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Theater company sets stage for toxic masculinity dialogue

Local activists and community leaders called attention to the impact of toxic masculinity through Shakespeare and a dialogue.

On Sept. 24, the California Shakespeare Theater led a series of community panel discussions called Civic Dialogue. The discussion created a space for people who work to improve specific areas that reflect the underlying themes within the play. 

In their large outdoor theater situated amongst eucalyptus and oak-lined groves, Cal Shakes invited four panelists to tackle topic questions regarding the impact of toxic masculinity: Michael “MJ” Jones, a black, queer, non-binary trans writer, activist, educator, and musician; nationally acclaimed artist Ariel Luckey; Chief of Staff of Youth Uprising Sikander Iqbal; and Anthony J. Williams, a writer, researcher, and organizer.

The first question of the evening laid the foundation of the dialogue: what is masculinity? Though seemingly basic, Iqbal pointed out that it is a very difficult question to answer because there are two types of masculinities: one that is taught to you and one that you discover.

Williams added that masculinity is a social construct, defined differently among cultures and generations. It shapes how people see one another based on presentation and what they understand as masculine.

“I think that some of the [examples of healthy masculinity] that came to mind was like a strength and a resilience as playing the role of protector,” Jones said.

The panelists discussed the differences between healthy and toxic masculinity. Jones brought up the issue that toxic masculinity has the power to make women, in particular black women, be considered less feminine if they display traditionally masculine qualities, such as strength and resilience. 

“It was interesting because…those are all things that I’ve seen my mom exhibit…thinking about the strength and resilience that black women have and how often their womanhood is rescinded,” Jones said.

Luckey also conveyed two important examples of what he considers to be healthy masculinity, which is the bond between father and son, and the allyship from men who fight sexism and violence against women.

Once they opened up the dialogue to the community, audience members had plenty to say about their interpretations of masculinity and their personal experiences with it. One audience member, Lauren, a person who identifies as nonbinary, expressed their experience with masculinity as someone who was assigned male at birth. They were often faced with challenges to their masculinity when they began to have an appreciation for feminine things. When Lauren began to identify as transgender, they were often pushed by feminists they worked with to “stay male,” in order to bait more men into their movements.

In addition to the panel discussion, the theater, also known as Cal Shakes, performed “Othello”–kept in original script and set in present day times by using guns instead of swords and pants instead of tights. Through the lens of  “Othello,” Cal Shakes translates what was once acceptable in the Renaissance Era, like ownership of women, to reveal what is deemed unacceptable in our current society.

As the dialogue came to a close, Luckey, Williams, and Iqbal thanked Lauren for sharing their experience, and the audience snapped and clapped their solidarity and appreciation. Audience members were able to leave the dialogue with a better understanding of toxic masculinity and how to watch for it in themselves and their loved ones.