It is difficult to accept that we each play a part—regardless of how small—in perpetuating racism in our society. We are products of our time, and although our legislation and current President would suggest that we are post-racism, we are actually far from it. Instead, we live in a nation still reeling from the Civil Rights era, and even the profound scars of the Civil War. Our wounds are deep though, and our attempts to heal are still too shallow. It’s often the case that the most dangerous racism is rarely found in the overt and vocal intolerance of bigots, but in the well-meaning people who think themselves progressive, but are unwilling to accept their own small contributions to this nation’s dark legacy. Today’s American theatre may think of itself as fair, progressive, and egalitarian, but it refuses to acknowledge the faces of those it fails, and leaves behind. Does today’s stage reflect the diverse shades of American society, or is it nothing more than an exclusive club for those with means and power? We must honestly ask ourselves whether our diminishing audiences are the result of our own actions, and whether a more inclusive theatre might also be a more successful one.
Whether we know it or not, we were all weaned on Institutional Racism—a far more insidious disease than any overt hatred embodied in creaky ‘ole Jim Crowe or the offensive ramblings of the anachronistic Ku Klux Klan. Those folks and laws are/were obviously racist. It would be foolish in this day and age to try and argue that a cracked and dirty drinking fountain that says ‘Blacks Only’ is just as nice as a shining new unblemished one for whites. Separate is not equal, and one can hardly make a convincing case it is. And yet, we do it every day in the theatre. When creating theatre for children, we patronize these young Americans by offering them hurried and unimaginatively mediocre fare—insulting both their intelligence and innate sense of taste—all while being so proud of ourselves for building the next generation of theatergoers. We treat people of color even worse.
Do not think for one minute that because we elected a black President that we have somehow transcended our shameful past…AND present. Barak Obama is a charismatic, intelligent, and rightfully deserving politician. I was happy to see him elected. I don’t envy the mess he inherited, but that is often how it goes. In fact, we’ve been leaving messes for people of color to clean up for over 400 years now.
Everyone recognizes that the staying power of music, sports, and other cultural institutions is their flexibility and their insistence on constantly reinventing and rebranding themselves. How did one of the world’s oldest pastimes suddenly become so passé? Wasn’t theatre a populist institution and standard-bearer of collective consciousness? Wasn’t it the zeitgeist—with its finger passionately perched on the pulse of the people? If so, whatever happened to that medium with no particular demographic, other than those who wished to be spirited away by the magic of the stage? How did we manage to reinvent ourselves out of an audience, and threaten our very own future?
As I write this, I can’t help but see the significance and symbolism of this moment in time, and how we truly stand at a crossroads. We genuinely have an opportunity to change the face of theatre in this country. And dare I say, the world? Some might argue that we even have a duty. I would like to think we could collectively acknowledge the institutional racism still ravishing our theatre, and not hope for some Moses figure to lead our generation out of the desert and send shockwaves through the American theatre. Although I don’t believe our field needs a messiah figure to save it, I do believe it will take a profoundly shocking blow to nudge it towards change for the better. Unfortunately, the very thing that rocks the boat may also be the thing that sinks it. It may ultimately take houses barren and bereft of patrons to kick start change, but by then, it may be too late. As artists we have a responsibility—both moral and civic—to not simply respond to our world, but to lead through example.
IT IS TIME TO TEAR DOWN OUR HOUSE AND BUILD A NEW ONE TOGETHER.
Institutional or Systemic Racism refers to any kind of system of inequality based on race. It can occur in institutions such as public government bodies, schools and universities (both public and private), or in private business corporations—even such liberal and enlightened places as theatre. It is particularly insidious because it is built into our very systems and even permeates our very own language. It is especially dangerous because it’s not easy to spot and doesn’t lend itself to public outcries—like we would all do if the Klu Klux Klan wanted to bring an educational program into your child’s middle school, for example. In this case, our language and actions are not as overt as the intolerant rantings of the bigoted, but still manage to serve the same function. Such as it is, these territorial markers stand unapologetically as powerful symbols—no less meaningful than burning a cross in the front lawn. Not surprisingly, such a gesture stands no chance of shedding any real light into the darkness, but rather, functions as a sick totem: a cautionary ghost light reminding all of those who pass that they are merely guests in our house.
Language is influenced by social values and beliefs and is reinforced through the words and images used to convey information and messages that ‘political correctness’ alone cannot address. The language of people, media and policies perpetuates racism. Media filters to us what we hear and read and see. Presenting only one side of a story influences what we think and believe – this perpetuates racism. We need to think about what we see on television and read in the newspapers and challenge those messages that present only one side of the story. The language of Racism is both overt and covert. According to Paul Kivel, in his groundbreaking book ‘Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice’ (1996), “Because concepts of whiteness and race were developed in Christian Europe, references to whiteness are imbued with Christian values. We have ended up with a set of opposing qualities or attributes which are said to define people as either white or as not white. The tendency to see the world in sets of opposites, either/or categories, is in itself a core pattern of thinking developed in elite settings in Western Europe and [North America]. Many other cultures do not divide the world into opposing camps. The English phrase “black-and-white” reflects our desire to divide things into opposites even though everyday reality is rarely clearly defined or neatly categorized.” Kivel identifies some of the good/bad set of value pairings that influence how people think and speak. “Dark” qualities compared to “White” qualities may include: superstitious/scientific, tainted/pure, abnormal/normal, evil/benign (p.20). Kivel also notes that racism is imbedded in our everyday language. A ‘white lie’ has a much different meaning than a ‘black deed’ and in this case, color is the primary indicator of degree of wrongness. “Good Guys wear white hats and ride white horses and the bad guys wear black, the same racially tainted values are passed on and the development of images of darkness to convey danger and to provoke white fear.” (pp.26-27). All throughout our language, we find color qualifiers, and unconsciously make associations based on color. We cannot expect that the language we use—as currency on stage—is any less prejudiced than the commerce of words we trade in daily. Our words are loaded with meaning, and we must do our part to try and weave stories of multicolor thread in the hopes of crafting patchwork storied quilts.
It is no secret that theatres all across this country are losing funding and are barely able to keep their heads above water. One need look no further than the faltering Intiman Theatre in Seattle or Actor’s Express in Atlanta. Even the artistically rich and supportive city of Minneapolis lost an old friend when Theatre de la Jeune closed its doors in 2008 after twenty years of entertaining and educating delighted audiences.
It’s been forty years since Peter Brook wrote the seminal text The Empty Space and warned of the perils of deadly theatre and raised a battle cry for artists to immediately get rough and holy. Are we any closer than we were then? I would argue that we’re even closer to death. As we ask the hard questions, we need to look long and hard into those eye sockets and remember that that skull we hold could be our very own. After all, in ancient Rome, when victorious generals were paraded through the streets after triumph, they would invariably be followed by a single enslaved person whose sole task was to utter and repeat the words memento mori—which roughly translates to “remember that you are mortal.” That lowly man was there to remind the high general that he may celebrate today, but tomorrow he could very well be dead. American theatre needs such a functionary, but we no longer have the luxury of such leisure. Our “slave” must not meekly follow at our heels, but instead should continue to shout it in our ears until it is heard.
American theatre is an institution as steeped in racism as any other. Even as we attempt to whitewash, or as the case may be—colorwash our seasons, these gestures are simply tokens of white guilt and are the byproduct of a politically correct society that has badgered us all into thinking that it is simply the “thought that counts.” In reality, such gestures are as insulting and transparent as half of the plays that populate our seasons. We throw in an August Wilson play around late January/early February and take smug satisfaction that we have paid homage to minority artists. In reality, what we have done is slapped an entire group across the face. Wilson is not one of the best African American playwrights in this country; he is one of the best playwrights. Period. It is patronizing to think that injecting a “black play” or a “middle eastern play” into a season will appease our (admittedly) few patrons of color. As if they don’t have the intelligence to see what we are doing. It might be said that if nothing else, we are successful at patronizing our patrons. The decisions we make have consequences, and our audiences are far more intelligent than we often think they are. Our patrons of color are undoubtedly well aware of the nuances of season selection and the palate every good season should have.
In addition to our choice of plays, our feeble attempts to generate new audiences smacks of racism too. We walk into schools with the assumption that these kids cannot learn, are resistant to theatre, and simply do not have the intellect or vocabulary to grasp our rich and triumphant Western tradition. We assume that they have to like whom we like OR conversely assume that they will automatically hate Shakespeare, for example, because he does not talk like them. Of course, we don’t talk like them. Nor do we talk like Shakespeare. However, that does not mean that we cannot all be fluent in different languages, and have the capacity to learn them, even if it requires different tools to open doors. We all wear different masks for different occasions. People of color know that better than any of us. They are constantly code switching. And if young people don’t know it yet, they certainly will. Assimilation is an inevitable part of joining any culture. However, it does not have to require some kind of cultural Seppuku.
We shouldn’t have to ask people of color to sacrifice their rich cultural heritage in order to be invited into our house. If our students are not learning, we must accept that our teaching is not working. Reaching students of a different culture or from a challenging demographic means examining the context we are framing our lessons, and it also means trying to profoundly understand not just what your learners need, but how best to deliver your material. All too often, our stage companies use rigid and inflexible lessons to teach drama, and cannot understand why our lessons are unsuccessful. More often than not, the words we use alienate our students, and our pedagogy is a teacher-centered, authoritarian style. Such a method may be antithetical to what your students need.
The method by which we deliver theatre education is sometimes harmful to our goal of building future audiences and engendering a love and respect for the art form. Furthermore, we must also be aware that there is more to learning drama than just Shakespeare. Naturally, the Bard is the most important figure in the history of drama, and should rightly be taught in schools—so long as he’s taught thoughtfully and creatively, and not unnecessarily drilled into students. However, there is a wealth of dramatic literature written by people of color. There are plenty of dynamic ways to teach units on these fine playwrights, and even creative ways to build comparative lessons on August Wilson and Shakespeare, for example. By crafting curriculum around minority plays, we invite our students of color to see themselves on stage and on the page.
Acknowledging that one may be a racist is not easy. I’m not foolish enough to suggest that this is going to be some quick and painless process. Far from it. But that’s just it: it-is-a-process. We need not focus on the product, but as theatre artists, we should have the grace and humility to embrace the means whereby—to use a term coined by the late and great F.M. Alexander. The means to truly look at ourselves in the mirror—warts and all—and accept that we ALL share in this responsibility—blacks, whites, brown, and all the beautiful colors of the spectrum.
Do not get me wrong; I am not advocating that we bite the hands that feed us. It is no secret that white, typically male, older wealthy professionals have almost singlehandedly kept the theatre afloat for several years now. As the houselights come up and the actors take their bows night after night, they look out into a sea of…well…blue…hairs and an audience that more often than not, looks very much like them. The difference is that although they may look like “us,” those faces peering back are less like us than we may think. Sure, they appreciate the arts like we do. Yet many of them are doctors, lawyers and other well-respected professions. I doubt very much that few of those subscribers have children they would encourage to be an artist or worse, bring home an artist to marry. And most certainly, all of them have health care. Few are probably worried about how they’re going to pay next month’s rent. They are most certainly nearly all white. Does that mean people of color do not like theatre or even know how to enjoy it? Although they would never admit it out loud, many in our field undoubtedly think that people of color fundamentally can’t understand or are incapable of understanding how to enjoy “good” art like Shakespeare or would only want to see art that reflect their lives. As if the Bard of Avon was somehow writing only for the galleries and purposefully avoided the needs of those on the ground, as it were. Artists like Shakespeare were writing for the masses, and recognized that those in the pit were paying, just like those in the balcony. He may have been unashamedly commercial and financially ambitious, but why not? Couldn’t our contemporary theatre be more driven by profit? For a theatre to be successful, it would seem that it takes more than fundraising and vying for precious grants and endowments. If the theatre truly wanted to bring in cash, it would invest heavily in its education program and devote more time to generating bona fide new audiences—from every nook and cranny of society—rather than desperately courting past subscribers. The money is out there, and it doesn’t matter what color the people are, as long as the money’s green.
Clearly not all of these liberal and educated patrons are the same and many are quite generous with their time and ideas. However, there are plenty of so-called ‘limousine liberals’ that would never dare say that they find people of color to be intellectually inferior, or lazy, or fill in the blank. For many such people, as long as people of color are on their stage, but not in their living rooms, it’s perfectly fine. Of course, they would still object to their presence on stage if it was excessive or went beyond the prescribed roles they pictured them in. They talk endlessly about providing for the poor and passionately champion the needs of the oppressed, yet their actions are louder than their words, and repeatedly betray their own entrenched prejudices. It’s often easier just to excuse it away by saying that those peoples’ tastes are simply different than ours. It’s simply much more comfortable to watch white plays, and perhaps sprinkle in some cultural pepper in the form of some important social issue play, or something safe and far from provocative. There are quaint and safe plays that don’t challenge long-held beliefs, or those that are so foreign, they can hardly be considered applicable to our insular lives. When they do hope to assuage their guilt and congratulate themselves on cultural exposure, they can always squirm and cry, while moved by poor urban blight, but then ultimately sleep very soundly that night, knowing they have done their part. Not surprisingly, many of these limousine liberals are Democrats, and it’s no wonder the most extreme of them fail to garner the support of moderates and minorities. Perhaps we’d win the hearts and minds of more Americans if we actually tried to recognize the differences in those unlike us, and then search for ways to contribute to the conversation, rather than dictate it, dispense pity, scold, pander to, and patronize. If we ever hope to recapture our audiences, we must hope to attract an audience of all colors, shapes, and creeds. Our privileged homogenous liberal subscribers are not only thinning, but also dying off. Our cash cow is endangered, and the gravy train’s near empty.
Okay. Perhaps I am biting some hands here. And perhaps I’m revealing my own prejudices towards the moneyed and entitled. I sincerely don’t believe in fanning the flames of class warfare. But if I don’t bite some hands, who will? Our valued patrons should be valued, and I appreciate the burden they’ve carried, and all that they have done for this art form. However, that’s not to say that they couldn’t benefit from a more progressive policy on race and inclusive audience generation. I mean, let’s face it. The audience of which I speak is dying—literally—and their sons, daughters, and especially grandchildren are clearly not replacing them. In fact, one of the only things that you can definitively say the American theatre has been successful at over the last fifty years is to fail to generate future generations of theatergoers. That is the sad reality.
It’s no secret that the young people of today are significantly more liberal and tolerant than their Boomerparents, and most certainly more so than the Greatest Generation. It’s obvious that rap and hip-hop has successfully permeated our youth and is ubiquitous in our social media and culture at large. Similarly, attitudes towards women, persons of color, and even homosexuality have steadily gotten more progressive and enlightened. And yet, at the end of the day, all of us that bemoan the death of the English language and scoff at the tastes of this generation of more tolerant young people are tragically and fundamentally missing the point.
Rap and Hip-Hop are here to stay. Well, at least until they too are swept aside by the next big thing. To say that such music lacks gravity and depth is not only depriving it of its rightful inheritance and legitimacy, it is downright racist. Whether you want to see the forest for the trees, minorities are the new majority—plain and simple. Here are the cold facts: America is an urbanized population, with 82% of us residing in cities and suburbs as of 2008, whereas the worldwide urban rate is only 50.5%. As of now, there are exactly 19 cities with populations over 100,000 people that have majority (over 50%) African-American populations. As of today, whites enjoy a slim majority in this country. However, Hispanic and Latino Americans accounted for almost half (1.4 million) of the national population growth of 2.9 million between July 1, 2005, and July 1, 2006. By 2050, minorities will be the majority in America and minority children are projected to reach that milestone even sooner. By 2023, the Census bureau said that more than half of all children in this country will be minorities. The African-American population is projected to increase from 41.1 million to 65.7 million by 2050, going from 14% of the U.S. population to 15%. The Asian-American population is expected to increase from 15.5 million to 40.6 million, or from 5.1%to 9.2% of the population. Among the remaining races, the bureau said, American Indians and Alaskan natives are projected to increase from 3.9 million to 8.6 million, going from 1.6% to 2% of the U.S. population. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are expected to more than double, increasing from 1.1 to 2.6 million.
Can we afford to continue to hide our head in the sand in the hopes that this inevitable change goes away? There is a large segment of this country—about half in fact (depending of course on who you poll and when)—that is in an absolute frenzy over immigration reform. Such parties falsely assume that there are grand plugs or adhesives that we can afford—economically and emotionally—to continue to build, apply and reapply over a porous border and even larger social wound. They fundamentally believe in their hearts that the answer lies in a wall—somehow thinking that if they honestly build their wall into the heavens, God will help to keep this ‘riff raff’ out. This ‘there goes the neighborhood’ brand of thinking just won’t stand. Such strident talk and extreme measures are sad examples of their racist Sisyphean arrogance. We simply cannot wish these people away, but need to embrace their presence and look at ways we can work with the rest of the world to help each other build strong and equitable countries that no one need flee from.
This is where you and I come in. It’s easy for us to point fingers across the aisle, like it’s easy to decry the ignorance of the Westboro Baptist Church or the fervent Birthers who went after Obama. However, what’s not so easy is to diagnose our own white liberal responsibility. After all, it wasn’t me or my parents that enslaved blacks, handed out polluted blankets to the Native Americans, or rounded up Asians into internment camps. However, our culpability is just as great. And although it’s convenient to shrug off our own guilt because of our generously bleeding hearts, it does not serve our theatres, or our country for that matter. In fact, we may even have a greater share in such responsibility than even those “airbag” Republicans that we self-righteously condemn for spewing such unabashedly xenophobic vitriol. Our racism lies in our own backyards, gleaming dining rooms, and around our own glowing televisions. Our hearts go out to Hispanic families living on the streets of LA and we may even shed a tear when Rene Montaign delivers a particularly heartwarming and uplifting tale of some gifted black artist that has overcome daunting odds to become the next new thing. But I’m sorry: listening to NPR and donating to the NAACP is not the same as inviting a person of color into your home. Or dare I say—building a house together. Many of us have even gone so far as to join the Peace Corps and helped build mud huts and waterlines for villagers in remote Western Africa. I myself served in AmeriCorps National Service and bravely, even selflessly faced a classroom of black inner-city kids every day for two years. I loved them so much that I wanted to save them from themselves. Doesn’t it sound awful when you’re honest with yourself?
“Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” I wrote those words as I angrily left my inner-city school, frustrated at what I perceived as white guilt dangerously manifested in corruptible student policies. I could not even see myself in the mirror. How horrible was it that I thought that I was so special for helping to do my part in…what is it? Oh that’s right. In “building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” The problem is that I thought that if I built it, they would come. They didn’t. Instead, my head hurt tremendously. That is what happens when you try and build a house by yourself, and continue to bang nails into walls with your own head.
As white and sensitive liberals, our arrogance and self-righteousness is rightfully blasted by the Right and understandably dismissed by many of those of color. Why shouldn’t they? This young generation that has grown up in an age of technology, 9/11, and social networking have already figured it out and become hip to the fact that we’re all in this together. They deal with it at school everyday. Are they always successful and are there still racial tensions? Of course. As teachers flee in droves to the ever-elusive white suburbs, so do the families that pull their kids up onto the beach and away from the approaching dark tide. So why are their kids so much more sensitive and egalitarian than those of us that espouse these liberal believes? Perhaps because they have been forced to live with one another—at least attend school together—and maybe have learned somewhere that they may in fact share many of the same tastes, hopes, fears, and dreams.
That would mean that the youth in this country have already realized what we cannot see—that we really are all the same. Of course we have different religions, shades of skin, rituals, and so forth. But at the end of the day, we still sleep under the same stars and arise under the same sun.
It’s convenient to point to fingers and say that fertility rates in uneducated black and Hispanic neighborhoods are frighteningly high; or that nearly 50% of African-American men will have been through the criminal justice system in this country by the age of 30; or will cite that the 19 cities that have majority black populations coincidentally also have the highest crime and murder statistics. Armed with “facts” like these, how can we deny that people of color are simply different than us? I mean, look at the numbers. They are different. For instance, they have more skin pigment. And as I already stated, they clearly have different customs and traditions than us. Yet, so do the French from the Dutch. Or the English from the Swedes. We all come from somewhere else, but in the end, we are all the same. When I see that black man walking behind me as I walk down the street, I am not seeing that black man. I am seeing everyblack man that has ever robbed a liquor store on Cops or every “perp” that has been described simply as an 18-25 year-old black male. It is in my unconscious, whether I want it there or not. Of course it’s terrible, and for years I have beat myself up over it. But you know what? That does not change anything. It serves no one. Rather than try and hide from my learned racism, what if I actually put it out there on the table and asked others to look at it with me?
It’s ugly. It’s real ugly. And plays like Spinning Into Butter are valiant and sincere attempts to help kick start a serious discussion about race. The problem is that it’s always us that are doing the talking. Even right now, it’s me that’s doing the talking. I need to listen more. In this case, I hope I’m deviating enough from the cultural script to make it worth it. But perhaps not. Without a doubt, the only way for us to have this discussion is to make sure that we’re all at the table. Furthermore, the table probably should not be our own. It is not enough to invite a person of color into my kitchen to share a cup of coffee. I must also be willing to go into his or her kitchen. Or simply meet on uncharged and neutral ground. Perhaps a new kitchen in an entirely new house. The great Brazilian theatre director and practitioner Augusto Boal worked tirelessly to build his Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal brilliantly observed and contended that the Aristotelian ethic that has dominated dramatic literature for over 2000 years has also contributed to the oppression of the masses, the people, the workers and that the system dictated rules to maintain the status quo while perpetuating the dominance of a privileged few. It turns out that the foundation of the house was cracked to begin within. It doesn’t mean throw out Aristotle. Obviously, he’s served us well for many years. But it means finding the next Aristotle. Or recognizing it in the groundbreaking work of people of color, like Boal.
The systemic racism that pervades our American theatre—and other countries as well—is one that is blinded by light. The American psychologist and philosopher William James once astutely observed that trying to understand the human unconscious was like “trying to see the dark by turning on the light.” We need to stop casting our torches far and afield for answers, and start turning them in on ourselves. Perhaps if we hold the light close, it will help to illuminate what’s inside every one of us. What most of us think—or at least subconsciously feel—is racial inferiority has nothingto do with skin color, family values, or the unique heritage of a particular group of people. The actual answer lies not in color, but in class. Poverty is the ultimate scourge of our society and that invariably pollutes our cracked and eroding educational system. All those fleeing white teachers are no different than me: they all had good intent and hearts bursting with love. They believed in human potential, just as I do. The problem is that we do not need to teach a man to fish. We need to flood the desert with water and trust that all boats will rise. Or to continue the metaphor, we need to make sure that everyone raises this barn or house together. As a community. We are not burdened with a paucity of good will, but rather, misguided good intentions. When we desire them to be like us, it falsely assumes that they are already NOT in the first place.
What happens if we stop assuming that others are different and damaged, but rather like us and not? That would require us to take a leap of faith and believe that each of us are born good—regardless of what tragic or unfortunate events might have befallen us—and start taking it for granted that we all share the same hopes and dreams for our children. What would that look like? What would happen if we approached a class full of Hispanic kids and walked in with the expectation that they were all smart, capable, and eager, rather than dumb, hostile, and resistant? I know that statistics and gang violence make it hard to see those hungry and loving learners in those seats, but we must remove our socially prescribed sunglasses and see the light coming from those seats. We must remind ourselves that they are kids after all. And not just any kids. They are all OUR kids. They are in our society. But they are children living in a society that already wrote them off before the Heavens gloriously graced this earth with their presence. They entered a world that did not want their parents here in the first place, and if they were here, they were relegated to the worst and most unimaginably ugly jobs that America had to offer. Their wages were not enough to live off of, so it meant working three jobs—all predictably far from their own dangerous neighborhoods and involving long and perilous rides on a public transit system built to keep them far enough away, while close enough to serve our needs. Some people of color have long abandoned any hope to engage such an unjust and stacked world, and understandably live off of the guilt of a society that pays cheap reparations in monthly welfare while paying for the sins of avoidance. Why shouldn’t they abuse the system? If we’re not going to allow them to even sit at the table, why shouldn’t they sit at their own and take advantage of our insulting and halfhearted attempt to appease our collective conscience. Rather than engage in an equitable conversation where we all acknowledge our prejudices and seek to move forward from this day on, we would rather elect a black President and thank our lucky stars that we dodged the impending race riot one more day.
In American theatre—like every institution in this country—we need a revolution. It will require a seismic and rumbling paradigm shift. It means looking at things we aren’t even aware that we do. It asks us to ask ourselves hard questions and be willing to sacrifice pride in the service of progress. That may mean dropping our confident gaze momentarily, only to lift our heads with a renewed sense of collective can-do. In order to bring tomorrow closer, we must speak frankly today, and it will necessitate us truly listening quietly to what they want and need. It will not be easy. Yet, if we don’t do this, we not only lose a beloved theatrical tradition of storytelling that has existed for thousands of years, but we may lose the country we know and love. A country big and strong enough to hold us all. And if our theatre perishes, I cannot help but think that it was well deserved. You live by the sword of exclusion, and you die by it. The theatre did not start with a man named Aristotle and it should not end there. It is in the rich tones of Rigvedic dialogue hymns and Kathakali gesture; or lovingly teased in the shadows of puppets that dance behind screens in Indonesia; and it certainly lives in the call-and-response of the grizzled and great African Griot. With such rich histories that even predate ours, how could we possibly think that the reason for dwindling houses lies in the inherent apathy and disinterest of blacks, Hispanics, Asians or other people of color? We cannot practically make excuses of some innate cultural aversion. If we cannot land them in the seats of houses, it is because our houses are not built for them. It also lies in the fact that the blueprint is of our lone design and the terms and conditions are unilateral, to say the least.
In our major regional theatres we have positions dedicated to promoting diversity with outreach programs and we have specialists that create rich dramaturgical education packets aimed at fostering a dialogue with students of color. We often have a guest director or education director that is of color. They work tirelessly to create programming that reflects the spectrum of color that often surrounds these urban institutions. The problem is that how many of those same theatres have black Artistic Directors? Or a Hispanic female resident director that had real power and influence? One of our problems is that we hire token people of color to show how liberal and open-minded we are, while not giving them any substantial say in the future of the organization. They are simply guests at our dinner table.
When I recently spoke to an African American friend about a play she was very excited about, she revealed her own accepted racism—without even knowing it. She spoke passionately about a play that only had people of color—five Hispanic characters and two black characters. She told me it was written, directed and produced by only people of color. The plot was wonderful, and it sounded like a real provocative examination of race in this country. The conversation grew out of an honest assessment of a play we had both worked on, that had explored racism and identity, but we both agreed that it did not hit hard enough and that the sentimental laughs undercut the hard-hitting message. When I asked her about where this play was going to be produced, she told me some obscure theatre I had never heard of. I told her it would be great if it could be done in Lincoln Park (an affluent and generally white liberal neighborhood of Chicago). She then said, “Oh no, they wouldn’t want to see it.” I was struck by that statement. They may not want to, but those are the ones that need to. I joked about how we could possibly trick them into seeing the show. She laughed, and as passionate this strong and intelligent African American woman was, she was also using our shared and collective racist brain. As she fought the system, she fought it using the weaponry we had allowed and in the battlefields that we had dictated. It saddened me beyond belief. It also inspired me to write this essay.
Many will view my work as knee-jerk, hyperbolic, and dripping with white guilt and a Zinn-like pessimism about America and its terrible sins. Those of you that are willing to take a glimpse into the mirror will actually see this for what it is—hopeful. And I’m not talking about some branded and spun motto or buzzword for Obama—a man far more complex and intelligent than simply the Black Messiah come to shepherd us out of dark times. This is a love letter to American theatre, with the words of someone that is willing to step to the front of the line—however unpopular that may be. I don’t have all the answers, nor do I always practice what I preach. I think that artists can lead by example, and start a dialogue not with their words, but in their actions. I hope I can do that. And have others join me.
Sometimes it takes just a look at even the smallest and inconsequential things—words. You need not look even beyond our jargon to see it is not built for persons of color. Imagine a young African American kid coming into the theatre and being asked to “Hang those blacks.” Or consider that we consider our day off as dark. Why isn’t it light? Although it is welcomed, so that is a good thing! After all, it is actually the time we emerge into the light from the darkened caves we inhabit for the other six days of the week! All of these observations are semantic, and I’m not even suggesting that we try to use different words, but perhaps it is even as simple as recognizing that we are doing such things. Language is the currency of thought, and by being sloppy or reckless with even our words, we are buying and trading in a market place that we built for ourselves.
I may have bit some hands here, but I am in no way suggesting or advocating that we somehow go out of our way to alienate our longstanding (and appreciated) patrons and subscribers. They have been with us for years, and I want them there as much as anyone. I am saying that my Father’s house has many rooms, and is big enough for everyone to fit. Whether you believe in God or a higher power is irrelevant to this argument. The way to build our houses is to build them together. Which of course means that we must share power, prestige, and esteem. Ay, there’s the rub.
It is easy for some people to call Hispanics lazy or think of blacks as innately violent. Look at the statistics. They use numbers to falsely justify these arguments. The problem is that we hide behind numbers rather than trying to examine what lies at the heart of it all. We think and say such racist sentiments, as “Well Barack Obama is one of those good black men.” Or we say things like “He’s so articulate and well groomed.” What we fail to realize is that such statements assume the negative. The burden of proof therefore always lies with the minority, and they are essentially guilty and unworthy until they prove otherwise. Is it beyond the realm of imagination that Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are not the exceptions to the rule, but are the byproducts of a few breaks, some real hard work, and an educational system that begrudgingly admitted them in, while patting itself on the back. Education and money are what separates us, not the color of our skin. This is a classic case of class, not color, and until we can accept that, we will never get past our stubborn prejudices.
The American theatre today is eating its young and we fare no better chance than Kronos’ son in the famous Goya painting. We are eating our young, burying our heads in the sand, and hoping for some deus ex machina windfall to save our sorry butts. Our pride is so calcified and our guilt so deeply embedded, that we are content with gazing at those navels and ignoring our own demise. In less than one Hundred years, we may manage to obliterate a worldwide tradition that spans over three thousand years. We continue to point fingers at film and television or the advent and ubiquity of advanced technology. We blame text messaging. We blame Republicans. We point that finger everywhere else except where it belongs—with us.
I love the theatre so much that I am willing to fight for what I consider true inclusion. From this day forward, we must not talk at our persons of color, but with them. Like all great teachers and directors already know, our audience can be diverse if we acknowledge it is diverse. Like teaching a classroom of 30 different learners, it is our responsibility to look for ways that we can change our words, policies, and deeds. It is about shifting our perspective and whom we value in this world. We don’t need to be card-carrying members of the communist party in order to recognize the worth and dignity of all our brethren. It means being willing to share power with the understanding that we truly are only as great as our poorest and weakest member. When we seek to step away and stop throwing money at them or praying they will go away, only then will we be engaging with our brothers and sisters in true dialogue. Everyone gets rich when everyone’s enriched.
On my way home from a bar in Chicago one night, I walked past a place I had passed without notice many times before. From inside, I heard the most amazing and contagious beat I had ever heard. I looked up and saw that I was in front of a Mexican bar and that there was a DJ spinning inside. I cautiously peered into the darkened windows. From my perspective, I was looking at the DJ’s back and I saw an empty dance floor with four or five Mexican men shooting pool in the back of the bar. I was hypnotized, and opened the door and went in. I didn’t care about the proverbial record skip. Although it was obvious that I was not of their culture, in this particular case, it didn’t matter. Could I have walked into any ethnic bar and been so greeted? No. And vice versa. But that night I was. I went straight to the bar and tried to order a drink. They only took cash, and I didn’t have any. The closest ATM was a little bit of a hike, and I frankly didn’t want to leave the bar. I asked if I could stay just a moment, and the taciturn man behind the bar agreed. I made my way to a table next to the speakers right where the DJ was spinning. His beats were layered and he sampled from so many different styles of music, and the songs took on such glorious illumination when juxtaposed with each other. I was pulled in, and stood tapping my foot and allowing the music to move through me. The way he spun his record was magic—he instinctively knew what parts needed that rep and rev spin. He was letting the music move him and through him and saw what it was doing to me—his lone champion. We didn’t make eye contact, but I saw him get more and more excited, and the beats came faster and he spun with abandon. It was a magical experience shared by two people who could not have been more different on the outside: he a young black man from the historically black South Side, and I a white liberal theatre director living on the North Side. And yet, in that moment, we were brothers connected not by blood, but by art. At a break in the set, I was compelled to go up and introduce myself. I didn’t even know how to talk to him—at first falling into some kind of faux urban accent that would somehow give me street cred. I dropped it within seconds, realizing that he was an articulate and sensitive young man, and was intelligent enough to see through my uncomfortable dialect. I asked him if he ever performed in the theatre. He said that he had never even been to a theatre, but had always wanted to. I asked him why he hadn’t. He embarrassingly muttered something about the price and feeling weird walking in a place like that. “In a place like that.” My house. I took his card and told him that I wanted him to DJ a live play and that he would feel the timing by using his God-given instincts to let the music flow under and over and within the text we created. He got really excited and gave me his phone number. He had never even seen a play in a theatre before, and here he was excited about working on a play together. I left Chicago without ever getting the chance to work with him, but I cannot help but wonder what our house would’ve looked like. There’s still time.