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Ann James: Yeah, the table is great. Let’s make it a banquet. Let’s see what’s on the table as opposed to the table itself. And let’s sample everything on the table. It doesn’t always have to be the main event. It doesn’t always have to be, at some points, the dry turkey and the bland flavorless meat. It could be just such a sharing of all that we have to offer.

Yura Sapi: Imanalla mashikuna. Imanallatak kanki. Hello, friends. How are you? Welcome to another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast, season two. I’m your host, Yura Sapi, recording from Emberá Native lands on the Afro-Indigenous coast of Colombia in Nuquí, Chocó, in the Gulf of Tribugá. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, and by Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating liberated spaces that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world.

I’m interviewing Black, Native, Asian, and other founders of color to find transformative solutions and ways of working together that are not replicating the same white supremacy culture we wanted to get away from. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from Black, Native, Asian, and other people of the global majority who have created arts organizations and movements, initiatives, practices, and beyond that are changing the game, making new things happen within and building their own tables instead of focusing on getting a seat at existing white and Eurocentric ones. We’ll be learning from incredible arts organizing visionaries on their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they’ve overcome.

In today’s episode, I’m interviewing Ann James, founder of Intimacy Coordinators of Color. Intimacy Coordinators of Color supports and promotes decolonized intimacy education and inclusive hiring practices in the entertainment industry. Understanding that the field of intimacy work in theatre, film and television is not as diverse as it can be, Intimacy Coordinators of Color plans to change that by offering quality consultancy, advocacy, and equality for the Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. They meet with artistic boards, producers, directors, and other leadership groups in theatre, film, and television to help incorporate intimacy work into workplace ethos. As advocates, they gather stories and lend their expertise in group dynamics and conflict resolution to promote healing on set and in the rehearsal room. They also offer classes that lead to understanding about the field of intimacy and the importance of racial and cultural balance in the profession.

Ann C. James has an extensive career in international stage direction and theatre education spanning over three decades. They recently made their debut as the first Black intimacy coordinator of Broadway for Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over. James is an expert in the burgeoning industries of intimacy direction and institutional consent culture for national arts organizations. On the west coast, Ann James provides consultation and intimacy coordination for the television and film industry, most recently working with Rashida Jones, Mark Wahlberg, Issa Rae, Will Ferrell, and Cynthia Erivo on several different projects. Ann James is in their second year of studies as America’s first MFA in performance pedagogy with an emphasis in Afrocentric intimacy pedagogy at Loyola Marymount University.

Ann: My name is Ann James. My pronouns are in development. I am currently she, moving into they/we, simply because I really feel that I carry my ancestors with me everywhere. I like to answer as a group sometimes with my ancestors because I feel like “I” is so self-centered in times when I’m really trying to reach people. So, I’m in development with my pronouns, long story short. I am an intimacy coordinator, intimacy director, and I also work with national arts institutions on what I call an Afrocentric intimacy pedagogy for predominantly white institutions.

Yura Sapi: Tell us about the origin story of your work, of your organization, Intimacy Coordinators of Color.

Ann: Sure. It started because I lived abroad. I lived out of the country for about ten years, and I came back because my parents were getting older and I wanted to share their golden years with them. So I made this decision to move back to the United States. But I knew as a producer, as a theatre educator, that I wanted to move into a city where I felt I could grow, where I felt I could learn something new, and where I could add something to my skills. I’ve been in this business for thirty years and I’ve done everything from just suite bathrooms and clean toilets of my own theatre, to producing three hundred person cruises that simulate the Titanic in China. So, I’ve done a lot of things and I had a lot of skills, but there was still more—I was still hungry to learn more.

So, as I was coming to the decision to move to LA, I fell upon this new field called intimacy direction. When I was in college, I had created this system called Circles of Intimacy, all about consent and boundaries, basically the actors—because we were going through another plague called AIDS—there was really a lot of concern around touching people. There was ignorance and there was fear. And being in a small drama department in the middle of Texas with some of the most darling, talented people who are all professionals. Most of them are professionals in the world today—theatre professionals. But there was a lot of miseducation about who you could touch, and when you could touch, and where you could touch.

So I created this system called Circles of Intimacy, and that has carried me through most of my career. So I said, “Huh, so there’s a name for it now: intimacy direction. That’s cool. Let me go and learn about that.” When I moved to LA, I started diving into some training and I took a wonderful training with Theatrical Intimacy Education, also known as TIE, with Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard. They were amazing and really showed me the possibilities of what my skills as a director, stage director, producer could lend to the field.

The only problem was that there weren’t very many people who look like me. I identify as African American, fat, queer, Black woman. I didn’t see a lot of me in the room and I thought, well, maybe there’s a way for me to help this organization—not TIE, but another organization—with their optics, with their ideology, with who they were putting forward as leaders. I did that for a while, but then I just decided after a certain series of events that I would start out on my own and actually create a company, an LLC, that creates opportunities for people from the global majority people who are differently abled, people who are neurodiverse, to come and have this training in affinity space and come and have this training in a company where the actual owner of the company is a person from the global majority.

And to this day, I am the only one that can claim that. I hope there will be more coming soon, but I feel like I created an affinity space for us to focus in on intimacy of different types—not just intimacy that was sexual in content. Although, that is the main definition of intimacy as it is. I feel that because I stepped out to incorporate things like race in intimacy, things like culture in intimacy, things like disability in intimacy, and so on, all in line with the EEOC, that I feel like I’ve created a space for people to come in and be who they are and not have to have their training all done by people who don’t look like them. So ta-da. That’s why ICOC exists.

Yura Sapi: Incredible. And just to get some more clarity, the EEOC, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Yes?

Ann: Yes. What that says is that it’s an anti-discriminatory clause that is required for every business that employs people in the United States. And what it says is that there are protected classes in our nation and those are people with disabilities, people of color, people who come from a different culture or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, age, maturity. So there are these protected classes that make sure that employers are being inclusive in their hiring practices and not creating discriminatory spaces for people to work in.

Yura Sapi: Yes. I remember this from my time as a diversity inclusion coordinator with Actors’ Equity. I remember also the limitations of it, because on one hand it was really important that these things are now in a law and we can point to the law, but there are also ways in which the law wasn’t going far enough and wasn’t giving us everything really that we need. There’s also other kinds of discrimination, other intersections. I think they called them secondary identities; things like education and class.

Ann: Yeah. That’s really interesting. I just discovered this whole energy around student debt and the disparities in student debt when it comes to education. Really, really alarming and how people from the global majority are often just paying back more in student debt simply because they’re not able to pay back as fast. And that’s something that we have to pay attention to when we’re looking at something like student debt.

Yura Sapi: Yeah. That’s real. It definitely feels like a scam to me. I’m not personally sure what my plan is for my own student debt other than to keep paying it, but I know there’s folks working on it, on getting that canceled and figuring it out. But it definitely is part of the generational challenges, I think we’re having and that we’re seeing affecting the economy as well and society.

Ann: Well, the pursuit of happiness. How many people are really pursuing their happiness right now? That’s in the Bill of Rights, that we’re supposed to be doing that. That’s in the preamble. So we really have to take a look at how we can ease the burden of things like medical debt, student debt, housing debt, so that we can actually all live in the pursuit of happiness.

Yura Sapi: As someone who’s been abroad for a while now, what did that experience teach you? And what did coming back to the US teach you, specifically thinking about the US as this world oppressor, in a way, with its systems and what’s going on even within the country?

Ann: Well, as Afghanistan falls today, literally under Taliban rule, it makes me reflect back on when I moved away from the country in 2008. I moved away to a country in the midst of social divide and political unrest. I moved to Khartoum, which was in a whole Sudan, which is now divided into two countries, which happened while I was living in Sudan. So it was not very uncommon for us to be sequestered to our homes, to be on household or to be asked to stay under covered guard.

During my stay there, riots in the streets at times, the embassy closed down at one point. Very harrowing experience. I was there teaching theatre at an international school. In a war-torn country, basically fighting against itself for freedom of Sharia law, which they are. Well, Northern Sudan has liberated itself from Sharia law, which is a beautiful thing for the people who wanted that.

So it makes me think of leaving the United States in a crash, in an economic crash of 2008, and then moving to a warring country. And then after that, I decided to take it easy and I moved to Amsterdam. So I was in Khartoum for two years, and then I moved to Amsterdam to start a theatre and burlesque company in Amsterdam. That was fantastic. I did that for two and a half years until the economic crisis of the United States hit Europe and nobody was coming. Nobody was traveling. I had a company based in tourism.

So I got head hunted by Disney one day on email and asked if I wanted to come and teach in China. So I packed my bags and moved to China and actually lived there for six and a half years producing fifty-two productions in that six and a half years. That’s where I decided in 2018—the company was very successful—it had run its course. China, of course, was clamping down on Western entertainment, English language entertainment. It was just more and more difficult to do shows and venues weren’t allowing us to do shows because of fear of the government. So it was the perfect time for me to come home. But that was my ten and a half years outside of the country. I have no regrets. Not one single regret, except for the fact that I can’t get really good dumplings here. But other than that, it’s great.

Yura Sapi: That’s incredible. Yeah. You’ve lived so much and gotten so much experience. I’m actually living in Colombia right now. I moved from New York. I’m also a citizen of Colombia and Ecuador and somebody else who migrated to the US was talking to me a few years ago and was like, “I’m really proud of you for having done that move to Colombia because whatever kinds of move to another country is a big feat in terms of just making friends and finding community.” And you’ve done that many times.

Ann: Yeah. It’s really mind blowing to think that I’ve been to over forty-one countries. I’m hanging out with people who’ve been to seventy, eighty, ninety countries. So I feel like I need to get my stuff together so I could travel more after this pandemic, so that I can run with the big folks. But I love travel and there’s an opportunity to see yourself and other people when you travel. I think America is so isolated sometimes that we assume that people do things the way we do in other countries. It’s very nurturing and refreshing and humbling to understand that American way isn’t necessarily the best way, or the common denominator, or the go-to as you travel around the globe.

Yura Sapi: Yeah. Also the American way oftentimes is doing damage and harming so many of these other countries in the world. This has come up in different episodes, but we’re talking about building our global solidarity. This work specifically on this podcast with HowlRound is a worldwide platform. We’re thinking beyond borders, really, especially as people of the global majority.

Ann: Yeah. Even the title of this podcast: Building Our Own Tables. I always tell people when you come to any kind of gathering where people are getting together to share food, the best food on the table is always the side dishes. And the side dishes always come from somebody’s grandma’s recipe, from some other place or some other… there’s always a story to the side dishes.

Yeah, the table is great. Let’s make it a banquet. Let’s see what’s on the table as opposed to the table itself. Let’s see what’s on that table and let’s sample everything on the table. It doesn’t always have to be the main event. It doesn’t always have to be, at some points, the dry turkey and the bland flavorless meat. It could be just such a sharing of all that we have to offer.

Yura Sapi: As a business owner, what is the importance of being an owner and having more Black-owned businesses, Native-owned businesses, Asian-owned businesses? Businesses owned by people of color. What is the importance in that? I want to hear your thoughts.

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