City Dramaturge Tunde Adefioye on Intersectionality in the Theatre Landscape

In the 80s, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law and Critical Race Theory at Columbia University as well as UCLA, conceived the term intersectionality in order to better encompass the discriminatory situation women of colour were facing. In response to courts at the time, she argued that it was not sufficient to look at these women’s gender or their ethnicity, but that in order to gain a more representative view of their circumstances, one had to observe the intersection of their identities. The assumption that is often made here is that everyone is similarly situated. This allows for the exclusion of important factors and diminishes the role societal structures have played in a person’s position in life. For example, some would acknowledge that there are not enough female theatre makers in Belgian society. They would, however, not acknowledge that this may have more to do with structures of inequality than with women’s “inability” to make theatre, thus leading to the low number of women who are making theatre or are represented at the large theatre bastions here. Intersectionality would go even steps further, considering the factors that keep women of colour from these institutions. An analysis of the programming is of key importance here, excavating the issues that are withheld from the debate. Explained by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is “not primarily about identity, it is about how structures make certain ideas the consequence of the vehicle for vulnerability ...”. What needs to be taken into account, then, is both the context as well as the institutional structures that contribute to the exclusion of some people in relation to others.

Crenshaw’s definition derives from critical race theory and questions who has access to participate whole-heartedly in society as well as create knowledge. Knowledge that is valorised within greater society. There is an implied “neutrality” in terms of some knowledge and creation of that knowledge. A reference point that all else is judged by. So seeing a piece by a certain white male theatre "hero" becomes the reference we judge the quality of other productions by. So when we see a piece by someone else, let's say a woman of colour, and conclude that "this is not as good as the earlier piece by the theatre hero", what we do not stop to reflect on is the distribution of resources. What are the aspects that led to the “greatness” of the piece we are comparing it to? Are there disparities that need to be taken into consideration? Furthermore a redistribution of resources needs to occur in drastic ways. What collective history has led to the “greatness” achieved? What sets of privileges have been established that allows one to ascend up the ladder while another faces obstacles along each rang of the ladder? 

Also, cultural institions, art critics and funding agencies need to recalibrate the way they measure the quality of a cultural product as well as who is considered good enough to grace the spaces of “high art” institutions.

What does a body/face look like when they are dealing with patriarchy, sexism, transphobia, and poverty? As a cultural institution or organisation, it is incumbent on us to familiarise ourselves with these and other types of oppressions if we want to better support individuals and their art practices even if they are dealing with these multiple intersecting obstacles. Efforts to break the mould and to sensibilise, to educate both oneself and institutions will result in a gold mine of creations that explore the depth of beings and groups of people. It will allow for new types of productions to be made that take us to corners of the theatre and cultural world that we never imagined possible.

In a recent interview at the wow festival in London, Angela Davis mentioned that we have to continue to look for new terms beyond intersectionality. In other words, we have to strive to create the terminologies that best capture our convoluted existence. By better understanding the intersections of people’s realities, we as a theatre are also more capable of making theatre more accessible to individuals from different communities by working with them. Not only to have those individuals attend the theatre as audience members but also to have them eventually create theatre that expands our understanding of society.