiman, and others. Photo credit: LeeAnn Dowd.
“Othered in America” Civic Dialogue
Photo credit: Eric Ting.
After Othello finished its run at the Bruns, and before it toured the Bay, Cal Shakes continued the conversations started in the story circle and stoked by polarized audience reactions to the play with a civic dialogue hosted at the ICCNC. “Othered in America: A Conversation on Islamophobia in the U.S.” explored popular representations of Muslims, the impact of xenophobia on public discourse, and the role of arts practitioners in a time of heightened Islamophobia.
“Othered in America” was produced in partnership with IC3: Incubating Creativity, Community, and Culture, an artist-run series of project incubations for emerging Muslim American artists and cultural producers that result in public events for diverse, multicultural Bay Area audiences. Seventy-three people gathered at the ICCNC for the event, which featured participants from the story circle as well as guests engaging with Cal Shakes for the first time.
The night kicked off with a panel facilitated by Sabiha Basrai, co-coordinator of the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, in conversation with Sana Saeed, a producer at AJ+, and Abdulrahim Harara, an actor and activist. It continued with an open mic of performances curated by the Muslim Writers Collective , a grassroots initiative dedicated to promoting storytelling in the Muslim American community, the Bay Area chapter of which runs a monthly open mic at the ICCNC.
Photo credit: Eric Ting.
Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series seeks to explore the intersections between theater and civic practice. Check out recaps of our other 2016 Civic Dialogues:
Cal Shakes brought our partnership full circle by bringing Othello, shaped by our work with the ICCNC, to the ICCNC.
One hundred and twenty-five audience members came to the free, public performance, circling the actors in chairs and pews. Cal Shakes’ Othello typically featured a ten-minute talkback right before the end, at one of the play’s most climactic moments. At the ICCNC, this conversation extended to 16 minutes, as community voices eagerly shared about what they were seeing:
“I read the play 20 years ago and I didn’t understand Iago. I am sitting here watching now and seeing, it’s not just jealousy — it’s white supremacy. The racism. It’s these really basic themes that prevent us from seeing the larger issues.”
“There was so much anger around his position and Othello’s position — all of that came from a high level of anger and racism. He’s living in the white supremacist world and it just tears him apart.”
“His insecurities were exploited.”
“I didn’t see it as prejudice; I saw it as power hungry. Iago was so Trump-like to me.”
“I hated that Iago used the system to do all of that. The fact that it wasn’t a tragedy that Desdemona dies, but it became a tragedy when we see that she was wronged — that makes me so angry.”
“What struck me the most is the matter-a-fact nature of the racism. It’s only [mentioned] a few times by the racist characters themselves and then it’s just an everyday thing that’s going on. And Othello doesn’t acknowledge it. The dichotomy within him: here he is a general and at the same time he is helpless in love and has no control.”
“What strikes me is the actuality of this year: 1000 years ago, black men were lynched for just looking at a white woman.”
“I see the cross section of white supremacy and hatred. I saw the self destructive nature of white supremacy.”
Staging Othello at the ICCNC, in downtown Oakland, made the work more accessible to more of our East Bay community and revealed resonances that didn’t readily surface elsewhere; as our house manager noted, the term “white supremacy” hadn’t come up very often during previous talkbacks. Our actors remarked on how special it felt to perform in such a sacred space that held so much beauty.
Cal Shakes deeply thanks Raeshma Razni and the ICCNC for saying “yes” to collaborating deeply. We are grateful for the opportunity to listen, learn from, and uplift the voices of community members facing systemic marginalization in our society.
Did you miss Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue on The Impact of Toxic Masculinity in Society, tied to our production of Othello? Read this reflection from our panelist Anthony J. Williams on coming to un-learn gender myths, bringing questions of power and privilege to a 400-year old text, and making these conversations accessible to broad audiences:
When a nonbinary trans woman named Lauren told her fellow audience members that she felt “like masculinity wasted so much of [her] life,” there was a definitive weight to her words. The conversation began as part of a post-show panel following director Eric Ting’s well-executed #LoveHateOthello at California Shakespeare Theatre. I was one of the panelists for “The Construction of Gender: The Impact of Toxic Masculinity in Society,” a free civic dialogue with folks in the community and theatre-goers. Sikander Iqbal (cis heterosexual man of color), Ariel Luckey (cis heterosexual white man), Michal “MJ” Jones (non-binary Black trans person) and I brought our very different, but complementary voices to discuss masculinities with a small audience after the Saturday matinée of this theatrical production of Othello. Eric Ting, Cal Shakes’ artistic director, moderated the conversation.
The conversation didn’t start with such powerful words, however. Lauren’s contribution was juxtaposed by a comment from an older white man who said the equivalent of “not all men” and a white woman who grew up in Puerto Rico wishing that she was Black. In meeting the audience where they were in regards to vocabulary for this conversation, I asked the audience what words they associated with masculinity. Many folks used words like “destruction,” “power,” “war,” and “strength.” I also explained the difference between cis and trans.However, the audience was already primed by the subject of discussion: toxic masculinity. A few folks in the audience took issue with the negative framing of masculinities that we took from the start.
However, when discussing a play written by a prolific white man in the 1600s about a Black man who kills his white wife, discussing toxic masculinities is important. We must question what it means that “Othello the Moor” is portrayed as a violent Black warlord, and his white wife as a battered woman. Add to that an election season where a cis heterosexual white supremacist has awakened deplorable Americans to incite violence against migrants, Muslims, and many more groups of human beings. #LoveHateOthello’s Brechtian directing style of speaking directly to the audience and agitating them connected the snippets of Trump speeches interspersed throughout the production to the Islamophobia that is old as the tale of Othello “the Moor.” The 400 year old story about race, Islamophobia, and empire addresses what we are still facing today. These circumstances require a focus on how we address the negative aspects of masculinity that are literally killing us.
Anthony J. Williams (he/him/his pronouns) is from Vacaville, CA and currently lives in Oakland, CA. He graduated from UC Berkeley in Spring 2016 as a Mellon Mays Fellow (Sociology major, Theatre & Performance Studies minor). His senior honors thesis examined the relationship between #BlackLivesMatter organizers, self care, collective care, and liberation. He is a writer, researcher, and organizer and intends to obtain a PhD in Sociology & Africana Studies. Anthony’s work has been published in The Independent, East Bay Express, Black Girl Dangerous, Masculinities 101, and more. He is also an actor/director and has worked with Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre, Playground-SF, and BrickaBrack. Anthony is a proud Black queer man whose lifetime goal is to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression such as heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. You can follow him on twitter (@anthoknees), where he popularized the hashtags #MasculinitySoFragile and #BlackWomenDidThat.
Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series seeks to explore the intersections between theater and civic practice. Through facilitated dialogues with community organizations and presentations of work by community-based and Cal Shakes Artists, we hope to explore how theater can be a tool for highlighting voices of marginalized communities and for igniting change.
Check out recaps of our other 2016 Civic Dialogues: