Setting a New Table
Faith Zamblé ’23 talks with the 2020 Yale Summer Cabaret team about the transformation of their season.
Left to right: Christopher Betts ’22, Alex Keegan ’22, Jason Gray ’23, Sami Cubias ’23, and Carl Hovick ’22.
March is a verb—one that speaks of purpose, clarity, and direction. Yet, for many of us, March was also a month that froze us in place, alongside our memories of life before The Virus. We watched in confusion, then shock, then sadness, as the restaurants, bookstores and cultural institutions we knew and loved came to screeching halts. For theater artists whose work depends on analog audience response and unmitigated closeness, the pandemic created a particular existential crisis. What is theater without disparate humans in space together? Determined to find out, we tried to adapt theater for the virtual realm. Most of all, we looked for ways to transmit the feeling of live performance—in all its sparkling unpredictability—through our screens. And then, Breonna Taylor was murdered. George Floyd was murdered. Tony McDade was murdered. All by police officers. We paused for a second time. Different, more uncomfortable, questions began to surface. Whose lives matter? And in our field, we must face a historic culture of anti-Blackness and confront how the American theater has neglected the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists.
This year’s Summer Cabaret tried to answer those questions by seeking a way through political unrest and social distance to find something that felt real and communal. The season, aptly called “MEZA” (meaning “table” in Swahili) was a manifesto and a challenge rolled into one. Because, while this particular summer season focused its energy on setting a welcoming table around which the Cabaret community could have challenging conversations, the leadership team is well aware that the “theater table” was long overdue for some reconfiguration.
Perhaps this is why, by all accounts, Summer Cabaret’s pre-COVID form was incredibly ambitious. In addition to showcasing original work, the team hoped to facilitate new play development workshops, alongside robust youth education programs. They planned a musical for young audiences and were prepared to produce a dramatic trilogy as well, all with goal of encouraging community and in-person engagement. The pandemic, of course, upended everything. But, when I spoke to the Summer Cabaret leadership team, it seemed their fundamental vision remained the same, and in fact, had become even sharper. Jason Gray ’23, one of three managing directors, put it simply and beautifully saying, “The pandemic created a commonality of need. We’re all hurting; how can we offer something positive?”
Once they realized a “normal” season would be out of the question, the Summer Cab team did what many regional theaters often do not have the resources (and sometimes the courage) to do: it adapted. They stepped back and asked, as Co-Artistic Director Alex Keegan ’22 told me, “How can we serve? How can we bring joy into people’s homes?” The result was a season framed entirely around BIPOC storytelling, focused on “process over product.” Statements of solidarity are well and good, but as Managing Director Sami Cubias ’23 adds, “We had the ability to respond immediately. We could just do!” This meant paying writers and actors to participate in three play development workshops and continuing to deploy teaching artists to work with young students via Zoom. It also fueled a shared feeling of responsibility to use the Cabaret’s privilege as a Yale-affiliated institution to support—and compensate—artists.
Carl Holvick ’22 sums up the team’s ethos this way, saying, “We are theater artists who have our hands tied behind our back, but are still finding ways to do something meaningful.” He’s right, and the implications of the season extend beyond the financial or formal elements of production. Co-Artistic Director Christopher Betts ’22 explains, “I want Black people to be able to see themselves in the work.” By focusing its efforts on creating an inclusive Black-led theater, the Summer Cabaret was intent on setting a new table, in spite of all the odds. And that is something to celebrate.