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Responding to a wake up call

Arts Council England just released a statement on Monday Dec 8th about funding cuts for theatres that don’t show attempts to make their work more diverse.

The week before also in Britain, Meera Syal a writer and actor interviewed with The Stage Magazine and talked about vast potential for diverse audiences, in particular Asian audiences, that are not being taken advantage of by British theatres.

“There’s a very gregarious, moneyed, new generation [of Asian audiences] coming up, who spend an awful lot of money on entertainment and culture. And I think the theatres are missing a trick if they’re not putting on stuff that might appeal to those audiences.”

She also said Asian audiences would not only see Asian plays and writers should not write Asian plays to gain Asian audiences. However, she also said Asian audiences are “extra supportive and extra excited when they see stories that reflect their experiences or a diverse cast of people that they might know.”

Then artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East, Kerry Michael responded in support of Syal’s statements saying that “theatres must reflect the nation’s diverse community in their programming… British theatre is failing partly because stories aren’t relevant to people’s lives…Everyone, wherever they’re from, wants stories … about who they are…’posh people’ go to theatres to see plays about posh folk like Wilde or Coward.” –The Guardian

Another response to Syal’s statements has also become quite a news sensation. Actor Janet Suzman who was trained with Shakespeare and born and worked in South Africa said,

“Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare. I’ve just done a South African play. [Solomon and Marion] My co-star is a young black man from the slums of Cape Town. Totally brilliant actor. I saw one black face in the room, at the Print Room. I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states?… And they don’t bloody come. They’re not interested. It’s not in their culture, that’s why. Just as their stuff is not in white culture. Fair’s fair. Theatre is a totally European invention, as is tragedy. Other countries don’t do tragedy. It’s an invention by the Greeks.” –The Guardian

When reading the summary and description of Solomon and Marion, however, it seems that Suzman’s white character Marion is more of the main “star” not just a “co-star” in this production. In this way, a lot of the facts about theatre are ignored. Suzman’s argument is exactly what we’ve been working on getting away from in our studies at Boston University. The canonized white male playwrights are not the only theatre that was written, produced or performed in our world history. These people just had enough power and opportunity in their societies to survive in written form.

Syal responded, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard any single race or culture claim theatre as their invention before.”

We’re all responding to a wake up call that there is racial bias in the world. In England, their Arts Council is calling for more active attempts for diversity in theatre. This is shortly after the jury rulings about Michael Brown and Eric Garner so that now, in the States, we are dealing with a political and social conflict within our society. Suzman’s, comments perhaps simply came from a place of frustration for wanting diverse audiences and then spiraled into an idea that was sheltered in only her own experiences. And of course, getting caught within ourselves and only referencing what we know or have been told is a trap.

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