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MN VOICES | Jack Reuler and Mixed Blood Theater
In the converted old firehouse that the Mixed Blood Theater calls home, audiences can see diverse ensembles collaborating for a common purpose: To perform high quality, socially conscious theater. But much of Mixed Blood's programming happens offstage. They also hold performances in schools, churches, offices, and juvenile detention centers. It's all part of founder Jack Reuler's vision that theater can effect powerful change when it is part of a collaborative, grassroots effort. Reuler's activism earned him a recent nomination for the Facing Race Ambassador award, which honors those "who excel in creating opportunities for people of all races to understand the impact of racism."
I spoke with Reuler in a sunny rehearsal room at the Mixed Blood about his 33 years with Mixed Blood.
I read that you were inspired to start the theater by MLK's dream. I was struck by your initiative to devote your life to enacting a part of that dream. Can you tell me a little bit about how you started out?
I started right out of Macalester, but there actually was a sort of provoking incident. At the time the melting pot theory was kind of the prevailing racial politics of the moment. That's not where I was and that's not where I perceived Dr. King had been. At that time Theater in The Round had a production of "The Great White Hope," And there was an actor who played the lead in that named Ernie Hudson. Theater in the Round had always been a community, volunteer theater. After the four-week run they wanted to extend the show and he said, 'Well, I've done the volunteer activity that I committed to and if we're going to extend the run because of popularity then I'd like to be compensated.' So they said, 'No no we're just a community theater nobody ever gets paid,' and he said, 'Well, then, I think I won't continue on.'
The media picked up on what probably in retrospect was more of an economically based issue and turned it into a racial issue. But the point was made that there was a lack of opportunity for the professional theater artists of color to make a living in the Twin Cities. That combined with where I was in my own personal politics and racial politics, and my job at the Center for Community Action, all conspired together for me to say 'Here's a program I'd like to try.'
It was really just going to be the summer of 1976. 1976 was America's 200th birthday, the bicentennial. The vision I had for this theater and what it was going to look like was, and remains, completely in keeping with the ideals of America, so I got some bicentennial funds. I got three little pots of money. I didn't know a thing about what I was doing. I hired twenty-three people for ten weeks and we did six plays in ten weeks as well as converted this old firehouse. We've been here ever since then. It was really a summer project run amok, and 33 years later I'm still here.
What was the atmosphere like, around movements for racial justice in particular, at that point when you graduated? Do you think your initiative toward activism was unique among your peers?
I think that people who were products of that time imagine themselves great idealists. But when Richard Nixon got elected for president the second time and George McGovern lost by such a landslide, to me this is where something happened. There became a shift from 'We can change things in the grass roots movement' to 'We can change things by proximity to those in positions of power.' That was really a substantial change, and I did not make that shift.
But as I look backwards at what the baby boomers have done, that really continues to be the thing: If you know the person in power, then maybe you can get something done, rather than if you assemble masses of people with a common mindset, then you can accomplish things, probably more successfully. That was in '72, and by '76, when the theater started, I don't know that that idealism was pervasive. When I look at the careers so many of my peers went into, and how they enjoyed the promise of Reaganomics and times after that-I'm a little disappointed in them.
Now, as we've gotten to be in our 50s, I think those same people who had ideals but traded them for comfort and now have comfort, are coming back to their ideals, and doing so with greater authenticity and sincerity.
How did you become interested in Martin Luther King?
My interest in Martin Luther King started when I was about nine. Because of my initials: my nickname is J.R. I was just sitting around the TV with a babysitter and I heard a speech and they said 'I'd like to introduce the honorable Martin Luther King J.R.' Well, J.R. stood for Junior but I thought the TV was talking to me, and I was like, 'J.R.! I'll listen.'
I listened to that speech. I was nine years old and I'd just become a devotee of what he was doing, and remain so to this day. I find him to be more prescient in 2009 than I did in 1976. What he had to say was so timeless.
Where did you grow up?
My family has lived for five generations in the Twin Cities. My father got transferred to Kankakee, Illinois, which literally had a train track and black people lived on one side of the track and white people lived on the other. When we went to school everybody merged, and then after school we went back to our little Jim Crow world, even though it was post Jim Crow time.
Were you ever a theater person in school?
No, I planned to be a vet. I transferred to Macalester from Pomona College to follow a high school girlfriend.
Did you have an interest in theater before then?
I had an interest in the drama teacher's daughter! [Laughing] That was the high school friend that I came back for. So I did some theater. I would be like, the third spear holder on the left. But I do have an interest as an audience member.
To this day my favorite part of theater is being an audience member. I am not an actor. I never was an actor. Even recently a theater asked me to audition for a play and I was like, 'I will put you out of business! Don't do that to yourself!'
Did you always have an interest in anti-racism efforts?
During college I was with a group that was involved in anti-racism efforts, but even from the time I was nine, issues of anti-racism and racial politics were a part of who I was.
You've said, "Theater, working in tandem with like-minded organizations and active individuals can become the straw that breaks the camel's back, with the camel being the many 'isms' that plague our society." How does that happen and what kind of work goes into making that happen?
I do believe in the power of theater to be transformative as a tool for social change if we work with other organizations that are trying to do the same thing in different ways. It's that grassroots effort where we can really impact change. We can be a mouthpiece for others and they can be a mouthpiece for us and we can change not just attitudes but behavior and policy. If we do all three of those things, then you actually have some sort of tidal shift, whether it's huge or teeny.
The power of theater for change.
There's a program called 'Entertraining' where we go to different work places. So the managed health care systems which are traditionally very competitive with one another came together and said, 'We want to treat violence as a healthcare issue, not a law enforcement issue. What do we do?' And usually when we have these meetings they say, 'Here's how we see this happening, now translate that into theater,' but this time they didn't. With us they said, 'What do we do?' And of course when you have major managed health care issues, who do you go to but a theater person? [Laughing].
So we conducted a series of focus groups with victims of violence and perpetrators of violence and emergency room workers and law enforcement -- just a whole battery of things, and created a play called Ring of Fire. It really was about opportunities and missed opportunities of the health care profession to detect and prevent violence, and that it wasn't an urban, suburban, or rural issue. It crossed over class and culture and race. We did this play for two hospitals in one week, Unity and Mercy. We did it for one and then when we came to the next hospital two or three days later. It was mostly done for hospital and health care professionals but these two performances also had a public component to them.
A person came to me and said, 'I was at the show two days ago. My daughter was in a violent relationship and I talked to her and I got her out of that relationship and now she's in this better place. She's in a shelter, and she's taking steps forward with her life.' Now here's a play that really changed an individual's life, who took action and went and made this change and that's kind of worth a career right there.
So if you ever go to the doctor now-- and this is really back to that straw that breaks the camel's back thing -- they say to you, 'Do you feel safe in your home? Is there any violence in your world?'
Up until the time of that effort to deal with violence as a health care issue, people were just so clinical that if you came in for you tonsils, they looked at your tonsils. But now, as a matter of course at virtually every visit to every doctor, they'll say, 'Is there violence or abuse in your life that you want to talk about?' And I feel like that was our little piece of that straw that broke that camel's back that now lets people have a forum in which to talk about violence in their world.
So thinking about the different 'isms' that you're talking about, do you think that you can approach them separately or are they all interrelated?
Well, they're all about some sort of power imbalances.
Any time a person of any difference comes on stage-- whether it's a person of color, or a person with a disability-- comes on stage or on screen in America it's a political statement. They become political stages....
This year on three different dates-- when Obama clinched the nomination, on election day, and on inauguration day -- I got probably half a dozen calls on each of those days from different people saying, 'Now can you close your doors, declare victory, mission accomplished?' And I was like, 'Come on,' but there is a sort of national mindset that somehow we've moved beyond race. And you know that's caca.
Successful pluralism is that healthy tension between unity and diversity with a small 'd.' It is when large numbers of people with differences can come together without any single group being dominant. How will we know when that's the case? We can see it in little ways in little places all the time.
How is a theater called Mixed Blood different from an all female or all black or all Native American theater?
We live at the intersection of all of those, but we don't overlap them. We are a part of what that is. And what's interesting is that there really is a mainstream theater and then there's the margin. A lot of the margin has a really wannabe mindset to them, but I really enjoy living at the center of the margins. I think the margins are much more exciting, and I consider us our own industry.... We have no interest in being the Guthrie, nor do we feel that they have the money or material or talent or facilities that we want. ... Our competition as theaters is not each other. It's really the mouse and the remote, and getting people to go out to see something live.
How has being involved affected you?
I think that I can be one of Mixed Blood's greatest liabilities. Being white is my cross to bear in an organization like this. I know that and I don't take it lightly....
I surround myself with really smart and talented people to make sure the organization moves forward in smart and talented ways to realize the mission. ... A mission is actually something to accomplish. It's not something with which to raise money. ...
I'm very cognizant of 'founder's syndrome' that happens in nonprofits. You do things and you go, 'This is how we do them and it works, so we're gonna keep doing them.' I mean really for me it's all about continually changing. We in theater say that theater can be transformative and we in theater say it's a vehicle for social change, but I want to actually figure out how to measurably quantify that so we can really show that this theater led to these changes. I think we've really done that with some of our training programs. We actually can see policy shifts. I want to do that across all our programs. I want to try to really create tools that I think will serve the field, they won't just serve us.
Also just aspiring to absolute excellence. Nobody ever said they don't want a good play well done but we really want to, in certain areas, reach for the pinnacles.
It's really been interesting over the 33 years to see how what we do has come in and out of vogue over and over again, I mean there was a time when pluralism was just fluff. I just said 'What we are doing is an American ideal. We need to stay with it even if it's not popular even when it denies us certain things in the long haul.'
To me principles and purpose should precede survival. If we go out of business one day because we ran out of money, we'll do it on our own terms, not because we've been pandering.
Jane Biliter (janebiliter [at] gmail [dot] com) is a recent graduate of Macalester College and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.
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©2009 Jane Biliter