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RDU on Stage wins first "Arts Hero" award for conversations on racism and theater

TORN (Theatre on Racist Negativity) was created in June 2020 by RDU on Stage and Juan Isler. Each week a panel discusses racial issues within the theater community as pictured here on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.

The Raleigh Arts Commission awarded RDU on Stage the Medal of Arts “Arts Hero” award this October for its efforts with regard to the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19. 

RDU on Stage, a Triangle-based theater review and podcast site, opened conversations about racism in the theater and arts community in early March, before George Floyd's murder in May sparked a nation-wide racial reckoning.

The Raleigh Arts Commission created the "Arts Hero" award this year, in response to the events of 2020. RDU On Stage was chosen as the recipient of the 2020 award because it provided a virtual community during a difficult time. 

“It has become a virtual home where individuals of any race, identity or background can meet, drop by, talk, share, learn and receive sources of help,” the commission said in a press release.

When Floyd was killed by police, president and founder of RDU on Stage Lauren Van Hemert noticed a voice and point of view that was still unattended to at RDU on Stage. 

After attending North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre's production of "Bourbon at the Border" featuring Juan Isler, Van Hemert realized Isler was the voice missing from RDU on Stage. 

Van Hemert described Isler as a talented and charismatic actor who is capable of holding an engaging conversation on racism and theater.

In June, Van Hemert asked Isler if he would be interested in hosting a forum on racism and theater. He agreed, and Theatre on Racist Negativity, which has been running for over four months, was born. 

“I think it wouldn't have worked had we not had months of already doing these community conversations.” Van Hemert said. “I don't think, had George Floyd been murdered and we not already engaged the community, the way we were, I don't think these conversations would have worked.”

Van Hemert said she experienced many theater members backing out of commitments and public statements in the aftermath of Floyd's murder. She found Isler stepping into the space others had vacated.

Isler said he did not want TORN to be an all-Black panel because he thought it would turn into a finger-pointing session, and he wanted it to be a diverse discussion instead.

Belva Parker, the arts program director of the Raleigh Arts Commission, said one of the Arts Commission Award panelists noted that RDU on Stage "pivoted" to discuss issues as time went on. 

“From an awareness and information site about what was happening on stages across the area to being a support platform – almost an 'Arts Red Cross' during the COVID crisis and being a great resource through the Black Lives Matter movement, with artistic and educational support,” Parker said in an email. 

Van Hemert and Isler individually, and RDU on Stage as a whole, have faced pushback for their efforts. Despite pushback from some viewers, the Raleigh Arts Commission wanted to acknowledge the efforts and work of RDU on Stage and TORN with the "Arts Hero" award. 

"A lot of organizations were having these conversations behind closed doors, because they didn't want to maybe air their dirty laundry, or whatever the case is," Van Hemert said. "And so I think it was surprising to people that we were having these conversations in such an open and candid and public way."


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