The Conciliation Project (TCP) has an 11-year history of facilitating difficult conversations around race and racism through the use of theatre. As Richmond’s social justice theatre company TCP partners with organizations and communities to engage in the long process of healing our nation’s historic past. The Conciliation Project exists with its own history, pulling from energy developed in Seattle, Washington in 2001. The entity that eventually grew into a theatre company started as an interdisciplinary theatre class at Seattle Central Community College. Founder and Artistic Director Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates was exploring a deconstruction of the archetype Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” When faced with presenting a play representing the deconstruction of racial biases so endemic to our society, and the legacy from publications as globally read as Stowe’s work certain details seemed problematic. Although Seattle Central Community College is an urban institution with a very diverse faculty, administration and student population, the class consisted of white, Latino and Asian students only. There were no class members who were African-American or of African decent. How could a story so undeniably entwined with the stereotypes of Blacks in America be staged with no Black people present? And, and how would it be taken as seriously as intended without African-American actors participating?
To a playwright and director as adept as Dr. Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T. to all who have worked with her) the answer was simple. The entire play would be done as a minstrel show. But this minstrel show would not only employ traditional minstrelsy using black face to imitate and represent Black people; this minstrelsy would also include white face to represent and imitate white people as well. The ensemble was so stunning and provocative due to the stark replication of the minstrel style and the full costume and make-up of the minstrel characters that the audience was impelled to respond. As a part of the performance, the company of actors took off their make-up right in front of the audience as a part of the play’s epilogue. The process was called de-masking and it always astounded the audience that none of the performers were Black. There were actors of color playing white people and white actors playing Black. How could they (the audience) have believed so completely in the authenticity of what they had just seen and then have to reconcile that they had been pulled into the stereotypes and caricatures of a race of people as true representations?
The un-told history of our nation’s racial past compelled audiences to question their own education and knowledge of history. In presenting these minstrel characters the company had struck a chord in the deeply held belief systems and un-realized prejudices that were fundamental to our nation’s racial divide. Something so dynamic and thought provoking must be
un-packed. People wanted to talk. They were impelled to speak out and reveal their “feelings” no matter how uncomfortable they were in doing it. It became clear that the production could not exist on its own as merely a play or theatrical performance, it needed to function as the catalyst for a conversation with the audience - a dialogue about the long held feelings surrounding discrimination that would surely arise from a very immediate and very intensely personal response to this topic, as well as the associated feelings of guilt that may result from people not accustomed to facing the simple fact that Racism in America is systemic, institutionalized and current.
The reaction was astounding. Through sold-out performances, generous audience participation and a great deal of community support,
pressure was building for this concept to go beyond one production, and to certainly go well beyond a class. A theatre company, The Conciliation Project, was born. The name was chosen very carefully. Often described as the reconciliation project, TCP members and the founder Dr. T. are quick to point out that something must first be “conciled” in order to be “reconciled.” In considering our nation’s racial history and the former clearly never having been achieved we are left with the concept of conciliation.
Conciliation: the process of winning over from a state of hostility or to gain the goodwill of. The building of bridges to connect two points that are distant, and/or disconnected from one another.
The Conciliation Project hopes to inspire the process of conciliation through the recognition and understanding of privilege, difference, and struggle, inclusive of everyone. Below is a link to read our original Declaration of Purpose written by Dr. T and it gives an idea of the original vision for The Conciliation Project.