Second City CEO Resigns and Apologizes: ‘I Failed to Create an Anti-Racist Environment’

Former performers at the improv troupe have complained about the treatment of POC

Last Updated: June 6, 2020 @ 3:06 PM

Second City CEO Andrew Alexander is stepping down following accusations of institutional racism from former performers, saying that he “failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive.”

In a lengthy letter posted Friday on the Chicago-based improv comedy organization’s website, Alexander wrote that “it is not enough to not be a racist; you must be anti-racist. The Second City cannot begin to call itself anti-racist. That is one of the great failures of my life.”

Alexander, who has had a 50% ownership in the company since 1985, produced the classic TV series “SCTV.” “Over the years, Second City has never shied away from talking about oppression. On stage, we have always been on the right side of the issue, and of that, I am very proud,” he wrote. “On stage, we dealt with the absurdity of the equal opportunity narrative that society uses to oppress BIPOC. We dealt with the double standard that rationalizes violence against people of color. We dealt with the cynicism of the liberal pact with capitalism. Offstage, it’s been a different story.”

Second City tweeted a message on May 31 supporting Black Lives Matter and the protests against police brutality, but several former black performers with the troupe called the support into question.

“You remember when the black actors wanted to put on a Black Lives Matter Benefit show and you said only if we gave half of the proceeds to the Chicago PD, because I will never forget. Remember when you would make black people audition for job you simply just gave to white people?” comedian and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” writer Dewayne Perkins responded in a lengthy Twitter thread on Thursday.

“From the bottom of my heart. F— you forever @TheSecondCity lol,” Perkins added.

“Space Force” writer Aasia LaShay Bullock also commented about the atmosphere at Second City, calling out the theater for not addressing her complaint that a white actor assaulted her. “The wildest part about my second city experience is that they forced me to quit because they didn’t believe me,” she tweeted in a thread on Friday. “then weeks later for ‘unknown reasons’ they fire the white man who put hands on me, but allowed the narrative to be that they fired him because of me.”

Alexander noted that although the improv theater troupe has grown since its 1959 launch, it has been “culturally homogeneously.”

“There is no excuse for it, and I am not defending it. I succumbed to (what I now realize was) my unconscious biases, the biases of the theater community, and the biases of the city in which The Second City is embedded. I surrounded myself with people mostly of my own race and culture. … While diversifying the theater artistically, I failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive. I am so deeply and inexpressibly sorry.”

With hopes of finding ways to contribute to dismantling institutionalized racism, Alexander says he can start by stepping down as CEO.

“One thing I can do, and am doing now, ensures that the next iteration of The Second City, whatever that might be — that place for underdogs that captured me and saved my life many years ago — is led by a real underdog. I am stepping down and fully removing myself from overseeing The Second City’s operations and policies and will divest myself from the company as it stands.”

He went on to say that the next person to fill the Executive Producer position will be a member of the BIPOC community. “That’s a commitment I’m proud to make,” he wrote.

Read Alexander’s entire memo below:

To the Staff, Alumni, Students, and Audience Members of The Second City:

After the fallout from the closure of the groundbreaking “A Red Line Runs Through It,” The Second City tried to begin to grapple with the institutionalized racism in our society and within our own walls that allowed such a traumatic event to fester and has created lasting pain for our employees and artists. However, we failed.

There are so many things we didn’t do, but one of the things we did do was to engage facilitators in the field of anti-racism. I bring this up to acknowledge that it didn’t work. White employees of the Second City, myself included, participated in regular sessions taking place over months which outlined in detail the inherent biases in white society, and how those, consciously and unconsciously, oppress BIPOC. Two years ago, I learned about one of the pillars of what I understand to be central to the Black Lives Matter movement: it is not enough to not be a racist; you must be anti-racist. 

The Second City cannot begin to call itself anti-racist. That is one of the great failures of my life. The irony is that what attracts so many people to Second City – myself included – is that it gives a public platform to a group of people to speak truth to power and use the undeniable power of comedy to force a recognition of injustice. Over the years, Second City has never shied away from talking about oppression. On stage, we have always been on the right side of the issue, and of that, I am very proud. On stage, we dealt with the absurdity of the equal opportunity narrative that society uses to oppress BIPOC. We dealt with the double standard that rationalizes violence against people of color. We dealt with the cynicism of the liberal pact with capitalism. Offstage, it’s been a different story.

The company has grown significantly – yet culturally homogeneously. There is no excuse for it, and I am not defending it. I succumbed to (what I now realize was) my unconscious biases, the biases of the theater community, and the biases of the city in which The Second City is embedded. I surrounded myself with people mostly of my own race and culture. As a theater producer, I like to think I have good instincts, not just commercially, but also as it relates to what is right. As an administrator, I have not always had good instincts. While diversifying the theater artistically, I failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive. I am so deeply and inexpressibly sorry. 

The damage for this failure is done, and it’s part of the legacy of the institution I love. I care deeply about that legacy, as you might imagine, and certainly believe that on balance (even though many don’t agree right now) we have been a force for good, and change, and hope in an ugly world. To make matters worse, the theater is struggling financially as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 closures. As you know, many of our staff members have been furloughed, including BIPOC staff members. The company is not in a position to make major financial reparations at this time, if that is indeed what’s being asked. That, of course, is not the fault of anyone who has suffered from racial injustice. It’s my hope and belief that we can find multiple ways to contribute to Black Lives Matter and the many organizations working to dismantle institutionalized racism.

One thing I can do, and am doing now, ensures that the next iteration of The Second City, whatever that might be – that place for underdogs that captured me and saved my life many years ago – is led by a real underdog. I am stepping down and fully removing myself from overseeing The Second City’s operations and policies and will divest myself from the company as it stands. The next person to fill the Executive Producer position will be a member of the BIPOC community. That’s a commitment I’m proud to make. 

The Second City’s leadership will continue to engage in open forums of discussion and take action on the many great suggestions that have already been made. I have always believed that art speaks for itself. I have frustrated the staff with the insistence that The Second City doesn’t engage in media tit-for-tat. If you want to know what the institution of The Second City stands for, come see a show. No matter what happens from here, that will be the truth. I am sorry for my many failures as the steward of an important cultural institution. Black stories and black artists matter. Black lives do matter. 

-Andrew Alexander

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