Shirley Jo Finney and Paige Hernandez Discuss ‘2018 Black Theatre & Dance Symposium’ (Interview)

The University of Maryland’s School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance is bringing students, faculty, and the community-at-large together for their 2018 Black Theatre and Dance Symposium (BTDS) on Saturday, April 14th. “Embracing Inclusion and Diversity in American Theatre and Dance” is the driving theme of this full day event and will feature not one, but two keynote speakers, award-winning international director and actress, Shirley Jo Finney, as well as Paige Hernandez, a multidisciplinary artist critically acclaimed as a performer, director, choreographer, and playwright.

Shirley Jo Finney. Photo courtesy of University of Maryland.
Shirley Jo Finney. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland.

I had a chance to catch up with both ladies earlier this week to get their take on the event’s theme and overall relevance. They both carry a very rich and deep knowledge of the performing arts space, having crisscrossed the country numerous times and created work in different political climates, they spoke to how their work has evolved as a result. Our conversations gave me a window of insight into why a forum like BTDS is critical for emerging creatives and the broader community.

Sherrita: What does the symposium’s theme mean to you?

Paige Hernandez: looks like inclusion and diversity both on and off stage, as well as in the management structure of [theater and dance] companies, on their boards and from their funders. It’s top to bottom, not just on stage where it’s in front of everyone but also in the representation administratively. The push to embrace diversity and inclusion means doing it holistically.

Shirley Jo Finney: I have been in this industry almost 40 years as an actress in front of the camera and as a director behind the camera in both mediums (theater and on screen). This theme is one that I have seen and been a part of. August Wilson was in this conversation about works by people of color in mainstream theater. It’s all about trying to claim our identity and sense of placement as a culture.

The symposium seeks to emphasize the importance of “artist leaders.” How would you define that term?

Shirley Jo Finney: someone who listens to the voice within and gives that expression. His/her creation comes from a pure place and doesn’t follow the chatter of the masses. They walk fearlessly in the expression of who they are and that then becomes the expression of the masses. [Their work] represents truth and bears witness to it for others.

Paige Hernandez: Who is that person who provides that opportunity for others? Even if it’s not providing actual employment, then maybe its providing empowerment, resources, support, and ways to pass on your experience and success to other people. A lot of what we do as artists is one big circle. It doesn’t make sense to hold on to it all, nor does it make sense to reinvent the wheel. Artist leaders are those who pass on what they’ve learned, what worked, the tried and true things, because we’re all better for it if more than one person has that expertise.

How do you want the audience to feel after listening to your speech?

Shirley Jo Finney: I hope it will prompt further conversation.

Paige Hernandez: It’s wonderful that we decided to do the keynote as a shared interview between Shirley and I. What we’re hoping will happen will be an insightful cross-generational talk between two women and artists of color. I hope the audience will come away empowered, having seen two examples of two different women who were able to make change happen in two different points in time and learn from our experiences and see the parallels.

Both Shirley Jo Finney and Paige Hernandez have a wealth of expertise to share and they’ll be joined by several other talented artists, including Erika Rose, Patrick Crowley, and Sharrell D. Lucket, who are leading workshops and dialogues on how to “influence and expand inclusive practices, civility, and social well-being in the performing arts and beyond.” The organizers of the symposium have packed the agenda with heavy-hitters. All who attend should be primed for an engaging, on-your feet series of discussions and activities. The schedule is here. Tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door; free with student, faculty, or staff ID. Fee covers breakfast and lunch.

The 2018 Black Theatre & Dance Symposium is on Saturday, April 14, 2018, at the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland – 2810 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, in College Park, MD. For tickets, register online.


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