I was in the bookstore, minding my business, looking for a Toni Morrison novel and a salesperson directed me to a section called “African-American Literature.” I initially didn’t think anything of it until I happened to look over AND across at the castle of shelves called “Literature” and I was like hmmm…..I wonder what’s over there. Without even thinking, I had decided that that section was more important and I mindlessly wandered to that area to browse. Then I was like, oh yeah, Toni Morrison. right.
Then I was frustrated by the disparity. I went through a reasoning phase and a calculating phase and even came to a few conclusions. I even bought in to a conclusion that I often despise which is that the section exists so that black authors are not over looked. But I did not even want to look at them in that dimly lit corner!
Then I was like oh, well uh-duh, Mica [sic]. Of course the American theatre lacks “diversity” because there is simply not enough non-white literature in the American cannon. Look at this little but decadent-ass shelf! And where was the Latino-American shelf or the Asian-American shelf ? Now, I know that there are lots of non-white authors that are published but overlooked by AD’s every season. And I know that there are the Nambi Kellys and the Tanya Sarachos and the Tarell Alvin MacCraneys of the world creating mad amazing work. But the fact is, the representation of published non-white American Literature is drastically disproportionate to both the demographics of the American population and the time that this country has been occupied by people other than White-Americans. Which is like, you know, the whole time.
I am making a disturbing connection here (or a very obvious one). Or maybe no connection at all really. And maybe it’s a stretch to suggest that the theatre is susceptible to the same trends of exclusiveness as other commercial art forms. We do, after all, pat ourselves on the back for being more accessible and more integrated than say the Opera or the Symphony. (I remember all the faces people were making at the NPAC/ TCG conference in Denver.)
Ok. Fine. No connection. Stretching too far. Here is a connection:
I am guilty of an occasional naivety that had me standing there all that time acting like I didn’t know what was going on. Because me, Mica, black woman from the south side knows exactly what’s going on and can’t understand why me, Mica, green-loving theatre-artist from DePaul was standing there like who got shot.
I am also guilty of the following:
- Assuming that because we are all artists, the difficult conversations about race and exclusion don’t need to be had, because if they did, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.
- Assuming that the difficult conversations that might need to transpire can happen through the art. (Boy has this led to some misunderstandings i.e. The Tempest. Yes, I said it. What?)
- Forgiving other people’s ignorance in the interest of diplomacy.
- Making behavioral exceptions for people who seem to think like me. (i.e. raging liberal artist types.)
- Working really hard to make sure that the conversation is not too uncomfortable for those who don’t look like me. I wouldn’t want to shut down the dialogue altogether.
- Assuming that everyone is with me. Meaning that we have all had the same basic level of education about the dynamics of race in this country so that we can start talking about the fundamental shift in psycology that needs to happen.
- Hoping that theatre is the means by which that fundamental shift can take place.
- Thinking that I can walk up to the bookstore manager and this major chain and make him change the way the books are displayed.
How many ways have I contributed to the comfort of the current dynamic in the theatre? Pretending like diversity works is endlessly easier. Ugh. I am so overwhelmed. There is so much to do. To kill diversity we would have to kill the notions that perpetuated its need in the first place. You know, the “R” word. Which cannot be discussed in a blog about theatre and diversity because then people would write me off as being self-interested or promoting the hidden agenda of Barack Obama. Which I am doing, incidentally, so they would be right.
ok. I’m done.
Before I start, I just have to say that since Michael Jackson died I haven’t been able to stop thinking about greatness. It is such a funny thing—-greatness. It asks so much and gives so little. Brave are those who endeavour in it.
I also haven’t been able to stop thinking about one of the budget group affinity meetings that I went to at the TCG conference in Baltimore. We were the little people, budgets $500k and under. At the end of the meetings we recapped highlights from the small group discussions and at this particular one that I can’t stop thinking about someone stood up and recapped audience development strategies that were discussed:
“We talked about solutions for diversifying our audience. Some of them were: reaching out to neighboring communities, someone mentioned reaching out to the black churches in their area when they are doing plays of interest to them……”
I paraphrased but you get the idea.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to start this paragraph for the past 20 minutes. I was shocked for many reasons. I could not believe all of the people who nodded in validation of this strategy, as if it was either new or brilliant. I also could NOT believe that people were talking about diverse programming in terms of slotted “plays of interest.” And I was insulted to think that anyone would come to my church, in person or by postcard, asking me to come see their play because I’m black and the characters in the play are, too.
Who thinks slotted black (or otherwise non-white) plays equals diversity, raise your hand?
Or at least no one should. But people do. And I am surprised because it is such a dated concept. It was born around the same time as the concept of diversity and it should be equally as short-lived. Here is what my fellow church member would say in a letter to the theatre that showed up at my church out of the blue:
Dear Innovative Theatre Company,
I find slotted diversity deeply insulting as a theatre-goer. The greatest part of that insult is that it is so OBVIOUS that you are reaching out to me for a limited amount of time based on a limited amount of revenue that you hope to secure either through direct ticket sales or a Joyce Foundation grant. How did I know that? Because I was interested in you enough to kindly do a bit of research.
Where in God’s name have you been all year? Why didn’t I see a postcard for A Long Day’s Journey into Night or Come Back, Little Sheba or the musical-adaptation of Out of Africa ? Oh wait, you did invite me to the latter.
Do you think that I lack the cultural sophistication to appreciate plays that do not have people in it who look like me? Don’t you think that I have the capacity for a level of humanity and understanding that can transcend cultural familiarity?
Let me set the record straight: I like dead-white people plays, too. And, believe it or not, there are other breathing black people who like dead-white people plays. I, for one, am a big fan of Moliere. See? I even spelled his name right. I do not have an unquenchable thirst for dead-white people plays so I will not be at your theatre for every show, but I like them. And I think you should consider Tartuffe for next season.
Speaking of next season, I want you to know that I am not planning to see the Hip-Opera Black like Me next February because, contrary to popular belief, I do not like hip-hop. But if you happen to miss me for the rest of the season and you start to wonder why I haven’t been there, please do not assume that it is because I am only interested in seeing black plays. Instead, assume that you haven’t done a good enough job of convincing me that your productions (not the plays themselves) are worth my time.
God bless you,
And then she would purchase her ticket to History Boys at Timeline Theatre because someone told her about it. Good productions are infectious. This is the real foundation for audience development.
Someone reminded me of one more example. Diversity sometimes looks like this:
Traditionally white play and traditionally black play performed in rep, each cast performing both. Yes, that was a hit, wasn’t it.
These are all examples of what Diversity looks like but I still don’t know what it means. That’s because it doesn’t mean anything. None of the aforementioned scenarios truly challenge the institutions to do anything other than hire some one who doesn’t look like the rest of them but is equally qualified. And foundations will give you lots and lots of money if you make it so your people don’t all look alike.
So am glad that Diversity is dead. I am not sure why we ever really bought into the concept in the first place—it is an idea that can be readily represented without much injury or obligation from the institution. I propose that we find a new word for the concept that we are really after which I think might be called “inclusion” or “unconventionalism.” Both of these concepts would require theatres to make a commitment beyond hiring a minority person in middle-management. They would be challenged to include diverse backgrounds (race, gender, sexual orientation–the whole gamut) at the executive and governance level. Unconventionalism would encourage theatres to challenge the historical and traditional way that decisions have been made and who they have been made by: white men. Jeffery hit it right on the nose when he said that “not enough people of color are running mainstream theatres.” But I would also say that not enough theatres are run by women–black or white or other.
Ok, so my Chicago people all up in arms because many of you are education/ outreach directors and many of you are black actors who have been cast in traditionally white roles and a couple of you noted that even though Bob Falls doesn’t stay awake at night thinking about the state of black theatre, he hires the people who do—I get it. And it is important that inclusion happens on the stage and in the community and especially in the education programs. But that is not enough. How many of you are in on making decisions that affect the future of the organization? How many of you are being developed for leadership succession? If you had a choice, wouldn’t you rather fulfill the concept instead of represent the idea? And regardless of whether or not you are interested in participating at that level, don’t you deserve to have a choice?
I could go on and on about this but what I really mean to say right now is that diversity is dead not only because of its overuse, but because of the lack of life and breath in the concept. It was dreamed up and born out of our great longing to participate in a more meaningful way and suffocated by the expectation that the word would simply accomplish itself.
I should have picked a more profound theme for this blog, don’t you think? The theme was much more serious only a few moments ago—black and red—which perfectly signified death or hell or the equivalent. To me at least. But this blog is not a canvas, I just want to tell you that Diversity is dead. And if it starts to resurrect, we should kill it. Pardon the analogy.
I was at the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) National Conference in Baltimore, MD last week. I was there because TCG has developed a program that invests in the professional development of emerging leaders who are non-white. We are called the “Young Leaders of Color.” Wow, that was harder to write than I thought it would be–we are working on the name.
In various breakout sessions, the words: diversity, colorblind, diversity and diversity were nearly murdered. They were used over and over and over again in reference to audience development and leadership and new work and ticket sales and season planning. I am even guilty of using the word. On the very last day of the conference, I realized that I didn’t even know what the word meant. And I thought, alas, Diversity is dead.
Actually, I think I stopped knowing what it meant a while ago. But I still knew what it looked like. It looked like this:
Executive Director, Artistic Director, Marketing Director, Director of Audience Services, Board Officers: White.
Education / Outreach Director: Non-White
- Tom Stoppard
- Adaptation of dead white author
- A Christmas Carol
- Black Play
- Sarah Ruhl
-White actor as White character
-White actor as White character
-(Insert Black actor here) as White character
-White actor as White Character
-(Insert Black actor there) as White Character
…..I’m missing a few. Before I go on, are there any other prevalent descriptions of diversity in the theatre that I am missing?