Taking the Casting Conversations from personal to structural

How do you know when it’s time for you to take action? To stand up, and speak out against a harm, wrong, or injustice? Who do you chose to align yourself with? Are there lines drawn the proverbial sand? Do you take a side? Can you make one? What do stand to “gain” and “lose”? Is there any point in which you should think in those zero-sum terms?

The starting point.

I work with a few overlapping communities of theatre folks toward increasing equity, diversity, and inclusion in U.S. theatre. These relationships began developing around seven years ago, but truly emerged in 2014 when I was blind-date matched with Abe Rybeck (executive artistic director, The Theatre Offensive) to facilitate a race-based affinity group for white people at Theatre Communication Group’s (TCG’s) annual national conference. Every year since I end up in email or phone exchanges with an increasingly larger community of white-identified theatre workers planning anti-racism learning spaces for white folks at the annual conference.

In preparation for the most recent TCG conference (June 2018 in St. Louis), a number of POC joined in shaping three “Anti-Racism Spaces for White Learning” sessions. Their involvement resulted in the foundational call to action that for the workshop I co-facilitated with Mike Schleifer, managing director, Alliance Theatre: “Understanding Systems: from personal to structural.” That call to action?: Move beyond the personal/interpersonal oppression conversations and get at the examining what are our roles in interrupting institutional and structural oppression (h/t Annalisa Dias).

So on at the 2018 TCG conference, on Thursday June 14, Mike and I facilitated some deep conversation with ~50 theatre professionals about the difference between “personal” and “systemic” levels of oppression. Collectively, we dug into institutional-level policies, procedures, orders of operation, habits, etc. in their theatres or the industry at large that perpetuate race-based oppression or are based in white supremacy. Everyone received an assignment related to interrupting institutional-level policies, and we established a network of accountability. I flew home to DC from St. Louis considering more than ever how to interrupt white supremacy culture and systemic oppression in theatre.

And then…

On Friday June 15, a group of TCG conference goers attended Jerome Robbins’ Broadway at the Muny in St. Louis. During the second act of this review of Robbins’ work, a scene from The King and I was performed featuring a white woman portraying a Thai character. She was dressed in a Thai costume and spoke with a broken English accent/dialect. Fifteen audience members–from the TCG group–began yelling “boo yellowface” and walked out. (More detailed description here.) According to a statement released by the Consortium of Asian American Theatres & Artists (CAATA), the show also contained: “drunken sailors cavorting onstage in stereotypical Native American headdresses and plastic Hawaiian hula skirts, as well as non-Latinx actors playing the roles of ‘Puerto Ricans’ in West Side Story.” The protesters engaged in conversation with  Muny’s leadership, there was an additional session held at the TCG conference, press covered it, CAATA released their statement and this video, and conversation around the events are continuing (h/t TeAda).

On Sunday June 18, Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel posted a review of Blood Knot American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green.  The play by Athol Fugard centers on the relationship of two black brothers in Apartheid South Africa. One brother is so light-skinned that he passes for white. In the 1961 premiere of Blood Knot, that role was played by Fugard himself, and has been frequently, “traditionally” been cast with a white actor (as recently and locally to me as the 2017 production at Mosaic Theatre Company in Washington, DC). A Facebook posting of the review that I was tagged in instigated a long social media conversation. It was quite heated, judgmental, and pointed. Combined with the protest at St. Louis’ Muny, an online statement/petition was created by a group of white-identified theatre leaders. It called for solidarity in ending the practice of white actors playing characters of colors.

Not being present in St. Louis after Thursday…

I watched all the videos taken so I could be informed of the events. I read CAATA’s statement. I signed the statement. I signed up for CAATA’s mailing list. I shared CAATA’s video about yellow face. Essentially, I looked to the POC leading the protest and followed their lead.

What I didn’t do was talk shit about the Muny, its leadership, the artists, the production, St. Louis, etc. What good would that do anyone? They weren’t acting in malice but whiteness. Ultimately, the conversation wasn’t about this production but rather the greater issue of yellow face and racial injustice. It was about the ability for the theatre industry to begin “doing the work” of dismantling racist, patriarchal, sexist systems we say we know our organizations are steeped in but then not doing it.

The protest at the Muny triggered an internal dialogue about a local to me theatre that fairly regularly engages in yellow face and/or what others have referred to as “orientalism.” I don’t typically see shows at this theatre; I’m never hired there. But that’s not excuse not to take action, as I know peers in similar positions to mine who’ve attempted to intervene. But there’s been no collective response. Does there need to be? What should I do? Am I sitting in my comfort place, using my distance from the institution as an excuse? It’s only been 10 days but safe to say I’ve talked directly with someone every day about this topic, I circulated materials far and wide, and worked to convene my local equity and inclusion cohort in July to discuss it. All of these spaces include POC and most have POC in leadership positions. I perceive in this moment I am doing what I can. I wonder if I am doing all I can.

Not being present in Spring Green, WI

I read the review of APT’s Blood Knot, read about the play, and commented on the Facebook post:

Thanks for the tag Chad. I am throwing my hand up enthusiastically to get involved in this conversation as someone deep in the work and mentoring middle manager and leaders to also do the work.

This was in response to a thread about getting on the phone to talk about what to do. Within a day or two I find my name as an original signatory on a statement/petition from “concerned white theatre leaders” that I never saw nor vetted. To the best of my knowledge (could be wrong): The statement was written by two white male managing directors (Michael Barker, Westport Country Playhouse, and Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Rep) who signed the names of white-identified people that mentioned their interest in supporting the cause on Facebook. Maybe the other “original signatories” all saw statement first? Maybe it was a slightly larger authorship group? I was not among them. The statement went public and got traction. I read the statement, had some issues with the framing and working but as I was trying to frame how to tell Chad and Michael my concerns, the statement was edited. My issues with the wording decreased and I stared prioritizing the CAATA statement anyway.

At that same time there were continued conversations occurring on social media about the legitimacy of the Blood Knot casting. Long dialectics of dramaturgical questions and production histories popped up. As did questions of competency of the leadership of APT, two women Brenda DeVita, artistic director, and Carrie Van Hallgren, managing director, both of whom are white. Then the African American cast member Gavin Lawrence shared his reflections in a moving blog post. For a play with a history of cross-racial casting, the conversation was stuck in a pointedly personal and semantics place. While yes, there was a national call for action that seemed to stem from it, it all seemed to pointed at APT, this show, and these people.

I could think of nothing more but: where am I right now? On another planet?

Back to that “Understanding Systems” Workshop

Reminder: this is the statement by CAATA, the Consortium of Asian American Theatres & Artists, that I want to emphasize because it allows us to stand as allies/advocates of POC-led action

Reminder: this is the statement started by a group of white-identified theatre leaders, which isn’t by all means exclusive to that identity group, but is an important statement to get behind: no longer tolerating the casting of white actors in roles for POC

These two statements were written in response to recent casting incidents, a pervasive practice throughout the U.S. The focus on specific producing theatres, plays, artists, and management staff keeps our conversations about racism and white supremacy culture in the theatre industry on the “personal” level instead looking to the “systemic.”  If we make it about whether we can/not cast one particular play a specific way, whether these artists made a “wrong” or “bad” choice, etc., we aren’t looking at the bigger picture–like, for example, the percentage of acting jobs going to white actors overall.

Here’s an infographic from the Actors Equity Association’s “Looking at Hiring Biases by the Numbers (Originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Equity News.”  In the report, authors note: “During 2013-2015, there were 30,452 unique, new work opportunities for weekly employment on a Principal Contract in plays.” (So this is all AEA contracts nationwide for plays, not including musicals because that’s another picture.) The big blue part of the circle is white people.

Infographic PrincipalEmploymentInPlays-v6
http://www.actorsequity.org/NewsMedia/news2017/DiversityStudyfromEquityNews.asp

So let’s stop the outward finger pointing at individual examples, and start looking inward: 1) at ourselves individually; 2) at our institutions. What role can you actively play in expressing that this is not alright in your theatre? (then add region and across the country)  Make a list right now. Pledge to do one of those things today. Those things might include:

  • Attending plays by theatres of color in your area. Talk openly about the positives of this experience. Encourage others to go with you. Donate to those TOCs.
  • Attending plays by playwrights of color, and/or that predominantly feature actors of color. Talk openly about the positives of this experience. Encourage others to go with you. Donate to those theatres with a message as to why you are giving (because they did that production with those artists).
  • Talk with the artistic staff about casting and race. Ask about their process. Share the information from the AEA report.
  • If you don’t have an equity, diversity, and inclusion “task force” at your organization, ask to start one. Start a lunch or coffee time discussion series. Find peers within your organization–colleagues from different social identity backgrounds–to co-facilitate discussions. Make it a learning environment.
  • If you see something, say something. Don’t neglect acts of black face, yellow face, red face, cryp face, and other forms of appropriation when you see it on stage. Or when you see it in rehearsal, or meetings, or on tv or movies. Name and explain. No need to shame. Interrupt the system.

In closing

There’s so much perceived risk for white people in interrupting racist behavior at the interpersonal level. White fragility, fear of upsetting other (mostly white) people’s emotions, and desire to protect our own emotional comfort are all overwhelmingly strong protectorates against taking action. But if/when we white people are able to move beyond emphasizing the “personal” level of racism and white supremacy culture, and focus our energies on interrupting the “systemic” level—we accept that emotional comfort is not a birth right. More importantly we accept that our emotional discomfort is low on the injury scale, in comparison to the injustice people of color endured over the centuries due to their legalized enslavement, disenfranchisement, and marginalization.

And yet, there are appropriate, supportive ways for us (white people) to interrupt and disrupt systemic racism without taking over the fight of people color. Trying to “own” their battle. Once we white people become aware of this concern, it can also become an inhibiting force. “I don’t want to take action, because it isn’t my place as a white person to speak on behalf of POC.” Stop: This is White Fragility rearing itself again. Maybe the worry is of saying the wrong words, or being told to step back by a POC? Regardless, it’s the preservation of self-comfort that holds us back. We won’t know until we practice, “balance” is verb, and the anti-racism journey is a life-long one. So unless we start building analysis skills and start interrupting and disrupting racism, we won’t know if we are working in alliance with POC. (Bonus: a first step would be find POC to work with.) We certainly won’t be doing any work at all.

Thanks for reading.

Epilogue

In the summer of 1996, I appeared in the TYA show at Circle Theatre in Grand Rapids, MI: Ezigbo, the Spirit Child by Max Bush from an Igbo Story as told by Adaora Nzelibe Schmiedl.

Ezigbo is set in a Nigeria, West Africa. I played two characters: “River Spirit” and one of three “Ogbanje,” or “Forever-Children: child spirits.” If memory serves, Adaora Nzelibe Schmiedl attended early rehearsals to teach us Igbo vocabulary, children’s chants/games, and African dance. (I don’t remember if it was Schmiedl worked solo or there was also a choreographer.)

I was 20yo at the time, the third eldest cast member. The two actors my senior played “Mother” and “Medicine Woman.” They, like the actor playing Ezigbo, two village children, and the drummer were all black. I believe the two other actors playing Ogbanje were white-identified. Max Bush is also white.

I remember tension mounting over the course of rehearsal between the two adult black actors and Bush, who was also directing. I came to learn it was racially connected, but I never engaged nor was involved in discussions. I was simply an actor. It wasn’t about me; it was between them–right?

I wish this all hadn’t occurred 22 years ago. That I wasn’t absorbed in performing, absorbed in my social and work lives. That I was more aware to see, to understand the dynamics of a white male playwright re-telling a Igbo folktale on stage and casting white-identified people as Igbo-centered spirits of a river and children.

This was a casting I played through in ignorance.


 

featured image; “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” at the Muny. from AMERICAN THEATRE “https://www.americantheatre.org/2018/06/22/talking-back-a-protest-of-yellowface-at-the-muny/

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