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Interrogating Whiteness Part II

On February 9th, a panel comprised of Ralph Peña (Artistic Director of Ma-Yi Theatre), Summer L. Williams (Co-founder of Company One), Melinda Lopez (Playwright in Residence with Huntington Theatre Company), and Polly Carl (Co-Artistic Director of ArtsEmerson) with moderator Sylvia Spears, discussed the shifting climate towards equity of representation in the theatre on HowlRoundTV in collaboration with ArtsEmerson.

One of the key challenges the panel cited for the lack of diversity in season programming nation wide is the absence of artistic staff and board members of color. These are the individuals who craft company mission statements, who apply for federal funding with the expectation they offer a significant contribution back to the community, and who should be seeking to engage, cultivate, and diversify their audience base.

Theaters have begun to realize they need a clear channel for communication between their audiences to discover whether they’re meeting their needs or not. Peña identified the closure of the San Jose Repertory Theatre this past year as an example of a company failing to program for their changing community. Without an open channel, audiences speak with their dollars.

Meanwhile, social media and organizations such as HowlRound have provided individual artists an abundance of information on national theater, as well as a platform to vocalize practices they support or critique where American institutions are failing. Artists are holding theaters accountable now, says Carl.

Peña referred to an investigation he participated in to discover how many actors of color regional theaters were using in their seasons. The only way to find this information was by searching every actor’s name from each individual production to find their images online. The results were less than satisfactory. You can’t request a diversity report from Actor’s Equity Association, says Peña, “because it would create a riot.” In New York City alone the percentage of roles for Asian-American actors came in around 2% of all available opportunities, said Peña, and 8% for African-Americans.

In the last 40 years, with revisions to copyright law, playwrights have gained much more agency over how their work is produced. For some playwrights like Lloyd Suh and Katori Hall, the specificity in ethnicity is absolute, and they have exercised their rights to shut down productions that do not accurately represent their writing. On the other hand, Lopez is interested in how individuals can transform their identity. For her plays, she is much less concerned with ethnicity and more concerned with how an actor brings the audience into the story. Either way, Carl’s assertion rings true: playwrights have been empowered to control the destiny of their work.

The question of “authenticity,” who has the right to produce what, was another point of interrogation. Carl offered a colleague’s struggle to cast a full company of transsexual actors, as called for in their script; should they continue on with the show despite this dilemma? Carl encourage the producer, saying, so long as due-diligence was paid and the producer had exhausted all possible resources, then yes; the necessity to create moments for underrepresented audiences to see themselves onstage, real and embodied, out-weighed this imperfection in casting.

Williams suggested that in such circumstances transparency is fundamentally important, addressing why such decisions were made and what contributing factors went into them. No longer can these programming decisions be made behind closed doors to the exclusive tastes of an artistic staff, theatergoers rightfully demand to understand how these choices resonate with their lives or deviate from their expectations.

A consensus was reached that theatre by playwrights of color or featuring non-white stories should not be a concession for production companies. When treating these plays as “one-offs” or quotas instead of community engaging and audience expanding opportunities, companies blame audiences for not showing up to support the production when they haven’t done the necessary outreach, says Peña. Furthermore, plays by local women of color, says Lopez, have ended up being some of the most financially successful in the Boston area, citing productions of Kirsten Greenidge, Lydia Diamond and herself.

“[Diversity] has to be risky,” says Williams, programmers who write off these productions due to casting limitations or other excuses often have not fully exhausted their resources. She also believes that producers should focus on discovering and cultivating up-and-coming artists of color, who, as most artists, may only grow through experience.

And a final note to take away from this discussion is that plays by playwrights of color should not be limited to issue plays dealing with the non-white experience. “I’d like to find myself represented onstage and have it not be a historical representation about my blackness,” says Williams. She goes on to reference a critique Company One’s production of “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” by A. Rey Pamatmat received. A complaint was that the Filipino-American characters in the show did not discuss their different cultural and non-white experiences in society, when, as Williams clearly states, that was not the purpose of the play. Producers and critics need to reevaluate their perception of whiteness as normality as the nation’s demographics gradually shift to a white minority.

“Awareness makes you proactive” – Summer L. Williams.

To watch the full discussion on HowlRoundTV, click here.


*Image obtained from ArtsEmerson.org.

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