Through the power and beauty of theatre, we seek to unite people from all backgrounds to experience and participate in stories that embody our shared humanity.
Life can really blow your plans out of the water sometimes, right? You know…like when you decide to move away from busy New York City life and pursue something quiet and simple in the slower south…and then one day while you are making your bed, you get a call that your father is gone and you are somehow alone in the world in a whole new way. It’s strange how life can feel so fragile and so powerful in these moments, when it forces you to look it in the face and say, “Ok, I see you.” When I learned about my father’s death, life suddenly became temporary for me. Urgent. Precious. This is how River & Rail Theatre company was born. Out of an urgency, a need to live, to tell the good stories, to do it all now while we can.
In late 2014, some good friends at Gridwell came around our urgent desires to make theatre that is honest, relevant, and beautiful, and they helped us sculpt a vision for a professional theatre company with a community heart. We came up with two images: the river and the rail. We latched onto the idea, because the river and the rail are emblematic of Knoxville’s proud, industrious past. The heart of downtown Knoxville is situated between these two modes of transit, and we owe much of our city’s identity and growth to both. Together, they are intrinsically and inseparably Knoxville.
But the river and the rail also represent a sort of separation. When you look at the demographics of Knoxville, the people that live on the river and the people that live near the tracks experience Knoxville from vastly different perspectives. Our neighborhoods, churches, community groups, and social circles seem deeply divided along various lines. Some are the literal lines of the Tennessee River or the tracks of the railroad, and some are metaphorical, like the lines between races, religions, and ethnic groups or the cultural lines between East, West, North, and South Knoxville. The goal of River & Rail Theatre is to not just create professional theatre accessible to all Knoxvillians, but to create theatre true to the stories of Knoxville, shared collectively by those on every side of every line.
– Joshua Peterson, Founding Artistic Director
Check out the SUPPORT page to see how you can contribute to River & Rail.
River & Rail Theatre Company is an IRS Approved 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization
Let us start by saying very clearly: River & Rail Theatre Company fully supports the Black Lives Matter movement and condemns white supremacy in all its forms.
Violence towards Black Americans and the systemic Anti-Blackness that permeates every facet of our country has existed for generations – long before the social uprising of this summer. We recognize that River & Rail could have made a public statement in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and people of color at any time, and we regret that it took the protests in response to the unjust deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and far too many other Black Americans to prompt our response today.
When Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country this summer, the River & Rail team was called to listen. As a theatre institution with an all-White staff, we knew that we were not doing enough to forward racial equity and justice in our Knoxville community. We decided to take time for deep reflection of our own complicity in white supremacy, to begin educating ourselves, and to listen to BIPOC leaders and communities of color. In July, We See You White American Theatre (WSYWAT) published their well-considered and comprehensive list of demands, and River & Rail has been and will continue to use this document as a guide in our efforts to become an actively antiracist theatre company.
In the past months, all of us at River & Rail have been reflecting on the ways in which we have been complicit in, benefited from, and perpetuated white supremacy. We had a staff meeting in early June to discuss how we as an organization would respond to the urgent cries for justice and action from Black people and communities of color. The first thing we decided to do was conduct an internal racial equity audit. We reached out to all the people who have worked with River & Rail in the past, and asked them to complete an anonymous survey answering questions about their experience with us that would help us better understand and identify the systemic changes we need to make. All survey participants were compensated financially for the time and labor it took to complete the survey.
We decided as a staff that we would wait to post a public statement on our website until the audit was complete, so that our statement would be informed and specific. We heard from some of you that in spite of our intentions, the impact of that decision was harmful and made us complicit in White silence. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and for your patience, and we hope that this message sheds some light on how we have been addressing racism in our organization over the last months.
After taking in the survey responses of our talented, generous colleagues, and after many discussions of how we at River & Rail need to be better, we’re posting today our official statement in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the We See You White American Theatre call to action. This is a living document that will change and grow as we continue to learn, and we invite you to hold us accountable and share any thoughts, questions, or feedback with us by emailing Artistic Director, Joshua Peterson, at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Don’t be discouraged by the info@ email address – this goes to all our staff and will help us ensure transparency and accountability. If you want to reach out to one of us in particular, you can find our contact information on our About page.) We aim to be in conversation with our Knoxville community, always, and this moment in our history may be the most important that we’ve faced so far.
We proudly stand with Black people and communities of color in this time of resistance. We hear you, we love you, we support you, and we will fight for you. We are united with you in the struggle against an anti-Black America and a whitewashed American theatre. We share your desire for radical, systemic change, and we are starting in our own backyard.
The mission of River & Rail demands radical inclusivity, and is why we adopted our name from two unique landmarks of Knoxville. The Tennessee River and the railroad are points of pride for the Knoxville community, but they also draw dividing lines across our city. We took the name River & Rail because of our wholehearted commitment to serve all Knoxvillians, regardless of the dividing lines that separate us. It is impossible for us to do that without taking a passionate antiracist approach in everything we do. Up to this point, we have not been vocally or explicitly antiracist in our messaging and our actions, and we want to remedy that now.
We have reviewed the demands of WSYWAT, and we are extremely grateful for the time, effort, and labor that went into the creation of this document. We also offer our gratitude to all of you that completed surveys as part of our racial equity audit. Both of these things have helped us identify the first steps we can take as an institution to ensure that our culture and practices are equitable and antiracist. Below, we describe actions we are taking in response to our racial equity audit, WSYWAT, and the Black Lives Matter movement. We understand that becoming antiracist is lifelong work, and we are in it for the long haul. In that spirit, the below list is not comprehensive of all of the steps we are taking to become antiracist and promote equity, because we believe being antiracist comes from the moment to moment decisions we make as individuals. However, this list is important to hold ourselves publicly accountable, and to mark the beginning of our journey.
In the pursuit of racial equity, and in an effort to dismantle the systems of white supremacy within our own organization, River & Rail is committed to taking the following action*:
*Thanks to the writers of WSYWAT, whose language in their list of demands has informed and been incorporated into this list.
Joshua Peterson is a Texas transplant via Paris and New York but is now proud to claim Knoxville as his home. Prior to moving to Knoxville, Joshua served as the Artistic Director of Firebone Theatre Company in New York City. Joshua received his MFA in Acting from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He also holds a BA in Theatre from Oklahoma Baptist University. Between pursuing his degrees Joshua spent two years living and working for a humanitarian aid organization outside of Paris, France. He made his Knoxville acting debut in Clarence Brown Theatre's A Christmas Carol. Other Selected Regional Acting credits include Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing (Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival), Barry Love in House and Garden (Theatre Three), Gail in Our Lady of 121st Street (Kitchen Dog Theatre) and Jon in Tape (Dallas Theatre Center.
Kenneth Herring grew up in Oak Ridge, TN, just 25 miles from downtown Knoxville. Kenneth holds a BA in Communications for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a Masters in Business Administration from Bethel University. Kenneth has a non-traditional theatre background, having spent the 10 years working in Information Technology sales. Kenneth is a former member of the Hammer Ensemble, which performed at Knoxville's Flying Anvil Theatre. Kenneth is passionate about content creation and creating inclusive environments. Kenneth enjoys basketball and spending time with his son, Rayne.
Amelia Peterson is a Knoxville native and a graduate of Bearden High School. She earned her BFA in Theatre Studies from Southern Methodist University where she studied directing under Stan Wojewodski, Jr. (former Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre). She has spent much of her career working with budding playwrights on new works. In New York, she co-directed the world premier of MORBID POETRY at the Incubator Arts Project and a folktale adaptation series LONG, LONG AGO with Firebone Theatre Company. She has also directed new works for the CalArts Arts in the One World conference (Valencia, CA), the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival (Washington, DC), and the Inkwell Theatre’s Showcase Reading Series (Washington, DC). She is a mother, a teacher, and a writer.
Logan Mahan moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Knoxville, Tennessee three years ago, and has enjoyed getting to know a new little river town. Logan has worked in prisons, rehabs, churches, and on mountain tops building community and challenging stigma through storytelling and story listening. As the Community Engagement Director for River & Rail, Logan will work to actively refine and implement R+R’s vision for a professional theatre company that elevates unheard stories in an innovative and redemptive way. Logan earned a BA in English Literature from Harding University where he won the Jo Cleveland Writing Award for Non-fiction. He is a contributing writer for RootsRated, a publication focused on increasing awareness and access to local outdoor resources and activities.
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