Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Oct. 21, 2020

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Allegations of bias upend leadership at Vancouver’s Magenta Theater

Founder left nonprofit group after allegations of racism

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published:

A few weeks ago, any underlying history of racial tension at Magenta Theater was just that: underlying, simply simmering.

Today, complaints of racism and bias that have erupted in all areas of American life — from streets and parks to police precincts and even the Vancouver Public Schools board — have also disrupted this town’s nonprofit community theater.

Founder and artistic director Jaynie Roberts, the friendly public face of Magenta Theater for nearly two decades, has resigned from the organization after a group complained to Magenta’s board of directors about her involvement in a racially charged Facebook conversation.

After the group demanded Roberts’ ouster, the Magenta board asked Roberts to step down temporarily and take racial sensitivity training. Roberts instead chose to quit the nonprofit organization that she launched in 2002 and labored to build into Vancouver’s premiere local theater.

“I decided to comply with (the complainants’) demand,” Roberts told The Columbian by email in late June. “It was apparent to me … that my remaining would have interfered with Magenta’s ability to take the necessary steps to diversify and be more reflective of our community.”

After Roberts resigned, the board received a complaint from Leann Johnson, a Black woman with a three-decade career running equity-and-inclusion programs for public agencies. Johnson was involved in Magenta for about a decade, but said she ended up leaving the theater due to her interactions with Roberts.

Tim Neill, president of Magenta’s board of directors, responded in his email exchange with Johnson that her Magenta backstory “is valuable information and is helping us in making sure we are on the right path to reconciliation. … (W)e are going to purposely work on repairing our relationship with people who have been harmed by Jaynie’s actions and prejudices.”

That exchange took place after Neill and the Magenta board had already issued a statement about Roberts’ resignation. They pledged to look “at our own failings and blind spots. … As a board, we will participate in and show a commitment to organizational leadership and diversity/sensitivity training that will help us to understand and eliminate existing prejudices, biases, disparities and inequities within our community. We are committed to learning, growing and changing in order to become partners of equality and justice.”

To help with that effort and prove goodwill, the group that called for Roberts’ ouster made a $600 donation to Magenta’s diversity efforts.

“Twenty-five of us raised that in one day and it was exciting to see,” said Linda Otton, part of that group. “They need to do this, and we know nonprofits don’t have unlimited funds. We want to say that we see Magenta moving in the right direction, and we support that.”

Like many other American institutions, arts organizations have plunged into racial controversies in recent weeks. Museums, galleries and theaters from New York to Los Angeles have spoken out and made rapid changes, or felt heat for failing to do so. On June 9, the same day that Magenta announced Roberts’ departure, 300 prominent Black and other minority American thespians, from “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to popular TV star Viola Davis, published an open letter declaring that “White American theater” is overdue for change.

“You are all a part of this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy,” the statement says. “And this is a house that will not stand.”

Outbreak

In November 2019, Jaynie Roberts’ daughter, an alumnus of Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, reposted a graphic on Facebook entitled “Nine Facts About Slavery They Don’t Want You To Know.” The list is easily traced to a blog touting itself as combating “anti-white” racism. Roberts’ daughter (who did not respond to The Columbian’s requests for comment) was chided online.

When racial protests broke out across America this spring, controversy over the “Nine Facts” post erupted online again. This time Jaynie Roberts participated, getting defensive on behalf of her daughter.

“What on earth is racist about posting historical facts,” she wrote. She also accused one friend of her daughter, a person of color, of not being “a true friend” after all.

The VSAA Alumni Association Facebook page was flooded with angry reactions, which spilled onto the Magenta Theater page. That page is now inactive, but a statement from Jaynie Roberts remains there — plus hundreds of comments.

“I mistakenly took as a chart of historical facts” what her daughter posted, Roberts wrote on June 4. She said she didn’t realize that the original repost came from her daughter. The strong local backlash clarified her mistakes, she wrote.

“I love my daughter unconditionally, but I also realize my job as a parent is lifelong,” Roberts wrote. If she had understood the whole picture, she said, “I would have taken steps to address it with my daughter. I know my heart, and while my words may sometimes be misplaced, they are never knowingly spoken out of hate.”

That’s not good enough for Lisa Barsotti, the friend criticized by Roberts. Barsotti was eager to accept sincere personal apologies and move on, she told The Columbian, but none ever came. Instead, she was blocked from posting on various Roberts’ accounts.

“Now is the time for all of us to learn and take responsibility for our past actions and words,” Barsotti said. “For Jaynie to make that comment during this time … was insensitive and blatantly disrespectful.”

The VSAA alumni group complained to the Magenta Theater board of directors.

“We thought it was our duty,” Otton said. “If you’re in a leadership position in a community organization, you have to be held to a higher standard.”

Improvising while Black

Johnson, a Clark County resident since age 10, watched the Facebook firestorm erupt and felt it was her duty to come forward too, she said. She sent Magenta board president Neill an email outlining earlier problems with Roberts.

Johnson has a master’s degree in organizational psychology and is currently the director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at the Oregon Health Authority. She previously served as Clark College’s diversity chief, Vancouver’s cultural services manager and the civil rights watchdog at the YWCA Clark County.

She’s also a longtime comedy improviser and actor — and a member of Magenta Theater until she withdrew in 2014 or 2015, she said. Johnson informed the board she was leaving but didn’t share the details because she didn’t want to harm Magenta or her colleagues, doubted she’d be believed by the mostly white group and feared a backlash from Roberts, she told Neill.

Johnson now believes it was a mistake simply to withdraw, allowing a problematic situation to continue.

“In retrospect it appears my lack of candor allowed others to be hurt,” she wrote.

The main issue, she wrote, was Roberts’ “contempt and disparate treatment” for Black By Popular Demand, an improv-comedy team eager to perform at Magenta. Johnson said the group was invited to make a guest appearance, but then put on hold while Roberts questioned her about the group’s style and subject matter. Roberts eventually insisted on previewing Black By Popular Demand in performance because she wasn’t sure it would be “appropriate for Magenta audiences,” Johnson recalled.

The group performed at Magenta on May 3, 2014, but that didn’t put the matter to rest.

“The nail in the coffin on this matter was when another guest group was invited to perform at the next guest show,” Johnson wrote. “All members were white and when I later asked them how/if they were screened they said they were not screened at all.

“The message at that time was clear. I was devastated by the way I, especially as a long-time friend, Magenta actor and supporter, had been treated by Jaynie,” Johnson wrote. “There was clearly a different standard set for a group of African American people.

“I did respond a couple of years ago to an invitation from Jaynie to meet her for coffee and even went to a show at Magenta,” Johnson concluded. “I tried to be open to a rekindled friendship, but I did not see any change and could not do it.”

Today, Johnson is involved with various theater and improv groups in Portland, including Deep End Theater, the Blackonteurs, Comedy Sportz and the Northwest Black Comedy Festival.

Resignation

The British-born Roberts came to America to attend college in California. She and her husband moved to Vancouver in the early 1990s, and she launched Magenta Theater in 2002 as a hobby project that enjoyed remarkable growth and success. After moving here and there in downtown Vancouver, Magenta eventually settled into a spacious 150-seat auditorium on Main Street. The nonprofit theater has built a reputation for presenting people-pleasing fare like “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” but it’s tried some edgier and more offbeat productions too. Roberts has been the constant guiding force.

Roberts told The Columbian a few years ago that she was aware of Magenta’s whiteness. She tried reaching out and recruiting more people of color for Magenta, but few heeded the call when she scheduled a meeting, she said. (According to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau figures, the most recent available, Vancouver’s population is 84 percent white.)

“I am not a white person,” Myron McKee wrote recently on Facebook, “and a few years ago Jaynie invited me to a meeting where she WAS trying to diversify and listen to others of color. … I can understand if Jaynie no longer wants to work with people who don’t believe in her, but please don’t support the idea that she is a racist. I don’t believe it one bit.”

Roberts told The Columbian in late June: “Because of my unintentional biases and lack of education of the history of people of color in the U.S., stepping aside to allow new leadership was the ethical thing to do.”

Recovery

The set for Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” now stands on the dark stage at 1109 Main St. “Much Ado” was supposed to open in April, but the coronavirus pandemic stopped that from happening.

Magenta has formed a “recovery committee” to develop reopening plans based on what public health authorities allow, Neill said. But now that racial controversy has broken out and Roberts is gone, “reopening” Magenta means much more than making it safe and healthy for patrons during the pandemic.

The Magenta board is shopping around for racial-sensitivity education resources for the board and other volunteers, Neill said. And there’s a new artistic director to be chosen. While Magenta is an all-volunteer nonprofit group, that position gets a small stipend.

Ironically, it turns out to be fortunate that Magenta is closed now, Neill added, because it gives the board time to grapple with these problems and figure out the future.

At the end of June, the marquee message over Magenta’s front door read: “Magenta believes in diversity and inclusion. We believe Black Lives Matter.”

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