Magazine article Black Masks

RACIALLY INTEGRATING THE AMERICAN THEATER: Part I: Defining the Problem of Black Exclusion

Magazine article Black Masks

RACIALLY INTEGRATING THE AMERICAN THEATER: Part I: Defining the Problem of Black Exclusion

Article excerpt

I write to propose ten recommendations to help racially integrate the American theater, both on stage and behind the curtain. I make these recommendations based on my over twenty years of participation in the American theater as a producer, stage director, trustee, legal counsel and patron. Specifically, I have worked with eight theater companies, for an aggregate of more than sixty years of service. Most importantly, I have interacted closely with Black theaters as well as mainstream theater companies.

This article is the first of two essays addressing this important issue. In this first part, I describe the problem, citing recent industry studies that confirm the exclusion of African Americans from leadership roles in the American theater. Although Broadway is the most publicized sector of American theater, the nation's nonprofit theaters employ almost the full range of theater professionals also. Further, while Broadway is driven almost wholly by economics, the vast nonprofit theater network has a different legally mandated mission: artistic enrichment for the public. The historic and continued exclusion of Black folks from nonprofit theater jobs, including key leadership roles, must be addressed by the industry. If not, both art and equity will continue to suffer. My forthcoming article will offer some ideas for solutions.

American Theater's Racial Segregation

Most majority theater organizations talk about diversity, not racial integration. "People of Color" is also a frequently used phrase that can include White Hispanics, among many others. My concern is more specific-achieving employment equity for Black folks within all aspects of the American theater. However, the degree of Black exclusion is often masked by playing the "diversity game." The game is simple and involves increasing the numerator used to mathematically calculate progress in achieving goals for "diversity" in employment. By increasing the numerator (through the inclusion of all racial minorities, Caucasian women, gays, the disabled, and others), the measure of progress appears deceivingly better, (i.e., the combining of all non-Caucasian employment inexorably increases their cumulative proportion of total jobs available -the denominator). Of course the fallacy in such calculations assumes that all diverse groups face the same level of heinous discriminatory exclusion. Though untrue, this approach serves to obscure the core problem which is the disproportionate lack of Black employment in theater jobs. Therefore, the diversity discussion, and its corollary, "people of color," are inappropriate as measures for charting Black progress, or lack thereof, within the American theater.

While actors are the most visible evidence of a theater's racial integration, actors account for only a fraction of all jobs within the theater. Even then they are not always center stage, as Laura CollinsHughes notes in her New York Times theater review of the Encores! presentation of Roger Miller's Big River: "In this cast of 22, [B]lack characters other than Jim are mostly in the background."

Moreover, a look at jobs behind the curtain reveals a level of racial segregation that is even more astounding and must be addressed. Such jobs remain almost the exclusive preserve of Caucasians. By way of example, based on press reports, when David Stewart was hired as production director at the Guthrie Theater in 2015, the entire technical staff of over seventy people was Caucasian. Alternately, the Caucasian artistic director of one of the nation's seventy-two League of Resident Theaters (LORT) once told me in 2015 that their company casts 22 percent of roles without regard to race. He further explained that this percentage understated the full level of minority actor participation, as it did not include plays that required race-specific casting, such as Black actors in a production of A Raisin in the Sun. Because our discussion was about racial integration in the theater, my response was something like: "Well, now you have a benchmark goal for all other segments of your company - 22 percent non-Caucasian mainstage directors, board members, stage managers, technicians, designers, and the like. …

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