My son was watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD with us last week, and in the middle of The Two Towers, he turned to me and said, “There aren’t any black people in these movies. That’s racist.” Now, I didn’t (and don’t) want to get into the racial philosophies of Tolkien or Peter Jackson, but his comment get me thinking (yet again) about race in theatre.
Oh, my son is black. I am white.
There’s a lot talk and articles being written about attempts to increase racial diversity in theatre, which I find very exciting. Here’s something white people in theatre need to understand:
The results of your efforts, or lack of results, are noticed.
I’ve been a parent of black children for 19 years, and I’ve been working in theatre even longer. When I work with a theatre or attend a play, I instinctively do a quick racial census. I am always aware. I’m not the only one. (I guarantee you my kids notice.)
Programming is becoming more diverse, but in some ways, programming a more diverse set of plays is the easy part. A theatre can choose from a growing catalog of modern plays written by playwrights of color. That effort in programming, when it’s made, is noticed. But a diverse set of shows does not necessarily point to a diverse producing organization, or that our community of artists is functioning in an inclusive way.
Here are some questions white theatre artists might ask themselves:
1) If you’re in a writer’s group, how many writers of color are in it?
2) If you’re in an actor’s group, how many actors of color are in it?
3) If you run a theatre company (or work at one), how many people of color are:
a. On your staff?
b. In leadership positions?
c. Involved in choosing or casting the season?
d. Working the front of house, interacting with patrons?
e. Acting in your shows? In roles that might normally be cast white?
f. Showing up for your auditions?
g. In your audience?
There are lots of reasons why your numbers might be very low. America is highly segregated in terms of housing—so your neighborhood or town might be mostly white. Our social circles are highly segregated—church, schools, shopping—so unseen walls slowly creep up. And theatre is one of the most social art forms, both in terms of how it is created and how it is presented. Most small theatres start when a group of friends bands together to start making shows--if their circles are already all white, then that's how the company looks.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about up an enterprising young theatre company and gone to their web site and looked at their ensemble photos—all white. And then I'm pretty sure submitting one of my plays to them (which aren't always about race, but usually feature mixed race casts) would be a waste of my time.
When I see an organization that’s all white, I get a little suspicious. A bunch of questions pop into my mind: Are they not aware of racial issues? How clumsily will they respond to any mention of race? How much work will take to engage them in this question, if I decide to pursue it? Would they be accepting of my children? I don’t presume to know the answers. Probably everything will be fine. But these are the questions that arise, right away, unbidden.
You might not care. You might say, oh, well, there’s just not a big enough talent/applicant pool. You might have too many other things to worry about (writing grants, writing plays, going on auditions). You might not know what steps to take. Which is fine. But if you believe and say that racial diversity and equity is important, for yourself and our art form and our country, then you need to do something about it. It won’t necessarily be easy or comfortable.
If you don’t try and don't succeed, your lack of success will be noticed. And not just be me.