What has been the impact of race, and racism, on African-Americans working in the theater world? How should that world change? Those questions have taken on renewed, impassioned life since the killing of George Floyd, the shooting deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the nationwide protests over racial injustice that have followed.
On Monday night, 300 artists challenged “White American Theater” in a blistering statement. This week the Broadway Advocacy Coalition is holding a forum on racism in the industry. We asked four African-American theater figures — based in different parts of the country and in different corners of the business — to share their first-person accounts. Here are their edited responses.
THE PLAYWRIGHT: Lydia r. diamond
‘Until you show me institutional change, I don’t want to hear it.’
My experiences of the theater are no different from my experiences of the world at large, which is that it’s very difficult to navigate in a racist and sexist world. Sometimes I think that theater thinks it’s somehow immune to being complicit in the intrinsic racism of our world. What I’ve seen over the course of my career is institutional racism and sexism at every level of the American theater. And that saddens me.
I hear so often from white men in the theater, “Oh, we don’t know what to do because all of the black people get the opportunities.” But you have only to look at the numbers. And it’s shocking.
Every second of every moment of my career is touched by some degree of a kind of racism that is just pervasive in the landscape of America. This moment, where the world is blowing up, comes out of a pent-up frustration about the way we as people of color have been navigating the world. It is frustrating to me and, I will presumptuously say, most other African-Americans or people of color in my industry.
I could list off some anecdotal “this thing happened and that thing happened.” I will say that I feel it around marketing. I feel it around reviews. I feel it around opportunities. For years — it’s a little bit less, because I’ve asked my agent to address this — but for years, it was a given that if I was produced, it would be in the [company’s] smaller theater.
It’s every production at every institution — with an acknowledgment that even within those institutions, I have been supported and nurtured and given an artistic home. Because that’s the [expletive] of racism in our country. The people that you’re working with love you, often. And you love them, often. And the country is entrenched in institutional, societal racism.
Oh my God, I’ll say this and then never have another Broadway production. But I think this is the time to speak truth. Everywhere there’s this racism and a lack of opportunity, and we know that the Great White Way is even more so. It’s a world that has been run by white men, and it’s a world that has high, high stakes. The higher the economic opportunities in our country, the more black people are denied access. Period.
You look at our Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who are African-American, and you look at our genius-grant-winning playwrights who are African-American, and then you measure how many people who have those kinds of accolades have access to venues on Broadway who are white versus who are black. You look at the people with those credentials and how many regional theater shows they have had, main-stage shows, next to their peers. And it’s tangible.
On the first day of a rehearsal, the whole theater company comes into the room and you do the meet-and-greet, and then you read the play. Always those rooms are at least 98 percent white people. The institutions aren’t diverse in any way.
The theater world is made up of really smart people. You figured out how to make people buy seats at between $150 to $500. You can figure out how to not be racist.
But there’s not a real investment in it. There just isn’t. And that’s how our country has functioned. We talk a good game about it. All of the institutions are writing letters about how they stand in solidarity. But until you show me institutional change, I don’t want to hear it.
I wrote a play called “Smart People.” It was at Second Stage, Off Broadway. At the heart of it was this idea that if white leaders of institutions, and white people in general, could just acknowledge the depths of their embracing a kind of white supremacy that allows them to allow institutions to be not inclusive and not equitable, maybe we could fix it.
But that means real institutional change. For real. Not a program where you now have three interns who are black. And I have not a lot of faith that the theater structure, the way it’s built right now, wants that.
The institutions are still not as they should be. And it’s crushing.
Lydia R. Diamond made her Broadway debut in 2011 with the comic drama “Stick Fly.” A year ago, Off Broadway, she won raves for her baseball bioplay, “Toni Stone.” Based in Evanston, Ill., and frequently produced in regional theaters, Diamond, who is 51, is also known for the campus drama “Smart People” and her adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”
Interview by Laura Collins-Hughes.
The Director: Kenny leon
‘I’m not giving up on Broadway. I’m not giving up on America.’
Many of us have been pushing toward this moment. Of course all lives matter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. We’re talking about the black house on a street in a line of houses, and that black house is on fire, and has been on fire for 400 years, and needs our considered attention, resources and intervention to put that fire out. I mean the fire of racial injustice.
The message I want to say to my black brothers and sisters, whose heritage is rooted in racial injustice and who have been on the front lines of this struggle for 400 years, from my great-great grandfather, to my great-grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, but also people like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and the work of the Negro Ensemble Company and New Federal Theater: I want to honor their commitment.
To my white friends and colleagues: I want their help to create a more just world. My experiences have led me to know that if white citizens were honest with themselves, they can remember incidents where moments of racism entered into the atmosphere and they didn’t say anything about it.
Sometimes it could have been on the golf course, it could have been in a rehearsal hall, it could have been a corporate meeting. But now, when we have the ears of the world, there has to be a discussion, a dialogue. And especially for Broadway, it has to be a dialogue and it can no longer be one way. There hasn’t been enough listening with my well-intentioned white friends.
There needs to be more diversity in the theater. There needs to be more diversity of storytelling. Money should not always lead the discussion. We need different voices at all of the tables, and I think we can do that.
Of course, I’ve experienced racism. You cannot live in America and not experience racism as a black man.
I ran a major regional theater company. Many people in that community were very happy — white and black people. But, also, I received a death threat. It was handwritten, and it said, “When we go to the theater, we want to see our own, not some uppity, pushy coon.”
On a given day, after I leave, working hard there, you end up going to a reception to raise money, and you have to go to the governor’s mansion. So I’m shaking hands and begging for money to do the challenging stories, and sometimes people were afraid. “Now, wait a minute. You had 11 plays, and three of them were by African-American writers. What are you trying to do? Are you trying to turn us into a black theater?” And then on the way home I may get pulled over by the cops just because my car looked a little too fancy or I was laughing too much in the car and the policeman wondered why.
When producers and regional theaters don’t look at you as a whole individual, and only interested in what you can bring to the racial conversation, I think that’s a form of racism as well. And to me, it’s a form of racism when you don’t give black people, and people of color, an opportunity to write about the work that’s created. We need to work harder for diversity in terms of who is writing about what’s onstage.
I have a radical optimism, built in my heart, that says right is going to win, and we are going to get there. I’m not giving up on regional theater, I’m not giving up on Off Broadway theater, I’m not giving up on Broadway theater, I’m not giving up on America and I’m not giving up on our world. But I think it’s going to take listening. It’s going to take all of us.
What do I think our world should look like? We’re storytellers, so I think this is a great opportunity for artists to build that vision. All I can do is go by the plays that a lot of artists have been doing over the years — the Katori Halls of the world, the Jocelyn Biohs of the world, the Tarell McCraneys of the world, the Jeremy O. Harrises of the world. My world is shaped by the hopes and dreams of those plays. I definitely see a world where we don’t have the knees of the people that are supposed to protect us on our necks, suffocating the life out of us.
Kenny Leon, a 64-year-old director, served as the artistic director of two Atlanta nonprofits, the Alliance Theater, which is one of the nation’s leading regional theaters, and True Colors Theater Company, which he founded to celebrate black storytelling. He has directed 11 productions on Broadway; the most recent was this year’s revival of “A Soldier’s Play,” and in 2014 he won a Tony Award for a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Interview by Michael Paulson.
The artistic director: Sarah bellamy
‘Black artists who have been wounded: Come on home.’
A couple years ago, I wrote a treatment for play that started with a scene in Minneapolis in which a police officer killed a young black man, and then the city started burning. At the time, I was like, “That would never happen in Minneapolis.” I mean, certainly police violence has, but not the city on fire. And now here we are. But I think people are listening. I see people taking care of each other and the community mobilizing. That’s not getting reported, but I’m heartened by the ways that people are showing up for each other.
More and more, I think we need to focus deeply on racial healing and attend to the most vulnerable. We’ve known this for some time, but I’m so glad that more folks throughout the country are starting to understand that Minnesota is a crucible of so many deep inequities for black Americans: housing, jobs, health, policing, incarceration and detention, just sector after sector.
I’m really interested in how Penumbra can lend the tools of our practice to help solve some of those inequities in really meaningful partnerships with people on the front lines of that work. That’s the work I’ll be commissioning, that’s the equity work we’ll be doing. That’s how we’ll serve the community.
I come from a tradition of making art by, for and about black folks, and certainly everyone’s welcome. I was given an opportunity to be loved and to be trusted and to try and test and fail and given cover in a way that I think a lot of other people haven’t. But right now, we’re seeing artists of color who have been proximate to white-led theaters start to organize.
I haven’t grown up proximate to that whiteness and white power and that leveraging of money, so I haven’t experienced the kind of abuse that these brilliant artists have had in white theaters. And there is a tension, a generative tension, I think, between folks who are kind of embedded within and caring for legacy institutions and those working as free agents.
Some of those folks have even been required to be gatekeepers, to keep other people of color out. And when you start to realize that you’ve been used in that way, or required to perform that role, that’s a deep wound. Our activist mothers and fathers warned us about this tactic. Larry Neal, in one of his early essays, said “The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community.”
I want to draw upon the proud moments when black artists have stood up to the American theater. Folks are drawing now on August Wilson’s critical speech, “The Ground On Which I Stand.” I’ve read that speech 40 times over my career and what I’m noticing about this most recent collective uprising by free agents, by individual artists working within regional and Broadway theaters, is that they seem to want the posture but not the prescription.
August didn’t call for integration into white theaters. He said, “Fund black theaters.” He said, “Black theater is alive and well; it’s just not funded.” I invite these black artists who have been wounded by their efforts with the Great White Way to come back home, to come and invest in our companies and to bring their wealth and their talent and their broken hearts back to these legacy institutions, where we can heal them and nurture them because we really need their help.
I differentiate between black theater and plays with black people in them. Black theater always has a social justice imperative and community uplift embedded in it, whereas plays with black people in them might actually be injurious or do harm to the black community.
If white institutions would be willing to take up the work to involve, educate and activate white audiences, that would go a long way in helping us move forward. Activate your white audiences to talk about whiteness. Say, “We are going to roll up our sleeves, and we’re going to work with our white folks to support racial equity, to fight white supremacy and anti-blackness.” That would be tremendously powerful. Whether or not they’re willing to do that work, I don’t know, because it’s hard.
In the same way, a legacy black institution like Penumbra Theater is going to lean in hard to attend to the black community and support people of color. There’s a role for everybody in the movement.
The most profound thing that we can practice right now is discernment — to be patient, wherever we sit, whether we’re an artistic director, a playwright, a producer, whether you’re white or black or whether you’re emerging or at the pinnacle of your career. Using discernment to figure out exactly what your most potent role can be. And not getting distracted by the shiny things that might get flashed in front of you.
Sarah Bellamy is the artistic director of Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of only three professional African-American theaters in the nation to offer a full season of performances. It was founded by her father, Lou Bellamy, in 1976; since taking over as artistic director in 2017, Bellamy, 42, has produced “For Colored Girls,” “This Bitter Earth” and most recently, “The White Card.”
Interview by Salamishah Tillet.
The actor: Jelani Alladin
‘How do we right this wrong? We come to the table with demands.’
The most heartbreaking thing is people keep asking: What is the message? That is by far the most racist question of all. The message is the same it always has been, since the first slave stepped on to the rich soil of this stolen land. SET. US. FREE. That is the message.
The message is, start over the American systems that were made in hopes of keeping black people out of the picture. This includes capitalism, this includes politics, and this includes the Great White Way.
The message is, clear a space at the table, so that we can sit beside you and enjoy the benefits of the seeds our ancestors planted for this now blossoming nation; seeds that for so long, only you, the white privileged, have harvested.
I am 27, just beginning my career as an artist. I have done only one show on Broadway, but I can share with you multiple stories of the racist actions and words that have been flung at me. I simply have no interest in that. Those wounds have healed. I am more interested in preventing the master from ever beating me and my fellow men ever again.
How do we bargain? How do we start again? How do we right this wrong? We come to the table with demands. And for me, it’s about three words: communication, collaboration and care.
I would like there to be more communication between blacks, artists of color, and whites; an investment in listening, and not listening to hear, but listening to understand. A conversation is a talk where news and ideas are exchanged; not looted, not stolen, exchanged, which means to give something and receive something.
I would like there to be more collaboration. A show cannot happen without producers, writers, directors, choreographers, stage managers and actors all working together, but where is the inclusion in each of these job positions? Why is there such a lack of black and people of color producers, writers, directors, choreographers and stage managers? Why do black and P.O.C. actors so often get shut out?
When we talk about the Great White Way, there is one thing we can never separate from it, and that is the American dollar. The Great White Way is a commercial business. I get it, money must be made. But for so long this business has put forward the message that with black and P.O.C. producers, writers, directors, choreographers, stage managers, and actors, money can’t be made. That is simply false. That is simply racist. That is not taking a chance on the power of collaboration.
How many white artists are given the chance to try and fail, over and over again, before becoming critical successes? Yet for blacks and P.O.C. it’s a one and done deal?! That is unfair.
Furthermore, if you so strongly believe that black and P.O.C. artists don’t possess the necessary skills, then provide the space to teach us. I am interested in producing. Invite me in, so I can learn; then give me a chance to execute, without the pressure of having to soar above and beyond the first time. Because the truth of the matter is, you are just looking for any excuse to take me down.
Lastly, I would love to see more care. That may sound simple and trite, but it’s a basic human decency often passed over. I need you to take care in the way you choose to speak to me. I need you to take care in the construction of the sentences you choose to say to me.
A white person of power once gave me a note at intermission of a performance about a song I sang, in a moment where the character knows he is singing, with a little more passion, and they said, “You’re not in ‘The Color Purple’!” There was no care given in the choice to say those words to me.
I also need you to take care in your actions. That can be as simple as greeting me when you see me for the first time that day; or not as simple as considering for yourself, if asking a black man to steal an item onstage from a store is really pushing forward the appropriate narrative, before handing me this new addition to the story.
I want the same care as my co-workers who are open about their mental health issues and get to take days off. Yet when I am slandered on social media as “the [racist slur] in ‘Frozen,’ ” I must take it, and do my show as expected and not be checked in with until after?! More care.
Each person’s experience with the systematic racism of the Great White Way is unique. They are all valid. They must all be communicated, in hopes of successful and inclusive collaboration led with care.
It is possible.
Jelani Alladin, a 27-year-old actor, starred as Kristoff in the original Broadway cast of “Frozen,” and in the title role of a stage adaptation of “Hercules” developed by the Public Theater.
Interview by Michael Paulson
The post Four Black Artists on How Racism Corrodes the Theater World appeared first on New York Times.