- Shoestrings: A Conversation with Chisa Hutchinson and Rodney Gilbert
Chisa Hutchinson is an award-winning playwright. She was the residential playwright at Second Stage Theatre in New York City. Rodney Gilbert is an actor and director. He is the founder and CEO of Yendor Productions, a Newark, New Jersey–based firm that consults, develops, and produces arts-education programming and events. They are both Newark natives. Theatre Topics recorded the following conversation (with their permission) in Newark, soon after the election of President Donald J. Trump, discussing how they view their roles as artists under the new administration.
Things definitely feel different with the Trump presidency, as far as priorities. I actually had just started a fundraiser for a film that I wanted to do this summer and I canceled it. Because after the election I couldn’t justify channeling all that energy and those resources into something that—I mean I don’t think that it’s self-indulgent—I just felt there were more urgent, or pressing, relevant things to be focusing on. And then I had the chance to see Hamilton, literally the day after the election, and that’s about the only thing that could’ve gotten me out of bed that day. So much of what was said and sung really took on a whole other dimension, a whole other significance. There was a lot of tongue and cheek, wink, wink, nudge, nudge stuff going on in that performance. And you could feel how determined they were to communicate whatever they were feeling about the election. There was one number—everyone in the theatre was sobbing after it. One ensemble member was in the back, teetering on losing it. You could just see on her face that she was really affected. And I was thinking as I was watching that, “Oh right. That’s what theatre can do.” I’d like to think that if you came into that theatre feeling broken and totally dejected and hopeless—like you couldn’t do anything—you left feeling inspired and as determined as that cast was. And I’ve just been carrying that with me ever since, asking myself if whatever it is that I’m paying attention to or putting my energy into is as worthy as what they were doing on that stage.
So it’s weird because I want to define myself as a human first; but then I’m a man, I’m black, I’m an artist, and they are all intertwined. I think as a human and as an artist, I’m still in kind of a shock. Maybe more of a disappointment that our country is what people have always said it is. This is really where we are; this is really what white people think about you. This country is racist and we’re divided. Which, I know, but I think the artist in me holds out hope because we get to live in a utopia [in the arts community].
The morning of the election results, I wasn’t sure how to face my students. And then I read something on Facebook [about people of color]: “We’ve been through worse.” So I thought how I’ve had a reference for as far back as I can remember that I come from slaves and how strong slaves were and all they endured. I thought, “Yeah, we made it through slavery; we can make it through this. We’ve just got to be strategic.” And hopefully the arts can be a fortification for some people. Everyone keeps saying, “I’m woke.” Maybe many people will get “awake.” Because I’m fearful of the times we have ahead.
So I think in that sense things have changed. But it’s always been my view to do work that speaks in a particular voice, especially around people of color. I grew up here in Newark, and our theatre was political theatre. When I was a kid I didn’t know it was political theatre. Esther [End Page 163] Rolle. Tony Fargas. Woody King Jr. They were all coming over from New...