Playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza has pulled the rights for her play cullud wattah from Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, abruptly closing the production that was previously scheduled to play through July 17.
"As a result of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values espoused by the board of directors at Victory Gardens Theater, I have pulled the production of my show, cullud wattah, effective immediately," writes Dickerson-Despenza in a statement initially posted to Instagram and later added to Victory Gardens' website. "The Board of Directors’ oppressive values were grotesquely displayed through their recent actions, including but not limited to the removal of brilliant, compassionate and radical cultural worker Ken-Matt Martin as artistic director; resolute opposition to and dismissal of the arts professionals on staff, Acting Managing Director Roxanna Conner, and Ken-Matt Martin; as well as acquiring additional property—a capitalist venture that undermines land acknowledgements, offers no path toward indigenous rematriation and strains the institution’s current structural needs."
The move comes a day after the theatre's entire cohort of resident artists, including cullud wattah director Lili-Anne Brown, resigned, citing allegations of racism, financial malfeasance, and a lack of transparency regarding continued staffing issues. In a statement released July 6, Victory Gardens Board Chairman Charles E. Harris II fought back at these claims, calling their criticism of a recent real estate transaction a misunderstanding and asserting that "certain decisions must happen at the board level." Harris, who is Black, does not address the allegations of racism in the response to the artists' joint statement.
These recent developments are the latest in a troubling period for the Chicago theatre's management. Then-Executive Director and Executive Artistic Director Erica Daniels and Board Chairman Steve Miller both stepped down in 2020 following criticism of the theatre's lack of response following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the resulting protests both in Chicago and around the nation. Miller is still listed as a Board Member Emeritus on Victory Gardens' website.
cullud wattah, which follows three generations of Black women living in Flint, Michigan, during the water crisis, played a world premiere run Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2021 after winning the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize earlier the same year. Dickerson-Despenza's other works include shadow/land and [hieroglyph], both part of her 10-play Katrina Cycle.
The cast of Victory Gardens Theater's production of the work included Brianna Buckley, Sydney Charles, Demetra Dee, Renée Lockett, Ireon Roach, Aundria TraNay, Alexandria Moorman, and Merrina Millsap. A statement released by Actors' Equity Association in solidarity with the workers of Victory Gardens affirms that "[t]he union has ensured that those workers signed to Equity contracts [which include the entire company excepting Dee, Moorman, and TraNay] will be paid through the original scheduled closing date."