Two weeks ago, I turned this column over to Orlando artist-activist Stelson Telfort to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and our local theater community. Today, we continue that ongoing conversation with performing artist Meka King, who has teamed up with local author Felichia Chivaughn to host this week's Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy Forum, a free three-day virtual event addressing systemic racism in the area's entertainment industry.
King, a self-described "unicorn" born and raised in Orlando, studied journalism at Chicago's Northwestern University before falling in love with musical theater and moving back home to build a two-decade career singing starring roles in all the major theme parks. Before the forum's first session on July 21 (which was reserved as a safe space for Black industry members only) King shared with me her reasons for bringing the Broadway Advocacy Coalition's #BwayForBLM (bwayforblm.com) forum format to Orlando, and what she hopes the dialogue might accomplish.
"As a Black actress/singer/performer in our area, I don't think there's any one of us that has not had an experience, or has not gone through something. The difference is in this climate, we now have a voice. We are now able to articulate and speak out about things that before we could have been blackballed for, or blacklisted, or deemed difficult to work with. So we've had to silently endure, even if it wasn't blatant racism, because I don't believe that everyone is a racist. But I definitely think there are mentalities and traditions that we built our industry on that are not conducive for equitable working spaces. So we've all had experiences, we've all gone through things that now we are able to say something about.
"We have to acknowledge that this moment is so crucial and so critical, because we can't separate it from the Black Lives Matter movement. The reason why we are able to have these conversations, the reason why anyone's even listening, is because of what's going on at a national level. I can assure you that had we not been nationally locked down, and had we not had the attention on the things that have been so inflammatory – that have been the catalyst for everything that's going on with Black Lives Matter – we would not be having these conversations locally, for sure.
"There are a lot of things that I've felt for a while that needed to be addressed; areas of deep frustration that caused me to even at some point almost say, 'Well, you know, we just need to get our own stuff, we just need to do our own thing.' Stop worrying about trying to fit into spaces that we're not welcomed in. And so I am glad that we are at this moment; I'm glad that the door's open for these discussions, and I'm glad that now we have some leverage to hold people accountable in this way, because things have to change. I think for the most part, Black people don't want to be separated. We don't want to be separatists. Those things come out of not feeling welcome in different spaces, and so we have to reach into ourselves. It's not something that we want to do; it's something that we've been forced to do, and we don't want to continue to be forced to do that.
"I think a lot of people are misunderstanding what the movement is about right now. It's almost as if this mentality, and these traditions, and this way of life is so woven into the American fabric that when you start to dismantle them it feels like you're attacking what's 'American' and 'right' and 'our way.' We're trying to get people to understand that what's been linked to 'America' and what's 'right' and 'our way' has always been wrong. We have an opportunity in this moment in history to change that.
"What we want to do is not say, 'Hey, we want you to give Black people handouts and we want you to lower your standards,' because we don't need you to lower any standards. We've got everything we need, and we come fully equipped to do everything and anything there is to be done in this nation. Particularly when it comes to entertainment, we've got the tools. We're not asking you to hand us anything. We're just saying make sure that the playing field is level, make sure that the spaces are equitable. First of all, make sure that we can get in the door, but then when we get there, make sure that the space is a space that we can be; that we're not having to assimilate into something that is not us, because you own the space.
"I get that some people don't even realize that these things have been wrong, so we need to pull the covers off of that; we need to expose that, and then we need to build from there. And it can't stop there; we've got to hold people accountable, because it's easy to come into these spaces and have all these great intentions and great ideas, and no follow-up. The difference between this forum and just getting together to talk about diversity is that we are definitely having accountability in place that we can measure, benchmark points of action that we can walk away with and measure tangibly after we leave.
"This is not a situation where we're trying to bash anybody or attack anybody, but it will be real; it will be the tough things, it will be the hard conversations. ... It's going to be raw, and people have to come in with an open heart and an open mind, willing to hear the hard things and process them and work towards reconciliation."
(Register to participate in the final two days of CFEAF at eventbrite.com.)