LOS ANGELES — Armed with a notebook embossed with the words "We the People," Celia Mandela Rivera throws open her laptop. These two items are the tools with which she plans to change the Los Angeles theater scene.
"I'm ready to do anti-racist work," she said, smiling as she stood over her dining room table turned office space. The website for BLKLST had gone live just hours before, but Rivera's idea for it goes back a lot further.
Following the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, the actor and director began to reexamine her experiences as an artist of color. She found many instances of both overt and covert racism and misogynoir, or ingrained prejudice against Black women.
"This is why this organization was created," she said. "I created it sobbing. I sat in my living room and I sobbed and I said, 'How do I move in these spaces again?'"
Her friend and fellow performer A'raelle Flynn-Bolden can't even begin to list the microaggressions she's experienced.
"I mean, do we have the time?" she asked rhetorically as the duo shared a knowing look.
Flynn-Bolden said she's always felt limited in the types of roles she was given — "monsters, mothers and men," she said. While she's still processing how it's affected her emotionally and artistically, she knows one thing for sure.
"I don't want anybody to feel like this," she said, "because there are no limits."
This is why the women and a community of diverse contributors decided to pull back the curtain. Scouring public documents and social media pages, they compiled a list — the BLKLST — of over 100 LA theaters, publishing readily available information such as their leadership, finances, and statements expressing support for Black Lives Matter #LeavingLASA.
The list even includes the "receipts" – links to the original posts, "saying that they were here to stand in solidarity and work with the Black and brown community," Rivera said. "And now we are saying, 'Remember?'"
She hopes they do, but she also recognizes that attention spans are short, and the pandemic has gone on longer than anyone expected. After being closed for 18 months, theaters may have shifted their focus to post-pandemic reopening.
"And that's OK," she smiled, "because I am here and my organization is here as a reminder of that work and to say, you know, we're watching."
And they will continue to do so. In addition to the BLKLST, the group – a "diverse collective of LA theatre artists" – published the LA Anti-Racist Theatre Standards – or LA ARTS.
"We are calling upon all Los Angeles theatre institutions to live up to their promise of lasting, true, foundational change," their prologue reads, and they are giving theaters of all sizes and budgets three works to commit to a set of standards. The focus is on areas where they think there can be actionable change, like what stories theater companies choose to tell, who they choose to work with, and how they treat those artists, specifically artists from marginalized communities. They also call on theater companies to examine their overall culture and to aim for greater transparency by creating a "company-specific, anti-racism policy," and publishing it on their website.
Once they commit, the countdown clock resets, giving them four months to make some progress and present evidence of those changes. This will be the first of an ongoing series of regular check-ins.
Flynn-Bolden said the BLKLST isn't about rebuilding Rome in a day but rather taking it "one step at a time."
"I mean, that's all we can ask for is a commitment to the work," she added.
"And I would add that the expectation is high, because it's important and that they should have already been doing these things," Rivera chimed in.
Those who don't adopt the standards or work to make progress on them….well, those details will be published, not in an attempt to shame, Rivera said, but to inform.
"Our organization is about transparency and we'll just be transparent about their lack of communication," she said.
Rivera and her cohorts have been creating BLKLST and the actual list for a year, but now, they say, the real work begins. All of the members are volunteering their time and talents to this effort. They intend to keep doing so until they've established a new normal of equity and safety and recast the LA theater scene and leadership to be more representative of the community and their patrons.