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Intentions: Why are you telling this story?

During the Tonys this summer, I remember celebrating The Color Purple’s win of Best Revival of a Musical, and watching the heavily-white production team take the stage to accept their award. A friend of mine texted me almost immediately. “That’s not right,” the text read. “There are too many white people up there.”

A few days later, when discussing their win with other friends of mine, someone studied the crowd of white men standing around the mic, and said, “I’m glad they chose, out of all their options, to tell that story.”

This felt very much like a personal-level reflection of a national conversation that’s been happening in this country. Who gets to tell people’s stories?

Maybe it’s worth acknowledging that a predominately white, male team decided not to do theatre that looked like them. It was certainly a theme at the show that the nominations (and winners) were more diverse than the infamously white Oscars. Maybe they chose to tell this story out of an understanding for the need to tell new, underrepresented stories.

That’s the question here. Did they?

Many theatre-makers are concerned with the general public’s interest in theatre, or lack thereof. This runs alongside the arguments of whether a “minority story” is going to sell: many theaters fear the lack of ticket sales if they decide to stray from the Western (read: white) Canon. Unfortunately, in many places, that fear is not irrational. However, some companies use that, and/or a lack of diversity on the creativity team, to not even bother producing diverse works by a diverse group of playwrights. Perhaps they feel they are not able or allowed to tell those stories. Or perhaps there lacks an immediate or even foreseeable payoff.

A few days ago, Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote Who Gets to Write What?, an op-ed in the New York Times that addresses this issue. “The anxiety about a shrinking audience,” she writes, “is accompanied by a dull realization that writing from the perspectives of those who have traditionally been silenced in ‘great literature’ — the queer, the colored, the poor, the stateless — is being bought, being sold, and most important to writers obsessed with status (and we are all obsessed with status), winning awards and acclaim.”

Awards and acclaim, like a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical?

I think anyone can write, direct, produce any story, even one that isn’t theirs. What’s important is that they tell it well: accurately, respectfully, lovingly. What’s important is knowing that mistakes will be made, corrections will be needed. And it cheapens the story when its tellers are telling it for the recognition.

Would the production team of The Color Purple look the way it does if Oprah hadn’t been involved? If there wasn’t the high possibility of a Tony win? Would they feel the same about new work? Are they patting themselves on the back for doing “a Black show,” or are they genuinely working towards dismantling the white stronghold in theatre?

I can’t speak for them, and I won’t presume. But it’s important to consider the reasons why something is being done before immediately congratulating white people just for doing it.

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