Jedediah Wheeler, Executive Director of Peak Performances at Montclair State University in New Jersey, introduced choreographer Emily Johnson at a conference of the performing arts presenters in January 2020. Wheeler called himself “the happiest person in the room” to give her the job.
Johnson, 44, an indigenous artist of Yup’ik descent, is known for performances based on her heritage, ceremonies that could last all night under the stars, gatherings in search of healing and social change.
Wheeler, 71, founded Peak Performances in 2004 and made the state of Montclair an unlikely home for the avant-garde. The series attracted attention by producing and showcasing works by artists such as Robert Wilson and Italian provocateur Romeo Castellucci before reaching New York City.
But Johnson didn’t join that list. Not long after the conference, Johnson Wheeler asked in a telephone conversation about his “personal commitment to a decolonization process,” she later wrote. She suggested that Peak Performances begin land recognition by taking a series of steps to recognize the area’s original residents, build relationships with other indigenous artists, and engage First Nations students on campus, among other things. Wheeler said Peak Performances couldn’t set a policy because it was only a small part of a larger university, responded dismissively, and then when pressed, angry.
The dispute became open earlier this year when Johnson severed ties with Peak Performances and wrote about her decision in “A Letter I Hope Don’t Need To Be Written In The Future,” which she posted online on Jan. 22nd compared Wheeler’s behavior – what they termed his screaming, his failure to apologize, his use of power – to “white anger”. She referred to “colonial settler violence”, the murder of indigenous women, and rape. She said that Peak Performances was “an unsafe and unethical” place to work.
Wheeler said he was “shocked and hurt” by the letter. He admitted mistreating the situation, but “white anger?” he asked. “It’s so imprecise. Check out the artists I’ve supported. “
“What happened is that I made a mistake,” he added. “I didn’t really know what Emily was asking. I take full responsibility for not hearing them. “
Their break became a topic of conversation in the non-profit world of the performing arts, which led to expressions of solidarity, calls for reform and terminated contracts. The letter and responses to it show accelerated changes in the way people in the arts think and speak about the roles of artists and moderators, standards of behavior and power in the workplace, and how all of this relates to deep wounds in American history .
Johnson’s work isn’t just about performance. It has to do with their activism and advocacy for indigenous peoples, their commitment to slow community building processes and institutional reforms. It is inextricably linked to decolonization, a global political and cultural movement that has also been adopted by many universities and museums.
Decolonization initiatives can range from staff training and discussions to quotas, reparations, and land restitution. One aspect is the recognition of the land, an increasingly common practice of officially honoring the indigenous people of a place in lectures, ceremonies and in public.
Johnson’s letter presented her experience with Wheeler as symptomatic. She linked it with other recent calls for systemic change in dance and theater – calls in response to the pandemic, theater closings and protests against Black Lives Matter last summer.
In this broader, volatile context, her letter detonated. More than 100 nonprofit performing arts presenters, including some of the best known, have signed an online declaration of solidarity calling for “Accountability and repair not just for this case, but for our entire field”. And more than 1,000 artists have signed a similar call to action (“We’re All In”) with a long list of suggestions to address both Johnson’s experience and more general issues – contracts and funding – he raises.
The State of Montclair issued a statement in defense of Wheeler, stating that Peak Performances “is intentionally seeking out emerging artists, artists from underrepresented backgrounds, and artists whose work challenges established norms and practices”. It was found that as the head of “just one of many hundreds of units and programs” at the university, Wheeler was not authorized to endorse Johnson’s proposals. The university’s “robust” policy on social justice and diversity had been established at the institutional level.
“The university does not formulate or pass major policy decisions through a contract with a particular performing artist,” it said.
WNET All Arts, which broadcast the Peak Performances projects, cut ties with the university. The Wet Ink Ensemble, which had been working on an opera production with Peak Performances, has discontinued this collaboration. Other artists who wanted to work with Peak, including Bill T. Jones, made a statement about their intention to “influence change from within”.
What happened? In interviews, Johnson and Wheeler denied some facts, but the differences in their stories lie more in interpretation – what the other side meant, who should have understood what and when, what is acceptable and what is not.
Wheeler first became interested in Johnson in 2018 when she wrote an essay for the organization’s publication, the Peak Journal. “She asked a question that was profound and courageous to my ears,” he said. “Whose country did you steal?” (What she actually wrote was “Do you know whose country you are in?”)
“Could this force be captured in a performance?” he said he was wondering.
In October 2018, Wheeler offered Johnson a commission – possibly the largest of her career in terms of scope and fee. In January 2020, however, the contract was still being negotiated. One of the sticking points was the scope of the project outside of performance.
At a meeting of indigenous artists in January, Wheeler read Johnson’s contract rider asking the moderators of her work to contact the local indigenous leadership and bring the country’s recognition to the general public. “I thought, ‘This is brave, but it won’t fly,'” he said. “‘Nobody’s going to sign this.'”
In the February phone call that caused the rift, Wheeler made his position “incredibly clear,” he said: His department couldn’t do politics.
“My idea of social justice is on the stage,” he said, adding that in a 2018 peak production, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” a country recognition was performed as part of the work. This is much more powerful than a preshow speech. “If Emily Johnson came up to me with her public letter and said, ‘This is the script,’ I would say, ‘Do it!'”
For Johnson, social engagement is no extra. “There is no separation between the process of dancing and the processes of decolonization,” she said in an interview.
“The US is based on the fact that you extract from indigenous peoples,” she added. “Jed wanted the effects of my work, but not the work.”
How Wheeler did his job was, in Johnson’s view, the crux of the problem. She said he shouted “I’ll call the shots” on the phone and gave her 24 hours to decide if the project was progressing on his terms. Then he hung up.
“I set the tone,” said Wheeler in an interview. Did he yell and hang up? “Sometimes I don’t hear what I’m saying the way others hear it,” he said. “That’s not unusual for me. I was frustrated with not seeing the limitations of my office and dropped the call. “
Talking about the call a year later still made Johnson shudder. At the time, she said, she wanted to say goodbye to any dealings with Wheeler – “this is exactly what white supremacy looks like,” she wrote in her public letter – but decided that “fighting anger was part of the decolonization work.”
The next day, she emailed Wheeler (quoted in her letter) stating that she did not have all of the answers on “What Decolonization Looks Like”, that it was a “living and creative process,” and that she according to “a commitment in good faith”, which is not necessarily specified in a contract.
Negotiations continued – between Wheeler’s employees and Johnson’s producers. For Johnson, Wheeler’s failure to acknowledge his behavior (he only responded after her public letter) meant further abuse.
Then came the pandemic, which created more complications and confusion. In late March, Peak Performances announced to Johnson that their project had been postponed. However, negotiations continued until Johnson ended the relationship in January.
Many former Peak employees responded in interviews to Johnson’s public letter that they had regularly seen and experienced similar behavior by Wheeler. Older employees saw him as a recognizable type: the bullying, briefly merged impresario, whose outbursts had to be accepted. For the younger, the behavior fits in with the characteristics of the so-called white supremacy work culture, as described in articles shared by their friends and colleagues recently.
“If I’ve hurt someone because I’ve criticized their job performance, I’m sorry,” said Wheeler. “I am learning how everyone likes to say.”
But the conversations that Johnson’s letter provoked extend beyond Wheeler and Montclair State.
“Everyone in the field is talking about it,” said Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of Arizona State University Gammage, a presenting organization. “The situation was badly handled and Emily was wronged.”
“I’m an African American woman,” she added, “and I think this is an educational moment. It’s not the time to throw anyone under the bus – we don’t have enough buses, there would be too many bodies. But how do we see it face to face? How do artists, moderators and funders work together fairly? “
Johnson, for his part, continues her work in the broadest sense. At institutions like Jacob’s Pillow, the Santa Fe Opera, and the Field Museum, most of the processes she lists in her expanded “Decolonization Tab” are already running.
Johnson is also developing the project she did with Peak Performances called “Being Future Being”. It began, she said, before the pandemic, before her experience with Wheeler, as a vision of “embodying a better future for all of us,” work that would transform consciousness and commit people to a process of change. This work may already have started.