Gentle readers, I’d like to tell you a story. I work managing a theatre company that primarily produces works of what might be called “multicultural theatre.” What that means is that we basically do plays about people of color and that makes us somehow a special class of theatre, though mainstream theatres aren’t called “white theatres” for staging seasons that are either entirely white, or all-but. I’d be angrier about this, but it does mean that there are specific grants for which we can apply, and non-profits need grants to run. You take the good with the bad, I guess.
The company I work for is currently deciding whether or not to put on a play at another venue, which seems innocuous enough; theatre companies use one another’s spaces all the time. However, this potential working relationship began when the director of that venue — let’s call him Keith — approached me and my boss by saying, “I hate to say this, but there’s no other way to put it: my venue is having real difficulty getting people of color to attend our shows. We’d like your help.” The venue in question is close to my hometown, in an area where about half of one percent of all residents are Black, and the total percentage of people of color doesn’t break four percent. Their season consists of shows like Assassins, Annie, The Wizard of Oz, & Legally Blonde: The Musical. All of which (shut up!) are shows I would gleefully fill a seat for. Especially Assassins. I love that show. But that’s a pretty white season.
I just didn’t understand how someone could be confused that in an area with virtually no Black people and very few Latinos, they had difficulty attracting persons of color to their performances. Let’s be charitable and assume that Keith was asking us how his theatre might engage with audiences of color, and I think that the easiest answer is: put on shows that they care about. I mean, for Christ’s sake, if the least white show in your season is Fiddler on the Roof, what do you expect?
I’m going to digress for a moment. I’ve been told before that part of the problem was that Blacks don’t engage with art, that they don’t patronize art enough for their art to be represented. First of all, that’s nonsense. Black people engage with art all the time, whether or not it’s what the larger public considers to be art or not. In Philadelphia, a city that is almost 50% African-American, there are more murals than any other city in the United States (thousands!). Or take graffiti, for example. It’s an art form with a name and a purpose; with movements, styles and history, and it was an art form long before Banksy turned anyone on to it.
Secondly, Black people are (as are all peoples of color) often engaged with more “traditional” forms of art, when it represents and engages with their life experiences. Shows that are just about white people, performed in majority white areas, are not going to cut it. Returning to our point, maybe if Keith put on Radio Golf at a venue in the city, then he could get black bodies in seats. This isn’t even a problem isolated to the podunk little corner of the world that is my hometown. Even Broadway is wrestling with these problems, and for exactly the same reasons: the plays being produced don’t engage with the realities of African-American life, to say nothing of the fact that these plays have a stunning dearth of African-American talent.
This isn’t just about Black people (thought that would be enough to piss me off); the whole tone of theatre in this country is directed toward white, straight, cisgendered, middle class, able-bodied, neurotypical audiences. That’s not the whole of our theatre scenes, but it’s where most of the money is spent, and that’s to the detriment of a genuinely compelling and diverse theatre culture in our country. I mentioned in a previous post on colorblind casting that Asian actors face similar barriers. Asian Pacific American playwright, David Henry Hwang, has a great interview that addresses those issues. All hope is not lost, however. Broadway has responded directly to its race problem, and there’s a movement toward Autism spectrum-friendly performances, like this performance of The Lion King, about a month ago. That movement is worldwide, as evidenced by the UK’s recent efforts to expand what it calls “relaxed performance” guidelines.
Having an effective and vibrant theatre culture that engages all people requires that theatre, as an art form, meet people where they are. It must be cast diversely, advertised widely, and envisioned empathetically. It can no longer be directed to what Chuck Mee calls the “artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists.” Location, location, location, and I’m referring to places (physical locations) and spaces (as in “shared space,” or “safe space”). I think that before theatre in this country can be truly diverse, trends in show selection are going to have to become less centralized, without every other regional theatre producing the plays that were on Broadway the past couple of years. If theatres want more diverse audiences, and the funding that comes with it, then they are going to have put on “relaxed” stagings, and go into Black communities, with at least some Black actors, and put on plays that Black people can relate to.
I think that engagement has to be as sincere and complete as possible, because otherwise it runs the risk of tokenism. You can’t put a single Black woman actor on stage, for example, and call it a day—and yes, Saturday Night Live, I’m looking at you. I mention SNL because I’ve always thought of it as more theatre than television, but the takeaway is as real as ever. I don’t think anyone should be terribly pleased with their eventual hiring of one Black woman, for the same reason I was a little put off by Keith’s question for me and my employer. You don’t get a standing ovation for looking to hire one person from an underrepresented group after years of ignoring them, and asking “how can I get Black people to come see my shows?” is the wrong goshdarn question. The shows, as much metaphorically as physically, need to come to us.