As a preface, I am white. I identify as a woman that uses she/her/hers pronouns. I struggled with whether or not to post this, because as a white woman, I was unsure if it was my place. I was also unsure why I assumed that just because I was a white woman, I couldn’t be pissed as hell that theatre & entertainment is overwhelmingly white. So…take this as you will. I don’t know.
Last year in the much-loved Adaptation course taught by acclaimed Kirsten Greenidge, I wrote my third piece ever that I was really proud of. And by “piece”, I’m talking tiny, real bite-sized. (Piece number one was about a used condom and ran about two pages, and piece number two was about consent and ran about five pages.)
This third piece that is the subject of this post was about catty suburban moms in wealthy, white suburbia. I cracked myself up with it (which is always first and foremost for me, honestly), it was generally received well, and it ran about ten pages. It was a little ten minute play about white women being capital-W White Women. To give you an idea of what I mean by capital-W, the settings were a fancy master bedroom, a yoga class, and a Starbucks.
I started out writing the play because I knew it would be funny, it was an upbeat tempo of humor I was interested in exploring. What I ended with was something much more complicated than what I set out to do.
The ethical good of this play: The only three speaking roles are women who are clever and keep a breakneck pace. There is one man, who very purposefully does not speak a word. And it ends in a moment that gives the women a chance to come together, coming above their cattiness (although most definitely not their x-treme whiteness.)
The ethical bad of this play: The only three speaking roles are women who all MUST be white for the play to function. The male character was originally written white, because if he is a POC, it introduces a whole mutae-personae lens onto the character that I did not perceive to be helpful. And while the three women are certainly clever, they are using their wit to tear each other down for approximately 9 3/4s of the 10 pages. Not even to mention the exclusively cis-gendered nature of each character, and the heteronormative behaviors each person exhibits throughout.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I wrote the play. I think first, above all else, that it is funny. But if hypothetically it were to be staged today, I would have so many mixed emotions about putting it on its feet.
The SOT, and thus our casting pool, is very white. So we usually have at least some white women left over that could easily be plugged into this hypothetical production. But what is ‘ethical’ about putting on yet another show that has an all-white cast?
Yes, this show is supposed to be a call out of sorts (white women, welcome to your tape), but at the end of the day, this production is not employing an actor of color. In this day and age, no matter what the subject matter of the show, how can we justify an all-white cast (which at the very least, is just bolstering the idea that white is the default?) In the SOT, our casting choices are limited to our students (and getting more POC into our community is a very different blog post), so we inevitably end up nearly every quarter with multiple shows that have all-white casts. But if we were to bring this hypothetical production to the real world that has an unlimited casting pool, it gets even more complicated.
While my show that I use here as an example isn’t Important Canon (far from it, I’d wager), there are plenty of shows that are Important Canon that are usually done with all-white casts, because white is seen as the default. How can we justify those productions? There are plenty of shows that are Important Canon that are written with an all-white cast on purpose to make a specific point…but in today’s day and age, where there is some (slow-going) progress towards color-conscious casting, how can we justify mounting productions of those shows?
When there are so many deserving shows that are written by POC, when there are so many shows of excellent quality that showcase the experience of POC, when there are so many shows that go undone that at least could be mounted with POC in (or entirely comprising) the cast, how can we justify any show that MUST be completely white to “work” either structurally (as in my example), or due to money reasons (“we needed a big name to draw in audiences, and this is who we could get”), or due to laziness (“we just didn’t have access to POC actors in our area”), or due to ignorance (“oh, our cast is all-white? Oh gee! Didn’t notice! FASCINATING. Wonder what that means?”)
I don’t know if there’s “right” answers to any of these questions…
but after seeing two years worth of productions in my own school and a decade worth of theatre before coming to college, I’m sick of the white answers to these questions.