"Space Pirates," a musical adventure in cyberspace (DRT, 2/2012)

Defining Our Terms for Oppression

POWER = the ability to make and act on decisions consistently over time.

OPPRESSION = the unequal distribution of power based on identity in terms of race, ethnicity, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability

RACISM = systemically inadequate access to power based on racial identity. (In the United States, this oppression has historically been imposed by former European Caucasians, “Whites,” to disempower and control former Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas as slaves, ”Blacks.”) 

PREJUDICE = An opinion formed without knowledge or experience of someone or something; predisposition to regard a person or group negatively. Irrational dislike.

BIAS = A positive or a negative prejudice.

SYSTEMIC = Institutionalized; affecting the whole body

INSTITUTIONALIZED = Established as normal. Dependent on the routine of the institution and vice versa

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Being intentional

Our mission commits DRT to being intentionally multi-racial, multi-ethnic & intergenerational. Being intentional means we have a working definition of our terms and make an ongoing examination of the challenges of systemic oppression in United States history and culture. With these tools, we develop and implement strategies for addressing the problems of oppression as we encounter them within the work of our growing institution.

"THE INDEPENDENTBack-Talk to the Editor by DRT artistic director, Jennifer Justice, Sept. 2013


During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, a clear definition of oppression came into popular use among theorists, activists and policy makers; it continues to be a reliable guide for anyone seeking ways to talk about race that put the action in the present based on a shared understanding of the past. The definition is especially useful for organizations wishing to institute long-term, effective remedies for the historic impacts of race in the United States. It presents a practical definition of racism that naturally, logically, leads to positive action.


Unequal and inadequate access to physical and financial resourcesUnequal and inadequate access to informationUnequal and inadequate access to decision-making processes; Unequal and inadequate access to setting behavior normsUnequal and inadequate access to material and human tools necessary to accomplish goalsUnequal and inadequate access to relationships with people who make decisions about our lives

The List continues, emanating from understanding “Power” as “the ability to make and act on decisions consistently over time,” and considering what we need access to if we are to act on our decisions.

With these definitions we can begin to consider pointed questions, such as “how can we support the ability of all people to make and act on decisions over time in our organization.” And we can act to effect positive change.  


Example One:

Observed Systemic Impact of Race and Class: Children from financially challenged families are less likely to act on the decision to take an acting class that could improve reading skills, social skills, public speaking skills, problem solving, group decision making, group cooperation, cultural awareness …

Transforming Impact Action: DRT adopted a policy of absolute financial access to all educational programs and shows. No one is ever turned away from DRT due to lack of financial resources. Following on the success of this policy in attracting financially challenged families to our classes and summer theatre camps, we began an active program of “Lifetime Scholarship Families.” 


 Example Two: 

Observed Systemic Impact of Race and Class: By our third year, DRT had noticed a pattern in working with students in the Department of Theatre and Dance at North Carolina Central University (a historically black college (HBC.) Throughout rehearsals and performances, the issue of inadequate access to financial resources negatively impacted the students’ ability to get experience in their chosen field of work, i.e. students who are taking a full load of classes and working a full-time job to pay for college, housing and food (and sometimes help support their family too,) find it nearly impossible to add play rehearsals and performances to their schedules. 

Transforming Impact Actions: DRT pays technical theatre students to run lights and sound for our Main Stage shows. In 2014 we instituted an annual apprenticeship grant, named after an NCCU acting student who passed away not long after performing with DRT Main Stage. The Devonté Squire Apprenticeship pays $ 1,200 to an NCCU acting student to rehearse and perform in a DRT Main Stage production. The apprenticeship position and requirements were written in cooperation with NCCU acting and directing professors, and with the chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. The NCCU partners also attend the apprenticeship auditions and make recommendations on the choice of student.


Example Three: 

Observed Systemic Impact of Race and Class: Poverty destabilizes modern families, causing attention to be diverted from children when they need help developing vital learning skills in areas such as reading, social interaction and speech. There is an observable impact on skills such as the lowered ability to anticipate and problem-solve plot elements and discomfort at finding words to describe an experience. 

Transforming Impact Action: DRT wrote language-development curriculums to help fill the educational gap poverty causes in children. Consulting with schools and parents, to date we have three different curriculum formats* positively impacting language skills in all our students, including two 8-week classes - Story-Theatre from World Folklore for 5-8 year-olds and Actors & Inventors for 9-12 year-olds - and A Play A Day Theatre Camps for 5 – 12 year-olds. Each different curriculum focuses on vital language development needs such as structuring information, identifying emotions with physical responses, expressing emotions and ideas, vocabulary building, understanding character differences and individual/group problem solving.

*Curriculums authored by DRT artistic director, Jennifer Justice