So that episode, on April 12, which led to nationwide protests, was fresh in the mind of Jaylene Clark Owens, a black, Barrymore Award-winning actor, playwright and poet, who was onstage April 19 in a scene from Passage at the Wilma Theater.
As she and other characters talked about the way things are done in two countries, Owens used the words their and they. At that point, a white man in the audience raised his hand and said in a loud voice, “Who is they? I don’t know who they are.” After the actors tried to continue the performance, he said, “I don’t mean to interrupt your Black Panther party.”
Owens assumed the reference was about her, the only African American on stage. Later that night, she wrote about the outburst in a Facebook post that went viral. “He was allowed to leave the theater on his own accord and we continued with the show,” she wrote.
Owens talked to us about how she’s been feeling in the weeks since, and why she thinks things might have been handled differently had the man been a person of color.
What was going through your mind when the man interrupted that scene?
I was very scared in the moment, because of the unknown. I didn’t know what he was capable of doing or whether he had a weapon. The fact that he was so bold to interrupt so many times and also refuse to leave after being asked to leave, that heightened my fear.
You were in a scene with two actors, Justin Jain, who is of Filipino heritage, and Ross Beschler, who is white. Why did you feel that the man’s outrage was directed at you?
I have no idea what made him say those things. I was the only black person on stage and I have my natural hair. That made it racial for me and even scarier.
Has the incident made it hard for you to go back on stage?
We haven’t had any other incidents since then. But I think about it every time I step on stage. If there’s any little sound in the house, I’m very aware of it. It was traumatic. For me, the worse part was, I had to remain on stage in the dark and didn’t know whether he would try to come on stage. When I get to that moment [in subsequent performances], it conjures up that moment of fear. It’s not a great feeling, because this is what I love to do. I don’t want to live in a spirit of fear. I just continue to shout out positive energy.
You mentioned in your Facebook post that you were angry that the man was able to remain in the audience — until intermission when he was not allowed to return — when only a week earlier two black men were arrested at Starbucks. Did you think of that difference as it was going on?
I thought about Starbucks as soon as I got off stage. That is what came to mind: Why have the police not been called for this man?
I understand that the cast of the play and management of the Wilma met to talk about the incident.
We were all unprepared. Things were not handled in the most ideal way. But we have a plan in place now, and it’s great. I think because it had never happened before, it caught folks off guard. There is a document now, and part of it empowers the actor. If we feel unsafe, we can walk off stage, and that’s an indicator to the stage manager that something is wrong. If a patron is being disruptive and they refuse to leave, the show will be stopped and the Philadelphia police contacted.
A few days after the outburst, you heard he had recently had brain surgery. A Drexel University spokeswoman confirmed the man was a Drexel student. But due to privacy laws, Drexel would not say whether the student was disciplined. I understand Drexel reached out to you?
They apologized for the incident. I had heard the night of the incident that the man was an Iraq war veteran. Whatever he’s dealing with, I want him to talk with someone about it and hopefully get some help. Honestly, if this [had been] a person of color who did this, I don’t know whether [management] or the people in the audience would have felt more of a threat and would have called the police.
Does the difference in responses to the two incidents, at Starbucks and the Wilma, say anything about how Philadelphia handles racial bias?
I don’t feel like it’s a Philadelphia problem. It’s nationwide. Often times, black skin is [seen by some as] a trigger for fear. With racial profiling and racial biases, people of color have to deal with this type of situation all the time, when your skin can be perceived as a threat in a white space. There are so many cases of things where blacks are in their own driveways and people are calling the cops as if they’re not supposed to be there.
You are executive director of the Harlem KW Project, which has produced a play, called Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale, about gentrification in Harlem, which comes to Theatre Horizon next February. Did this experience make you think of gentrification and safe spaces?
The incident didn’t remind me of gentrification. I don’t think the Wilma is seen as a space for whites. If anything, we are trying to bring more diversity to the stage, and working on seeing that reflected in our audience members.
How do you feel now about the incident?
Do I wish it had been handled differently? Yes. But I don’t hold any anger in my heart for him. I don’t know him. I just want to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again.