Chanel Bragg wound up with more than she bargained for last November. She’d been hounding Arizona Theatre Company’s newish artistic director, Sean Daniels, about creating an apprenticeship for her. Rumor on the theatrical street was that Daniels wanted to open doors for women and for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in Arizona.
“I said, ‘Yo, you want that? I want to shadow you, learn from you, because I want to be an artistic director one day,’” Bragg recalled last week. She chuckled. “I was pretty in his face about it.”
When Daniels called Bragg’s bluff and offered her a real job as associate artistic director instead of an apprenticeship, she knew people would assume she was hired because she’s Black.
“It didn’t take very long,” she said. “And it was a person of color who had the audacity to tell me I was just a diversity hire. I know how many years I labored over my master’s degree, how I trained myself for years to be in this position. Still, that one hurt.”
She paid her dues in collaboration with ATC, Black Theatre Troupe, Phoenix Theatre, Stray Cat Theatre, Childsplay, Arizona Broadway Theatre, and Desert Stages, among others. Tired of tokenism and of hearing from local theaters that people of color didn’t audition, Bragg founded the United Colors of Arizona Theatre, a diversity-focused group with 400 theater arts members, all people of color.
“I’ve been tokened my entire life, and I’m sick of it,” she said. “Theaters kept hiring me as the representative Black person, without finding out if I’m any good at my craft. And I am.”
Despite her confidence, Bragg had to be coached to talk about her accomplishments. “Sean was like, ‘You’re going to tell people about your accolades, your level of education, your years in the industry. Because that’s the real reason you’re here.’”
Bragg got it. But she worried that ATC’s administration still didn’t look so diverse. “They see that the artistic director is a white guy, but what people don’t know is that all our departments are led by badass women,” she said. “Sean is the lone ranger in a sea of Amazonian women. It’s really dope.”
Now that Daniels has diversified the ATC board and staff, Bragg and company are busy highlighting work they’ve been doing all along for ethnic communities. She was quick to confess it’s not just white people who are unaware of what’s happening to people of color.
“I’m a local,” she said, not for the first time. “And I’m a person of color. And I didn’t know we’ve provided the National Latinx Playwriting Award since 1994. I don’t like admitting that.”
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She was grateful that ATC is lately emphasizing plays about people of color, and more grateful they hired a local girl — her. The company is often criticized for hiring staff and stage casts from out of state — ironic because ATC is Arizona’s state theater. “Not only did they hire a native girl, but our artistic director is from here. So if I talk about Maryvale, he knows where that is. I didn’t have to educate him.”
But there’s precious little time these days to educate one’s boss, Bragg said. During the pandemic, ATC is doing four times as much work, maintaining a larger presence with virtual productions, staged readings, radio programs, and a Facebook Live podcast called Hang and Focus. Bragg said there’s more product because theater people are fighting to save their art form.
“Creative people have got to create,” she said. “We’re like, ‘Okay, pandemic, whatever!’ Theater is not dead, y’all. It just looks a little bit different. It’s an art form made to evolve. If it can survive the bubonic plague, it can survive coronavirus.”
Once the worst is over, Bragg said, she and a more diverse ATC would be waiting in the wings. “Meantime, theater looks different,” she said, laughing again. “And that is cool.”