George Floyd’s death in May 2020 set off a national racial reckoning. The heartbreak of Floyd’s death brought about public displays of heartbreak and anger among communities of color. It forced white communities to confront the racism and unfairness still embedded in our country.
For Tiffany Johnson and Penumbra Theatre it was clear they had to evolve to reach new communities in a new way. That meant an increased focus on their Center for Racial Healing.
The Center for Racial Healing focuses on addressing centuries of racism, while mending the current trauma people of color face. Johnson, who is Penumbra Theatre’s marketing manager, realized the Center’s mission was more crucial than ever. Although the vision for the Center began in 2015, Floyd’s death amplified the importance of its work.
Having a theater focused on racial healing introduces a new way to help and educate people. When Johnson joined the theater in 2017, the first play she attended was not what she expected. Surprised to see that the theater was filled with primarily white people, Johnson worked to develop relationships with local Black media platforms and artistic partners to intentionally engage Black listeners, readers and community members. Although she’s still working to cultivate a more diverse audience, Johnson now describes the Center for Racial Healing as “a common ground in the middle to do this work together.”
Given Penumbra Theatre’s history of civic engagement, employees felt they had a duty to help lower voter suppression in the 2020 election.
Although the theater cannot be partisan in its communications and engagement as a nonprofit organization, it still managed to reach out to organizations and request Black communities get time off work to vote. In addition, the theater also educated Minnesotans on how harmful voter suppression has been on communities of color through a Let’s Talk conversation dedicated to voting rights and roll backs to the Voting Rights Act.
Penumbra has also started race workshops, during which trained monologue artists help guide conversations of racial healing. It is reaching out to corporations, nonprofits, schools, universities and government agencies that are interested in bringing these conversations into their workplace.
As Johnson put it, the workshops are “difficult, very vulnerable conversations, so working with trained artists is a powerful way the theater does it.” The theater’s willingness to engage in these hard conversations in a new way and bring them to new places is what makes the Center stand out.
Our community is in need of challenging discussions so we can move forward with understanding of the world and people around us. The Center can inspire us all to have these conversations in our day-to-day life, even if they make us uncomfortable. Although these conversations may make us uneasy, we must all do our part so we can move forward into a better and more equal world.