From the Desk of the Founder
Shaunda at Studio Museum of Harlem's Last Look.
Artist: Glenn Ligon's Give us a Poem (Palindrome #2)
THE APPROPRIATE TIME TO TELL OUR STORIES IS ALWAYS NOW.
Welcome to DEMASKUS.
I established DEMASKUS theater collective in 2005 with the hope of marrying historic and vivid storytelling with soulful and unapologetically Black and faith-filled work. I deeply wanted to provide an artistic home for artists where they felt just as comfortable failing, as they did accomplishing their highest artistic achievements. I wanted us to be able to do that apart from the gaze of others that would be judging and measuring us (and our art) by a standard established without us in mind from inception. "Who is us?" you might ask. Us is anyone who wasn't thought of, who was excluded, or who had to put on a mask of another culture, value system or prevailing system of beliefs in order to participate in the industry. Us are those who have shared a love-hate with the entertainment world for our entire lives and who have read manifestos like these far more often than they have seen their stories manifested in the world. I was always fully aware that if I wanted to see the stories that reflected my experiences and the experiences of those who raised me (both personally and professionally) I would have to write, produce, present them, myself. Langston Hughes made that very clear in his Note on Commercial Theater - which changed my thought about where and with whom I would work. Very early on, I gave up on trying to earn a living and decided to design a life (a concept I first hear from Pastor A.R. Bernard in a then small church in Brooklyn back in the early 2000s). Over two decades later, a Pittsburgh-based national collective of artists and arts administrators are making known “the messages of the marginalized through quality theatrical productions and presentations." I find the work to be as necessary today as it has always been. Attention to these matters as trending topics do make our work any more important than it ever was. While I mourn the losses we have all endured during this season of COVID-19 and grow weary of the ever-present racism and structural systems of oppression - I am admittedly moved by the current resurgence of global unified movements that remind us that Black Lives Matter, that Black Trans Lives Matter, that we must continue to fight "Por La Raza," and acknowledge the stolen land of indigenous people upon which we daily travail. In Pittsburgh, that land is that of the Osage nation.
In its various iterations, this collective has produced shows in Los Angeles and New York City before taking root in Pittsburgh. As any Founder can attest, it has taken a back seat when I have been preoccupied with other endeavors, or simply too exhausted fighting against powers, rulers of the darkness of this age, and spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places to come home from work, serve my family and then attempt to apply that same creativity in the development of my own new work. However, again, I owe a debt to this time of quarantine and unrest. This time has given me moments of rest and reflection that have drawn me back to myself and the image of God, who was the first to create, in the beginning.
Most Christians will immediately associate demaskus with Damascus--the Syrian capital that is home to the road where Saul of Tarsus had his transformative encounter with God. God struck Saul blind and confronted him about his past. High-born and scholarly, Saul was prone to violence toward early adopters of Christianity. He was a murderer. Prior to God’s visitation on Damascus Road, Saul had been complicit in the death of Stephen, oft characterized as an innocent disciple of early Christianity (See Acts 8 and 9). God caused Saul to examine himself. The collective’s name embodies the idea of revealing the truths that lie beneath the mask(s) of our own blind behavior and beliefs. Art, at its best, helps us to rethink and reimagine that which we think we know. Consciously removing a metaphorical mask certainly requires self-examination. (Based on an exchange with DTC member the Rev. Dr. Leah Lewis, J.D., alluding to Acts 9:1-8)
What mask(s) are you wearing? Does it allow you to "hide [your] cheeks" and "shade [your] eyes" as the "world dreams otherwise"? (Paul Laurence Dunbar). "Is yours one suited for survival, for masquerading behind jealousy, envy, and hate? Is it used defensively or do you don it early in the morning to prepare for the warfare you anticipate?
Perhaps the suffocating feeling we currently experience with real masks we must wear is God's way of reminding us of the way in which our metaphysical masks are currently suffocating and stifling our humanity. Perhaps it is a reflection on how our masks of bias are prohibiting us from living life freely in other ways we are not as aware of.
Whatever the masks we wear, I invite you to lay them down and join us on a journey filled with crossroads, but free from the expectations and oppressive standards of others. Our art is about us, made by us at times and is always for us. There is freedom here. Welcome home.
Founder & Producer
That's one of the beauties of theatre,
it gives us that opportunity for catharsis.
It opens up the dialogue and allows us to discuss our demons. I'm very passionate about this, and the more I talk with people, the more I'm convinced that we need to be having these conversations.
- PA Theatre Guide
with playwright Marilyn Barner Anselmi on You Wouldn't Expect