Posted on December 13, 2021

Black Cast Members Boycott Dickens Christmas Fair Over Failure to Prevent Racist, Sexist Behavior

Erin Feher, San Francisco Chronicle, December 4, 2021

For her first Great Dickens Christmas Fair in 2015, LaToya Tooles fashioned a gown out of dollar-store hula hoops and a tablecloth. A friend had invited her to the annual event, a festive re-creation of 19th century London inspired by the works of Charles Dickens that has been running in San Francisco for nearly 40 years.

Almost as soon as she arrived at the antique winter wonderland, she joined the revelers on Fezziwig’s dance floor and didn’t stop waltzing for hours.


Her history with the tight-knit fair community is what makes the past two years so heartbreaking for Tooles, who is one of a small number of Black cast members at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. What started as a goodwill effort to help rectify what is seen as the event’s failure to protect its volunteers and guests from racist and sexist behavior has turned ugly. Now, more than 200 cast members and thousands of guests have pledged to boycott this year’s fair, which is set to return to the Cow Palace on Saturday, Dec. 4, in a scaled-down, drive-through experience for the next three weekends.

“I want people to recognize what their values are and decide if the Dickens Fair aligns with them,” says Tooles, founder of an affinity group for the fair’s Black performers called Londoners of the African Diaspora, or LoAD.

Organizers of the boycott, a group of Dickens Fair cast and crew dubbed the London Solidarity Network, won’t support a return to the fair until a list of safety requirements is met. A petition in support of the action has already received more than 3,000 signatures.


While less has been said about equity issues in hobby and play spaces, the fight against discrimination in those spaces can be more complex. Americans dedicate an average of five hours a day to leisure and sports activities, but these arenas often lack formal organizational structures for initiating or carrying out substantive change. For Black people, the harm can be multiplied when they find themselves facing discrimination in spaces where they are going for rest and relaxation — especially when their hobby involves pretending to exist centuries ago, in places where equality and safety for marginalized people were even further out of reach.

“Every member of LoAD has been called a slave,” says Anastasia Elizondo, an Afro-Chicana actor and comedian from Oakland who has been performing at the Dickens Fair for nearly 20 years. She adds that fairgoers’ limited knowledge of Black history can lead to offensive generalizations and assumptions. “One of us has been called Aunt Jemima, another Sally Hemings.”

Angel Dotts, who is biracial and calls herself a Dickens “Fair brat,” started attending with her parents when she was a toddler. She says she’s used to being one of the few brown faces at the fair, but when her husband, a Black man, started attending, she began to understand what the situation was like for attendees of color. Despite having a cast member pass, she says he was stopped at every security gate — not just by hired security officers, but also by fellow fair participants, and looked at with suspicion by vendors.

“His experiences started to make me recognize that this was not a safe space,” Dotts says.

According to others in the world of historical costuming and re-enactments, what’s playing out in the Bay Area is not an anomaly.


In June 2020, when Red Barn Productions released an emphatic statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, LoAD saw an opportunity to ensure the company’s actions aligned with its words.

At Red Barn’s request, LoAD members spent weeks researching and crafting a meticulous 53-point plan that addressed developing a standardized method for reporting harassment and discrimination, ensuring increased representation of Black, Indigenous and people of color at the fair, conducting mandatory antidiscrimination training and hiring HR and diversity and inclusion professionals. It also asked that Red Barn discontinue a tradition of portraiture casting, a practice that casts only people with an aesthetic resemblance to a historic character.

But after LoAD submitted the initiative in August of last year, Tooles and others said, Red Barn continually refused to engage with the document or complete the requested review steps. What LoAD felt were requests for simple acts of solidarity — such as making a public statement to condemn a racist post by a longtime fair vendor — were met with resistance. {snip}


For LoAD member Leandra Darden, however, the moment brought a revelation.

“The community proved to me that it was unwilling to protect itself, not just me,” she said. “I really believe that if white women don’t demand things, Black women cannot get them.”


The event was not held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Red Barn promised to pick up the discussions with LoAD in early January. Meetings were canceled or postponed until early May. By April, both the artistic director hire and the casting policy were announced, which spurred LoAD to take action.

At the scheduled May 6 meeting, it issued a statement of no confidence in Red Barn Productions to manage the Dickens Fair. It also demanded the formation of a supervisory board and the hiring of a qualified HR consultant and a diversity and inclusion professional. The group set a deadline of May 14 for Red Barn to agree to those terms or face public exposure and a possible boycott.


On the day of the request, Red Barn spokesperson Shannon Damnavits announced that the Dickens Fair Cast & Crew Facebook page would be archived, with posting disabled. She also released a statement on the Facebook page saying Red Barn was “shocked and saddened by the abrupt and declarative actions of Londoners of the African Diaspora,” characterizing LoAD as a threat: “Tonight they elected to walk away from the table and are attempting to take over the Dickens Fair.”

Within days, that statement was replaced with a post that read “we hear your concerns” and emphasized the company’s commitment to “continue with its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work.”

In the months since, Red Barn has made a human resources hire, launched a “Red Flag Reporting System” for people to anonymously report any improper activity, and engaged a diversity and inclusion firm, Hummingbird Humanity. It has a new single-page DEI Commitment statement that “encourages” BIPOC representation rather than requiring it, and is asking that all Dickens cast, crew and vendors sign it and pledge to be better.

Red Barn says its full statement on diversity and inclusion should be finished early next year.


Red Barn, however, has declined to create a supervisory board, something LoAD members see as non-negotiable.


As the movement has grown, some Dickens Fair cast members and vendors who have been on the periphery of the yearlong conversation have jumped in, aghast and aggrieved that the advocacy groups are “trying to ruin the magic” and “destroy Dickens.” {snip}


Earlier this year, LoAD created a document that laid out minimum requirements for a safe Dickens Fair. It includes a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment; the renovation of a long-secret VIP bar known as the Opium Den seen as rife with Asian stereotyping; allowing all trans or nonbinary actors to portray the gender representation of their choosing; and more.

In other words, they are advocating collective liberation.