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Penoi’s Vision for ArtsEmerson Shaped By Values, Ancestry, Equity

After several years of collaborating with ArtsEmerson, Ronee Penoi eagerly started her new role as ArtsEmerson’s director of artistic programming in early August.

A headshot of a woman
Ronee Penoi started her role in August as ArtsEmerson’s director of artistic programming.

“I already had a good sense of the ways in which ArtsEmerson is a leading university presenter, and is really looking to redefine what a university presenter can do,” said Penoi. “I’ve respected that about ArtsEmerson. The way in which there is really a stated mandate to be connected to the civic life of Boston. And that’s something that always appealed to me.”

In her prior role as a producer at Octopus Theatricals she worked with ArtsEmerson on numerous projects, including An Iliad and a production of 69 Degrees South, which was cancelled due to COVID.

“[ArtsEmerson and I] have strong values in common in really following an artist’s vision, restorying our dominant narratives on and off stage,” said Penoi. “And to make a longtime commitment to one place, that’s something I’m really hungry for.”

Read Ronee Penoi’s HowlRound Essay on Building Radical Trust Across Difference in the Arts

For this coming ArtsEmerson season Penoi sees herself more as a steward, as the company’s schedule was already set. She’s focusing on how much impact the season can make in this very important societal moment. ArtsEmerson has also begun conversations about the 2022-2023 season.

“I am really interested in bringing more indigenous voices into the room in a way they haven’t been, and to do that in a meaningful way,” said Penoi, who is of Laguna Pueblo and Cherokee ancestry. “As the country grapples with our history, and the way we talk about that history, we are bringing in that perspective. That’s definitely something I’m very mindful of.”

Penoi stressed that before creating a specific vision for ArtsEmerson, the company must recognize and be responsive to the questions and challenges of the community.

“It’s really healthy for our community going forward that we think of relationships holistically, not transactionally. If we’re going to work with artists on stage, it can’t be something that just parachutes in and leaves,” said Penoi. “There has to be context, and there has to be a shared understanding of why this artist is in Boston and why Boston makes sense for this artist. That’s how we can have meaningful dialogue.”

Personally, Penoi is always influenced by relationship with her ancestry. Her father grew up on an Oklahoma reservation, and her great-grandfather attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the stated mission of which was to strip indigenous children of their culture and assimilate them into white America. Her grandfather and father also attended and taught at Indian schools.

“There’s a deep connection,” said Penoi. “My own family’s history is deeply enmeshed with questions of otherness and really with the genocide of indigenous peoples. I would say it’s made me very aware that in the arts, as most industries, it’s not a meritocracy, and systemic injustices in the world at large play out in art as well.

“So that means the history that is told of this country is not the full story. As a descendent of [family who attended] Indian boarding schools I’m aware that there are histories and communities that continue to not be represented. As ArtsEmerson reflects the world on stage, there’s a question of what is the world we are presenting? And what is the narrative we’re uplifting?”

Read and Listen to Ronee Penoi on HowlRound on Catalyzing Climate Justice by Divesting from Fossil Fuels

Penoi’s passion about climate justice lends itself to provoking tough conversations in the arts. She feels it must go beyond what ArtsEmerson produces on stage.  

And if she wants input on ArtsEmerson, she can turn to her predecessor David Dower, who coincidentally was her boss many years ago. She added it’s been really lovely to reconnect with Dower.  

For now, Penoi wants to hear from the entire Emerson community, particularly students.

“I would very much say I have an open door. I have a real interest in talking to anyone and everyone,” said Penoi. “I really want to hear from folks. So truly my door is always open. My email is always open to drop an email to get together. I’m interested in making work with people not quote unquote for them.”

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