Tyee Tilghman
Tyee Tilghman
Courtesy of the artist

Should Actors Join NFL Players in Taking a Knee for Justice?

With dozens of sports figures recently following Colin Kaepernick's example in taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality, the Denver arts community may be ready to follow.

Many theater-goers will remember actor Tyee Tilghman for his terrific performances on local stages, including Curious Theatre Company, the Denver Center and the now-defunct Paragon, before his move to Los Angeles in 2010. On Sunday, he posted a long piece on Facebook, explaining why he chose to take a knee during the curtain call at the end of his current show, Skeleton Crew, at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"I have reached the end of my rope," he writes in the post, adding that both his parents, as well as his uncles, brothers and cousins, served in the military.

"I am truly fucking tired of hearing people say that kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful to those that have lost their lives serving this great nation," he continues. "My father would be disappointed in me for not exercising my constitutional right to STAND UP for what I believe in, in the way in which I see fit."

Tilghman's full post reads:

If you know me, you know I am a pretty moderate person and try to look at things from all sides. But I have reached the end of my rope.

I took a knee today during my bow at my show.

If you in any way call yourself my friend, then I hope you read this and you listen. Both of my parents, my uncles, brothers, cousins have served this nation in the military. They love this country. I love this country. They respect the lives of their brothers and sisters that have been lost. I am truly fucking tired of hearing people say that kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful to those that have lost their lives serving this great nation. My father would be disappointed in me for not exercising my constitutional right to STAND UP for what I believe, in the way in which I see fit.

People are kneeling because they know fathers, brothers, uncles, sisters, daughters, mothers who have lost their lives under the flag that is supposed to protect them. It doesn't matter how much money they make, or what their background is, they are doing what they believe is right.

And if I hear another white person say that they should be grateful for their jobs or that they need to shut the fuck up and go do something in their community instead of on the national stage ... WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU DONE TO HELP THESE COMMUNITIES THAT SHOULD ALSO BE YOURS! Stop fucking separating yourselves and saying that this is a problem for blacks because if you truly love this country and your brothers and sisters are crying out for help, then why are you not standing up to help them. You don't want them on their knee for the national anthem? Then really listen to why they are down there so you can help them get up. Stand up for the injustices they feel instead of mocking them being on their knees.

I take a knee because my uncle was spit on every day he went to school by white boys and girls while the nuns and priests and teachers at his school did nothing, because my WHITE grandmother almost got her mixed race children taken away by a social worker because she married a black man and he was dangerous, I kneel because my Jewish wife had a man tell her to her face that she was dating a bottom feeder fish and she was of a higher caliber because of her skin, because I have had friends' family members call me a nigger TO MY FACE while I sat in fellowship with them at their dining room table, because black men and women are losing their lives and we want to talk about it and you are IGNORING US.

I love this country, and I am tired of being disrespected by people who don't want to actually listen to WHY we are doing what we are doing and instead call us people that hate this country and need to get our shit together and show respect to the flag.

And as far as the flag not being the president, and we should separate out feelings ... he is the leader of this nation. He is supposed to be the ultimate respresentation of what this country stands for, so his statements or lack of statements about what is going on are an actual representation of what this nation is supposed to stand for, because WE elected him our leader.

If you are my friend, then don't offer me a fucking apology for my feelings and say that it's hard out here. Put up. Or shut up. I no longer have time or patience to entertain your fragility when the bias exists and you refuse to look at it. 

The post earned many comments from Denver theater people who thought of doing something similar, wondered if it would be presumptuous for white actors to take a knee, or appropriate to do that if the play were a comedy or a fundraiser.

"Denver is where I figured out who I was as an artist and the kind of work I wanted to do," comments Tilghman, who adds that he's always appreciated Curious Theatre's focus on community dialogue.

As for his action at the end of Skeleton Crew, "I wish I could say there was a major effect," he says. "There were some audience members who acknowledged that, shouting when I did it. I did it more in reaction to how I was feeling about things I had been reading and hearing all day. It was a personal moment for me. The cast as a whole raised our fists in a black power salute at the end."

Some people who commented on his post wondered if an audience would recognize the symbolism of going down on one knee.

"Not everybody's going to understand the context, and that's fine. If you don't get it, that's unfortunate, but if you are the kind of person that cares, you're going to find out why and seek out the information," says Tilghman. "That's the kind of thing people should be doing. One of the reasons I've been so upset is people talking less about why it's being done or support for the recognition of inequality and that it needs to stop. I wouldn't say I expect everyone to be doing this at every single performance of every show, but taking a moment to recognize the struggle people are going through is important, and if we love this country, we should all be doing that in one way or another. Theater is supposed to be a venue for social change; that is why we do it.

"If you see an injustice, it's your duty to stand up and do something about it," he adds.

As to whether actors should take a knee when they're in a comedy or fundraiser, Tilghman says, "That's the perfect time to do it. The protest is not supposed to happen in a place where it's comfortable; that's not the time for it. You're supposed to hear it when you're not ready – at a fundraiser where everyone's laughing and talking.

"I am excited for the possibility of what this protest can do for this country. I'm glad the conversation is happening on a national stage and people can't deny it."

Actor-director Mare Trevathan, who works with Boulder's Local Theater Company, has done a fair amount of soul-searching since reading Tilghman's post. She is still deciding whether or not to take a knee on stage herself.

"I found Tyee initiating this really moving," she says. "It hadn't occurred to me. What has been occurring to me since Kaepernick started kneeling around a year ago was how little visual support there was from white teammates until just recently. I'm also struck by the many pictures from NFL games in which there's this clear fault-line between the kneeling black players and the coaches and managers, who are largely white, standing with linked arms."

Though the latter are in support, "it's not a great visual, a bunch of white people standing, with black people kneeling," Trevathan adds. "Also, what it shows officially is that the people in power are white. That's nothing new, but it's another visual reinforcement of what Kaepernick's original impulse is about."

She's been wondering how to incorporate her insights into her own work, "whether responding, 'I want to kneel with you' is appropriate or whether it's appropriating a symbol born of black America. I'm still processing this and gathering opinions, but I think what I'm hearing from black theater friends is that spreading the symbol out and having people in positions of privilege helping doesn't feel like appropriating, but appropriate. I've also thought about a comment from a white friend saying the curtain call is not the place for this because it can be seen as antagonistic toward the audience. But what I do know is that white people doing nothing in fear of causing offense is not helping us dig out of this problem. We all have to start at where we're at and use the tools available to us."

Jamil Jude
Jamil Jude
Courtesy Curious Theatre Company

Jamil Jude, who directed Curious's scorching production of Appropriate (playing through October 14) is also associate artistic director at Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre in Atlanta.

"Ironically," he says, "my artistic director took a knee last night during our curtain speech. The company is dedicated to multiculturalism, so the action "fit the content of the work we're doing. But, yes, let's have a moment where we fight back and support the bravery of these athletes to stand up to what they see as wrong — not only oppression of people of color and police brutality, but when someone tries to squelch their First Amendment rights.

"We work in the arts. We work with symbols. And the receiver is going to take whatever they want from those symbols," Jude continues. "But I would love to see casts unite on deciding, 'What do we want this symbol to mean for us?' – each cast deciding how they're going to contextualize the symbol. When someone asks why you took a knee, being able to articulate why is important: Are you speaking about white privilege, unfair policing, the achievement gap in public schools? What are you pushing out against? I think that would be very strong.

"And I don't believe there's a time and a place," he adds. "The time is always right for justice."

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