Since 2010, the nonprofit, artist-driven HUGE Theater has worked to build a Twin Cities improv community that celebrates diversity.
The space hosts a multitude of events aimed at involving people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community through programming, improv classes, and hosting outside organizations.
Located near the corner of 31st and Lyndale, the company resides in a commercial property rented to them by landlord Julius DeRoma, the controversial owner of Club Jager who City Pages recently reported has donated money to notorious white supremacist David Duke.
When news of DeRoma’s political affiliations broke, HUGE’s executive director, Butch Roy, was shocked.
“It felt like we got tossed on this flaming pile of shit," he says. "I stopped what I was doing and went to the theater, because my immediate assumption was that someone was going to put a brick through the window, and I should be here to receive it. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.”
HUGE's first step was to make it clear that DeRoma had no association with the theater. “The few hours until we could get a statement out were tense,” Roy says.
Since the theater is a nonprofit, all decisions about it have to be made by HUGE’s board of directors, no matter how obvious the answer. “It’s like, 'Do you need to think about how you feel about David Duke?’ No, no we don’t. But if our very survival depends on choosing the correct words in the next hour and running it by our board, then we have to do that.”
The statement ends with one simple line: “We would like to formally tell Nazis and the KKK that they can fuck straight off.”
But what now? While one solution would be to break the lease and move, Roy notes that that option is more difficult than it looks. Moving before 2024 would obligate HUGE to pay DeRoma to break the lease. Plus, in a busy spot near Lake and Lyndale, the property would be almost guaranteed to fill immediately -- no matter DeRoma’s politics. That could actually result in more income for DeRoma.
Much of the physical space of the theater -- the stage, risers, walls -- cannot be moved. Other aspects of HUGE, such as its beer and wine license, can’t be transferred since they're tied to the address.
According to Roy, even saying Duke’s name in writing or onstage could threaten their nonprofit status as a nonpartisan organization.
In the weeks after releasing that initial statement, HUGE has hosted a community forum open to anyone to discuss the situation, and held a board meeting to explore options. After a September 13 meeting, HUGE emailed City Pages this statement:
Feedback at our community forum affirmed that HUGE is needed and that our community is unequivocal in rejecting white supremacy.
It's been less than three weeks since this news first broke and, while we want our next steps to be decisive, we don't want to put HUGE at risk by being hasty. We believe we have an imperative to do the research that positions HUGE for a sustainable next chapter.
To that end, we are meeting with experts in a variety of fields and putting the work in to figure out our options.
Still, Roy wants the greater Twin Cities, especially those who had never heard of HUGE before this, to know that the issue with their landlord should not define the organization.
“We're a group of artists that were thrown an impossible problem while still trying to do an extremely difficult thing," says Roy. "This list of the good work we've been doing in the arts community around diversity and inclusion and making safe spaces for people to be themselves and make expressive art is not a shield that we're hiding behind, it is who we are and have been this whole time.”