Days after an audience member disrupted the opening performance of "A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater with profane, racialized invective, the playhouse has issued an apology.
In a letter to patrons, artistic director Joseph Haj and managing director James Haskins acknowledged that the Guthrie "failed to condemn the racist remarks hurled by the disruptive audience member. More importantly, we failed to apologize to audience, company members and staff who were harmed in our theater, particularly those who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color [BIPOC]."
The Guthrie also addressed the content of the woman's vitriol, which delayed the Nov. 12 performance by 30 minutes and sent some audience members to the exits. The woman objected to a Palestinian director staging "A Christmas Carol," which she termed "a Christian play." She also spewed anti-Black venom, removed her mask and spit on patrons.
At least a few theatergoers said they felt verbally attacked and described how the incident began.
"I felt assaulted," said Kevin West, who is African American. "Here's this woman telling people of color to go back where they came from."
The Guthrie letter went on to say that it condemns the racist statements of the individual and offered its "deepest apologies to all who were negatively impacted." The theater added "it would continue to strive to make the Guthrie a safe, welcoming and inclusive space for all."
The playhouse has drawn national attention because the unprecedented incident comes at a time of anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice reckoning.
"It's shocking, appalling and so disturbing," said Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage of New York, whose play "Sweat" will be performed at the Guthrie next summer.
Tony-winning director Kenny Leon said he was stunned by the outburst.
"With the pandemic, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it's growing pains for the country," Leon said. "Racism is a deep monster, so we cannot be shocked when people respond like that, but there's an avalanche of beautiful diversity that's coming and there's nothing haters can do about it."
Some patrons who witnessed the woman's tirade were still reeling.
"The racial undertones were so intense, I don't feel welcomed there," said Marcus Caldeira, a self-described "mixed-race Brazilian Jew" who was attending a Guthrie show for the first time. Caldeira and his friend sat one row in front of the disruptive person, who has not been identified.
Haj empathized with that feeling, adding he felt sorry for both the audience and cast.
"Man, oh man, it's been brutal and gutting," Haj said. "You think every storm runs out of rain, but when does it end? What should've been an evening of great celebration, welcoming folks back into the theater, turned into this."
The disruption began shortly after Haj, who directed "Carol," gave a curtain speech welcoming everyone back to their "theater home." Then the lights went down on the 47th edition of the Guthrie's "Carol." It's perhaps the most diverse production of the holiday classic to date, with a script by a Hindu playwright, staging by a Palestinian American director and a design team whose multicultural backgrounds matched that of the cast.
Caldeira said that combination seemed to matter to the disrupter.
"She started mumbling right away that this is a Muslim adaptation of a Christian play," he said. "Soon she started to berate two women taking a selfie. Then she was telling people to go back to the country they came from and calling a Black man a Black [expletive]. She was out for violence."
The woman had removed her mask, which the theater requires all patrons to wear. When Caldeira asked her to put it back on, he said, she was enraged.
"She started coughing and spitting all over me and my friend," Caldeira said. "It was scary and frightening. I think the Guthrie has to do more to show what their real values are."
The Guthrie honored refund requests for the evening, Haj said, noting that the theater conducted a fact-finding investigation of the outburst and its impact. That effort involved meetings with stakeholders, including actors, and with the theater's board of directors.
"What I wish we'd done, in hindsight, is when that person was removed, I'd gotten up onstage and strongly condemned the racist language that was used," Haj said. "One of the things that was so painful was that it was the longest 30 minutes one can imagine but also it was all happening so fast, it was difficult and overwhelming."
The woman, who was escorted out of the theater by police, was not arrested or charged. But she was given a trespass notice and banned for life from re-entering the theater.
Haj said the episode lasted as long as it did because it took time for police to arrive. The theater observes a no-touch policy. Haj added that the theater is assessing its response.
"That terrible event did some real damage to a lot of folks, and I'm so very sorry that that happened in our theater," Haj said. "But we're going to do the work for our community the best way we know how."