My father used to quote King Lear regularly to me—“how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” This was his little joke, a prime example of his dry humor, but now that he’s long gone and I’m close to the age he was when he uttered it, I no longer find it so funny.
I can’t tell you how many times in my pursuit of one opportunity or another over the last few years I’ve been greeted with “You’re overqualified” or “We’re looking for somebody less experienced” or “more junior” or some other apparent euphemism for “You’re too old.” That there is robust discrimination against older people in employment has been well documented. The problem goes beyond job discrimination to widespread prejudice under the guise of a “youth culture.”
The irony here is that many of the people in my experience who reflect this bias see themselves as leading the charge for “diversity.”
The theatre community is not immune to this hypocrisy. The same writer who offered a sophisticated critique of the racism in a modern dance concert for an upscale cultural magazine, wrote a jokey Tweet ridiculing “deaf old people” for talking too loudly in the theatre. The theatre entrepreneur who frequently inveighs against the lack of diversity among New York theatre critics or Broadway musicians presided over a podcast in which a panelist mocked “old people” for walking out of Annie Baker’s The Flick; this prompted complaints by listeners, one of whom (a self-declared senior citizen) pointed out that she liked The Flick, and that there was no evidence that the varying views towards the play could be broken down by age.
There’s plenty of evidence that when people talk about diversity in the theatre, they are not embracing older people as part of their beautiful rainbow. The elderly are more likely to be the targets of a snarky putdown, such as this one in a review on HowlRound of a play at Cal Shakes: “It’s Telemundo on steroids for an audience on Metamucil.” The attitude is so widespread that it was satirized in the second season of the cult backstage TV series Slings and Arrows, in which the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival launches a marketing campaign that deliberately insults its elderly subscribers in order to get them to stop attending. (One billboard shows an old, ill woman in a hospital bed holding two tickets, and the tagline “Don’t Bother.”)
Type “Theatre audiences are too old” into Google, and get more than 58 million results. The central message of the many laments about “aging” theatregoers is unmistakable: “They are going to die soon, and then, how will theatre survive?” But might there be an unintended additional communication? “We would rather not have old people in our theatres.”
Does any other industry exhibit such gleeful contempt for its most loyal customers?
Recently, timed to the opening on the West End of revivals of both Miss Saigon and Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang (the playwright of the latter, and long-ago protestor against the former), wrote an essay in The Guardian about his views on diversity. It includes this paragraph:
My own opinions about race face casting have evolved over the years. Today, I see it as largely an employment, rather than an artistic, issue. On Broadway and in the major New York theatres, roughly 80% of all roles are currently cast with white actors. Social justice concerns aside, this would be a poor diversity statistic in any industry, and a bad business model. As audiences grow more diverse, the theatre continues to draw from an increasingly shrinking, aging portion of the population.
There it is again, albeit more subtle than the Metamucil crack, and a comment about actors rather than audiences—“aging.”
What Does Diversity Mean?
I bring up these dismissive attitudes toward the elderly not as advocacy for yet another protected class, but to explain how I came to question the nearly universal battle cry for “diversity” in the theatre community. The diversity movement, if you can call it that, confuses me, leaving me full of questions:
Is “diversity” a codeword for a different kind of exclusion? Is it a zero-sum game, where the current losers replace the current winners? Are some groups more worthy of inclusion than others?
How many people pushing for diversity are looking at the big picture, and how many are actually just advocating for a single demographic group, one in which they are a member? Does this make a difference?
Has “diversity” become a word like “patriotism” used to be—something you need to support, and will be attacked if you question, but something that means so many different things to so many different people that it’s in danger of losing its meaning?
What does it mean?
Is the diversity movement in the theatre focused on having more characters depicted on stage from underrepresented demographic groups (race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), and having these depictions be free from stereotype and inaccuracy? Or is diversity in the theatre world about giving jobs to more people from historically underemployed groups? Aren’t some people assuming that these are one and the same issue—that a woman can write best about women? Does this assumption denigrate the belief that artistic talent transcends one’s demographic identity?
When is it appropriate for a character to be played by an actor who does not fit the playwright’s description? Does this depend entirely on a director’s conception? Are there some characteristics (race, height, ethnicity) that are more acceptable to change than others? (such as age: Denzel Washington and Orlando Bloom were both heavily criticized for being older than the characters they played, in A Raisin in the Sun and Romeo and Juliet respectively, but I don't recall a word when Washington played Brutus in a Broadway production of Julius Caesar) Is it OK for an actor of color to play a white character, but not OK for a white actor to play a character of color?
What’s with the reliance on statistics? There are many efforts to quantify participation in the theatre, such as the regular reports commissioned by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition; the 2011/2012 report pointed out for example that African-Americans make up 23 percent of the population of New York City, but just 16 percent of the casts on Broadway and 16 leading nonprofit New York theatres, while whites make up 33 percent of the population but 77 percent of the casts. Is the aim of diversity advocates to have 1) audience members, 2) characters, 3) playwrights, 4) performers, and 5) staff of each theatre matching precisely the demographic percentages of the city that they are in?
If so, how are they suggesting this should come about?
Why all the hostility? After it was announced that the winning dramatist and all the finalists of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama were women, Michele Willens in The Atlantic took the opportunity to contrast it with the Tony nominations, and to attack “the glass curtain that separates talented female playwrights and Broadway stages.” Willens managed to work in a weird parenthetical dig at the Broadway show Beautiful, The Carole King Musical—“written by a man whose sketchy words, reviewers noted, contrast sharply with King’s moody and meaningful lyrics.” Is the author implying here that the book would have been better had they chosen to hire a woman over this unnamed man? (His name is Douglas McGrath, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, as well as an actor and director, whose book for Beautiful has been nominated for a Tony.)
Does diversity serve art? Is diversity a legitimate aim in and of itself, no matter what the consequences of making it the number one priority, or is its implementation making things better for the audience? For the artists? For the art? Is a better experience for the audience/artists/art of secondary importance to the effort to provide fair employment? Should the arts be considered no differently than any other industry—the theatre on a par with the post office—when it comes to hiring decisions?
Is there a possibility of discussing these issues with any nuance, and in a spirit of collaborative inquiry? Or is this a civil rights struggle, pitting the oppressed against the oppressor (or at least against the unenlightened and/or ineffectual), and thus evoking the old Union song: “Which Side Are You On?”
Shortly after David Henry Hwang’s essay was published in The Guardian, I shot some of these questions at him on Twitter. He Tweeted back politely, but pointed out it is a subject not ideally suited for social media. He invited me to discuss it in person.
We met at Cupcake Café—a good choice, since then at least something about the encounter would be sure to be sweet.
A Career Shaped By Angry Protest
When David Henry Hwang began writing plays in college, “I didn’t think I’d be writing about Asian characters.” He was working on “an intellectual vaudeville about the existence of God, inspired by Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers” when he took a course with the playwrights Sam Shepard and María Irene Fornés. “They taught us to write more from our subconscious—from a place we didn’t understand.” Out of this instruction emerged FOB, a play that focuses on three Asian-American characters, one “fresh off the boat,” the second a first-generation immigrant, the third like Hwang an ABC (American-born Chinese.) Some fifteen months after he had written it in his college dormitory, FOB opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater.
It was as unusual then as it is now for a college student to get such a high-profile New York production. It happened, Hwang says, as the direct result of a protest at the Public a year earlier. The theatre had put on a play by Len Jenkin entitled New Jerusalem, in which a non-Asian actor played an Asian character. A group of Asian Americans led a public protest against this casting, which they labeled an unacceptable example of “yellow face.” The savvy Joseph Papp, the founding artistic director of the Public who was seen as being especially committed to what was then called multiculturalism, hired one of the protestors, David Oyama, to be on the Public’s staff. It was Oyama who picked Hwang’s play to produce.
“I’m a beneficiary of affirmative action; I owe a debt to those theatre people who protested yellow face,” Hwang says. As a result, “I feel some obligation to address these issues.”
He had an opportunity to meet this obligation in a big way eight years and five plays later, after his Broadway debut, M. Butterfly, won three Tonys including Best Play, ran for two years, and turned Hwang into something of a celebrity. In 1990, he and M. Butterfly actor BD Wong became the public faces of a protest against the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian, as the Eurasian lead in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh dismissed the protest as “a storm in an Oriental teacup,” and the protestors’ efforts were unsuccessful; Pryce performed on Broadway to great acclaim. But Mackintosh has since apologized for his flippancy, and an Asian actor has reportedly played the role in every major production of the musical since then.
“What I found during the Miss Saigon thing, was that everybody was angry,” Hwang says now. “Minorities were angry: ‘Why should we continue to be excluded?’ The white people were angry: ‘Why should we have to sacrifice our artistic freedom to satisfy some political agenda?’ We’ve only seen that anger continue to intensify: ‘Why are we still discussing race? I’m not racist.’”
Hwang has pondered the reasons for this escalating intensity. “We’re in a society that’s in transition. As society begins to redefine itself, what was once normative is simply one option. The legalization of gay marriage, for example, suggests that not just heterosexuality is normative. The concept of normality is changing.”
If emotions run high, Hwang doesn’t see any enemies in this struggle in the theatre—no equivalent of Bull Connor siccing the dogs on the civil rights demonstrators. “There’s a lot of desire, a lot of consensus. We’d like the field to be more diverse. The disagreement comes over how you implement that.
“Who do you let audition for Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Do you throw it open?
How does one feel about a production with a black Jamie and an Asian Mary Tyrone? The theatre doesn’t know how to move forward.”
Yes to Nuance
In the meantime, yes, “this is something that can be discussed with some nuance,” Hwang says. “Yellow Face was my effort.”
Written in 2007, the play was actually his second to address the issues surrounding the Miss Saigon controversy. The first, Face Value, which was intended to be his next Broadway play after M. Butterfly, closed in previews. Yellow Face, featuring “David Henry Hwang” as one of the characters, tells the story of Hwang’s involvement in the Miss Saigon protest, and the failure of Face Value, and several other events (including a few that are fabricated) in order to explore the issues that surround identity politics in an amusing, pointed and, yes, nuanced way. As in much of his work, including the one for which he is still best known, Hwang gets us thinking about the fluidity and contradictions of identity in a changing world—the public face as a mask.
Hwang’s definition of diversity is also nuanced, or at least broad. “Not all the criteria relate to race and ethnicity and gender. There’s economic diversity, and philosophical diversity.” When he serves on award or fellowship selection committees, “you try for geographic diversity too.”
And, yes, “ageism is a valid concern. I believe diversity includes older people; I’m not that young myself.” That audiences “tend to be older is not a bad thing. But we have to find a way to replenish the audience. There’s some evidence that when people start having families they stop going to the theatre; when their kids grow up, they come back.” The trick, then, he says, is to interest young people in the theatre before they have families; “one study compared the habit of theatregoing to that of churchgoing” (best developed when young.)
As for the tendency of advocates to reduce the complexities of diversity to statistics, “numbers may not prove anything, but they certainly suggest something,” Hwang says. “The best, most talented actor should get the part. But almost 80 percent white hiring suggests that theatre casting is not yet a level playing field—that nonwhite actors are not given equal opportunity to audition for roles, let alone be cast.
“I would not personally support anything that feels like quotas,” Hwang says, but he believes they won’t be necessary. “Ultimately, the field will move in the direction of greater diversity. There’s a demographic imperative: People want to see themselves on stage.”
What, then, will diversity mean?
“The most utopian outcome is that everybody will feel comfortable, and everybody, regardless of who they are and what their personal choices, will have opportunities.”