More than 200 Dickens Fair cast members, and thousands of attendees from years past say that the annual holiday festival has been a bleak house of racist behavior toward performers of color.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a 51-year old San Francisco holiday celebration that draws people a-wassailing in Victorian period costumes with 1870s-era historical-themed booths and vendors, is a drive-through only affair this year because of COVID-19 protocols. And maybe that’s just as well, considering we learned this weekend that cast members say the Fair has been quietly harboring a sexual assault and groping problem for years. There was apparently an internal Dickens Fair meeting on this topic in May, with survivors saying that certain repeat predators “have been able to prey upon and abuse other participants for decades.”
We learned this because on Saturday — the very day that the 2021 Dickens Fair opened — the Chronicle dropped a bomb on them: a lengthy exposé interviewing more than a half-dozen cast members saying the fair has an ugly history of racism toward cast members of color. That report details a number of racist incidents that were allegedly swept under the rug, and how BIPOC performers were hassled by security with far more frequency, according to an internal cast group called Londoners of the African Diaspora (LoAD).
“Every member of LoAD has been called a slave,” 20-year Dickens Fair veteran performer Anastasia Elizondo told the Chronicle. “One of us has been called Aunt Jemima, another Sally Hemings.”
While much of this may have come from fair attendees, it sounds like there are some pretty troubling in-house issues, too. The Chron also describes a “long-secret VIP bar” called the Opium Den which is apparently “rife with Asian stereotyping.”
The Chronicle tells of a boycott by more than 200 cast members, but there’s also an online petition with more than 3,300 signatures “committing to not attending the Dickens Fair” until some measures from an Dickens Fair Anti-Racism Initiative are adopted and implemented.
“If you have attended, volunteered, or worked at The Great Christmas Dickens Fair in San Francisco you know the joyful spirit of the holidays it represents,” the petition says. “Unfortunately, that joy is not experienced by everyone. Marginalized cast and crew members have experienced racism, sexism, and ableism at Dickens Fair for years. Members who have reported harassment to leadership have been ignored.”
The Dickens Fair is organized by a reenactment company called Red Barn Productions, who put on this, and other Ren Faire-style events both publicly and privately. Their representatives told the Chronicle that the boycott was “a surprise and a disappointment,” and they insist they’ve made changes in the form of adding “affirmative consent training.”
Red Barn CEO Kevin Patterson did speak to the Chronicle, but maybe did not do himself any favors. “Social media has made one complaint sound like 1,000 complaints and one circumstance sound like the norm, when it is the outlier,” he told the Chronicle.
The Chron delves into the Dickens’ Fair history, and it was apparently started by Patterson’s parents, who were also early Renaissance Faire co-founders in the 1960s. So this is a family-owned business that was handed down, utilizes a mostly volunteer workforce, and seems to lack formalized human resources processes for dealing with such complaints. The paper notes that complaints about abuses like these are increasingly an issue in the world of hobby and play spaces.
And there have clearly been missteps. At last May’s meeting to discuss the sexual harassment issues, a Red Barn spokesperson posted on the official Dickens Fair Facebook page that the LoAD group was “attempting to take over the Dickens Fair.”
According to the Chronicle, “Within days, that statement was replaced with a post that read ‘we hear your concerns.’”
Image: @fionama via Twitter