What Will Your Crew Call Look Like When We Get Back?
By Erica D. Hayes
My name is Erica D. Hayes and I am a lighting designer, programmer and video director. In 2008, I started my LLC and went on my first tour with KEM. Since college, I’ve toured with Ledisi, Keyshia Cole, TYGA, Floetry, Khalid, H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, TANK, Janelle Monae, Playboi Carti, Faith Evans, Ali Gatie and others. When not touring, I’m freelancing at Los Angeles Convention Center, Anaheim Convention Center, a few of my favorite hotels and even the beautiful iHeart Stage inside Burbank Studios. Gosh, I miss that place. (Thanks Covid!)
I used to think that politics and entertainment didn’t “mix.” Whenever race or politics would come up during a load-in or load-out, I would walk away. I was hired to be the LD, not an activist. But the flame retardant backdrop of our industry is burning, and Covid-19 is asking production for our fire certs. The thing is, we don’t have any fire certificates. How can a small virus shut down our industry for months and potentially cripple venues all across America? I used to wait for the daily Covid-19 updates from California governor Newsom to potentially update me on when we may get back to work, but it became increasingly obvious that he didn’t have the answers. Nobody has the answers. So now, the entertainment industry stands at a halt, while we wait for our government officials to let us know when it’s safe to return back to work.
While we are “Safer at Home,” a revolution has broken out in the streets. The people have been protesting for over 14 days and are, surprisingly, getting things done. Now is the time for us to rethink how we can make our productions cleaner, safer and less toxic. Similar to how the industry went from oil base fog to water base haze, we can replace fascism within our industry. It’s almost that simple.
On 98 percent of all gigs that I’m designing, I’m the only black woman working in production. A deeper look into who is actively hiring black people in this industry will give you a closer look at why that percentage is so large. A black musician hires a white manager, who is working with a white promoter, who hires a white production company that has an all-white production crew… whew. A literal snowball effect. By the time a black person gets hired for that production, no matter how qualified they are, the venue security still harasses them. How can we get more black people to join IATSE, or hired at Solotech, 4Wall, PRG, PSAV and others?
With many qualified candidates, there is no reason why inclusivity cannot be accomplished. With a concerted effort from the top down, by each of the players, promotion, production and even local crews all have an ability and responsibility to include, to hire and support more black people.
Let’s not make this about defunding the police, defunding education, the 13th Amendment, the privatization of prisons or even the phony war on drugs. Instead, let’s focus on the part of the systemic racism that we can change within our industry: our toxic work environment.
Labor unions were created in 1893, while segregation was still legal and prominent in America. Not until 1964 was segregation actually outlawed. Since labor unions were not created with people of color in mind, we struggle in 2020 with the same toxicity and problems of inclusivity that reigned 51 years ago. Progress has been made, but to think that the goals of inclusivity have been accomplished is poppycock. If you really believe that Black Lives Matter, will you go out of your way to make sure that your crew call reflects that principle? Pay attention the next time you are hiring.
In March 1969, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a one-day hearing in Hollywood on the struggles that minorities faced while seeking employment in the entertainment industry, which led the Justice Department to consider a lawsuit against the industry and its unions. EEOC general counsel Daniel Steiner cited “gross underutilization” of minority workers and “recruiting systems that have as their foreseeable effect the employment only of whites.” Those lawsuits never happened, however, and many would say these conditions persist, 51 years later.
What we’ve found is that, among those people of color and women who do get in, those groups face a hostile workplace that is appalling. The current leadership and those before it tolerated a culture that produces things like lynching post cards and nooses.
Whether in a union or not, these levels of hostility and toxicities are yet another barrier even after a gig is earned. Simple things like designing at a prestigious venue and a white male coworker “jokingly” mentions that the (1) letter that is different in our last names is because his family owned my family during slavery. Copy that.
Another example of a toxic work environment would be when a white male coworker mentioned to me that he thought I was always hired as an L1 because I was “sleeping with” the black labor coordinator. It could not have been my 12 years of experience as a lighting designer, director and programmer. Copy that.
As a touring LD, I also notice a different level of fascism in different parts of America. For example, the fascism in California is less blatant than the fascism in Virginia, but it exists in both places. I recently purchased a confederate flag magnet on tour in 2019 at a truck stop outside of Lexington, Virginia, just to remind myself of the America that still exists. Why is it still being sold? Do you remember the reason and outcome of the Civil War in America? Never mind… Kudos to NASCAR for banning confederate flags in 2020.
I have noticed a shift online recently. It was something I’ve always fantasized about, but my fetish for equity and equality within the entertainment industry always seemed far-fetched. During the BLM protests, I’ve noticed many of my white coworkers becoming vocal online about other racist coworkers. Finally, much-needed conversations are starting to take place in Facebook groups like “Everything Stage Lighting” and others. I’m proud to be an American when we can troll our way out of racism. It’s great!
Those uncomfortable conversations are just the start of necessary actions to create a less toxic workplace. We will also need to weed out the bad apples. Please do not force your black coworkers to weed out the bad racist apples. Maybe that PM that makes racist jokes when he is drunk isn’t the best person to have on your team? Maybe?
Many people have been vocal that just because their parents were racist, doesn’t make them racist. This is a new principle that I’m still learning about. The latest protests in the streets have been extremely evident of that. When police unions protect racist police officers, black people can die. Ultimately when labor unions protect a racist hiring structure, the circle of poverty continues within the black community.
There’s a level of bliss that comes from loading in the lighting of a random venue in some random country. Touring the world as a lighting designer and video director has given me an amazing opportunity to get paid to travel the world. The invaluable experiences I’ve gained from walking the painted alleys in Brussels or hopping on a ferry in Sydney can all be attributed to the entertainment industry. I love this industry. I’ve redesigned the lighting design in my garage four times since the quarantine started. I can’t wait to get back to work.
Together we can go back to an industry that is better, less toxic and more inclusive.
Reach Erica D. Hayes at www.ericadhayes.com.