This Tuesday on June 9, Persephone Theatre’s artistic director of the past 12 years Del Surjik resigned following a week-long controversy surrounding the local theatre.
“Change is needed at Persephone, and for that change to have real meaning, it has to begin at the highest leadership level of the theatre,” reads Surjik’s resignation statement on the Persephone Theatre’s website.
The controversy began a week before when Persephone, who had not yet made a statement about the Black Lives Matter protests, posted a black square with no caption on their social media.
The theatre’s post was meant to participate in the #BlackOutTuesday online movement in which non-Black social media users are encouraged to stay silent online on Tuesdays in order to lift up the Black community.
This was not how Persephone’s post was received.
“How are you as a company going silent for blackout Tuesday when you have not really been vocal about anything?” commented actress and former Persephone staff member Yvonne Emmanuel on the theatre’s post.
In the time since, many artists have spoken up online about racism happening within the walls of the theatre going back many years.
“The controversy wasn’t around the blackout Tuesday post,” says former staff member Logan Martin-Arcand. “It was about the hypocrisy of the Persephone co-opting a movement to appear as if they stand for Black and Indigenous people of colour voices when … we saw that that was not the case.”
Emmanuel’s comment and the conversation she started was then deleted by the Persephone along with their post. Emmanuel says she was also blocked and muted from further commenting on their page. The theatre has since said that the post was deleted in error.
Far from shutting down the conversation, Persephone’s deletion of the post inflamed the online outrage about people’s experiences with racism within the theatre.
Emmanuel, who took to her own Facebook to discuss the situation, says she is done staying silent about the racism she witnessed while working at the theatre’s box office and on their 2018 production of Pride and Prejudice.
“I never spoke about it before just because when things happen you’re more scared about working and you keep quiet,” she said. “It’s always brushed to the side and I was not going to allow this situation to be brushed aside.”
Emmanuel and Martin-Arcand led a meeting this Monday with some of the Persephone Theatre’s directors, board and staff, to communicate to the theatre their shortcomings in supporting their staff of colour.
Martin-Arcand says that he experienced an “overall toxic culture” throughout his time working at the Persephone Theater.
“I felt powerless to speak up to the patrons, but also to report the racism of the patrons to the higher ups,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, Emmanuel and Martin-Arcand asked for Surjik and another Persephone staff leader’s resignation from the company.
“We felt like they were no longer capable or right for the company, to move it forward to be better,” Emmanuel said. “We just need change.”
To Martin-Arcand’s view, Persephone has long been “a white theatre organization,” with mostly white staff, patrons and plays, and no support for the people of colour in their community.
In addition to request for the leaders’ resignations, Emmanuel and Martin-Arcand also asked for a public code of conduct, community outreach to curve the theatre’s mostly-white audience and staff, and a reexamination of every current staff member to ensure their willingness to react to racial injustice, among other things.
With Surjik’s subsequent resignation, Martin-Arcand feels hopeful that the theatre will take a new direction.
“This is only the first step to fixing a broad problem,” he said. “We will continue to hold them accountable and demand that Persephone be a space for all, and not just a space for some as it currently is.”
“We will be reassessing our recruitment plan for every position in the organization,” says Nikki Hipkin, chair of the Persephone board of directors. “We’ll be looking at ways that we can more actively recruit artists and arts administrators from Indigenous, Black, people of colour communities.”
Surjik looks forward to seeing how Persephone will evolve after his departure.
“Now, given the urgency of this moment in our society, it’s clear that the best thing I can do to help Persephone move forward is to step aside and make room,” his resignation statement reads. “I welcome the coming change, but I am not the right person to make it happen.”
These conversations have been happening for a long time with no results before now, says Yulissa Campos, one of the three non-white staff members at the Persephone Theatre. What has changed is that “it’s just happening at the right moment and the right time” and people are paying attention.
“There hasn’t been this support before. And now due to the Black Lives Matter movement and the current protests happening in North America and around the world — it has encouraged people,” Campos says. “It only takes one person sometimes, and the rest will follow.”