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Stomping on Eggshells

An Honest Discussion of Race, Identity, and Intent in the American Theater

Spurred by the controversies over the new adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened this summer in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage. This series is curated by Rebecca Stevens, the Chicago Commons Producer for HowlRound.

This past June, Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, railed against acclaimed adapter/director Mary Zimmerman in a piece entitled “The Trouble With Mary.” In the essay, published on Silk Road Risings’ blog, Khoury quoted Zimmerman’s recent interview in Chicago Magazine about her new adaptation of The Jungle Book, in which she appeared to show remarkable racial insensitivity, at one point declaring, “racism is in the eye of the beholder.” Media from The Chicago Reader to The New York Times quickly caught the story while debates raged on Facebook and in the blogsphere. Just days later, Zimmerman met face to face with Khoury and agreed to a written interview conducted by him. In her words, posted again on Silk Road Rising’s web site, Zimmerman unequivocally disavowed the opinions expressed in the interview, stressing that her words were continuously taken out of context and misappropriated. Khoury himself noted that Zimmerman “addressed my concerns with the utmost of integrity, honesty, and sincerity.” The first meeting was followed by dinner together later in the summer.

The Jungle Book opened, then closed and transferred to The Huntington Theatre in Boston. Administrative teams and artists and audiences felt better that these grievances had not only been aired, but addressed. Interested parties met face to face for civil discussion and demonstrated mutual respect in the face of differing opinions. After all, this is what we are supposed to be good at. This is what artists do: discourse, nuance, and courageous communication. We can listen. We can have difficult conversations.

My interest this week is not to rehash or resolve the particulars of the debate surrounding The Jungle Book. (For those interested in a more in-depth exploration of that topic, a great starting point is David Isaacson’s terrific essay “Up-ending the Tea Table: Race and Culture in Mary Zimmerman’s The Jungle Book”) Rather, I’m interested in grappling openly as a field—as a community—with who gets to tell whose stories onstage and what responsibilities come along with that privilege. To my mind, the conversation only got more interesting once it became clear that Zimmerman (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was a much admired professor of mine at Northwestern University) is not virulently racist and that her words were taken out of context in that interview. Once we lost a clear villain in the conversation, we had to navigate a much more complicated world where everyone’s intentions were good, but individual lived experience of the impact differed so widely.

This week at HowlRound is an attempt to ask ourselves thorny questions: Can a white person write, adapt, direct, or perform stories from a different culture or race? Is it a huge step forward when a high profile white artist consistently makes work that involves performers of color or is it a poor substitute for a truly diverse collaboration where primarily nonwhite artists author the work? What’s cultural voyeurism? What’s honest inquiry? What belongs to any individual to reinterpret and what is off limits? Who is wielding economic power and how do we understand those implications on our art making?

We’re also going to grapple with how we talk to each other when we feel strongly about a fundamental aspect of our practice—representation on stage—and when we strongly disagree. How do we navigate the murky, complex waters of diversity with identities, agendas, and aspirations all intact? Why is it in all of these conversations that all sides simultaneously feel that they are always playing defense?

It feels reductive to simply ask, can we only tell stories that directly reflect our own lived experience? Surely most of us recognize it would be the (final) death knell of theatre if all stories must stem from the autobiographical. It is the particular pleasure of the art form to recognize your own reflection in another’s story. To cut across historical contexts and cultural cannons for an echo of your own innermost thoughts and needs. This connecting is an act of appropriation and it is at the very core of what we do as theatremakers.

This pleasure is at the root of why we push classic literature in schools, taking pains to draw connections between fictional characters’ journeys and the lived experiences of our students. It is the reason why we have cast actors of color in a Christmas Carol and Molière and Shakespeare and point to that as an act of progress. As artists and audiences we’ve been able to say—look the contexts are particular but the human condition is universal. Shouldn’t that sentiment be the cause of celebration?

Too often, we see theatres deeming stories from the Western European cannon as having wide appeal while simultaneously designating stories from other cultures as niche

Portrait of Mary Zimmerman.
Mary Zimmerman in 2017. Photo by Gabriela Herman .

Well, maybe. But the problem is that the equation seems to only go one way. Too often, we see theatres deeming stories from the Western European cannon as having wide appeal while simultaneously designating stories from other cultures as niche. These stories only stand a chance of regular programming if they are used as foundational text for white artists who may or may not contend with their historical context. What I heard in the fallout over Zimmerman’s misquoted interview was a fury over first, who is on American stages and second, who are the cultural authority figures (directors, writers, producers) responsible for those numbers.

One of the reasons why Zimmerman’s Jungle Book felt so controversial is that the American theatre has, to put it bluntly, too few artists of color working in major theatres to feel that Zimmerman’s aesthetic choices are offset by any sort pluralistic representation on a national scale. In 2014, when it still feels like a radical act for a major regional theatre to program more than one show with a cast of primarily actors of color in a season, controversies about cultural authority and appropriation can feel infuriatingly stagnant. We still have a numbers problem. We still need to disrupt the assumed truth that shows by white people (often white men!) and performed by white actors is the only way to increase audiences and to begin to plan our seasons without this false notion as our dominant mindset. As a field, we are still struggling with this most rudimentary of challenges—giving people of color enough seats at the table. Thus, when an artist from a position of privilege renders a perspective or pulls from source material outside of their own culture, it is impossible to coolly debate the implications of this sort of work. The debate feels red hot, and the heat only illuminates the cold, dead vacuum in which it exists.

I think the genuine fury surrounding these debates can feel disorienting to artists and administrators who identify themselves as allies because we are used to agreeing on ideas of politics and even on the need for change in the American theatre. Theatre practitioners are dominantly progressives, and we believe our art can help usher in a more beautiful, more just world. It’s really uncomfortable when another artist tells us that our art making is actually undermining this commitment.

Once Khoury and Zimmerman sat down face to face, many breathed a sigh of relief. But the uncomfortable truth is that the avalanche of responses to this inciting incident all spoke to a long-simmering frustration about who gets to tell what kind of stories, especially when these tellings are met with critical and commercial acclaim. The interview didn’t cause all of those feelings—it merely made it feel safer and more appropriate to speak out about them.

I saw many instances of theatremakers asking their colleagues to explain these charges of racism—to engage with them philosophically and critically so that we might explore collectively if they are warranted, from where they originated, and how we might fix them. Many of these well intentioned folks seem startled when complaints about “burden of proof” began and allegations that artists of color shouldn’t have to defend their lived experiences proliferated across the Internet. It begs the question—do we as a field have such a poor track record of talking about and dealing with issues of racism, that we have yet to earn the right to a critical perspective or nuanced push back? Do we need to spend a little more time earning the trust of audiences and artists who have suffered decades of cultural appropriation without so much as a discussion, let alone an apology, before we can show up at the table and reasonably expect to do anything more than listen to our colleagues who we have been inadvertently silencing?

When we occupy positions of privilege, it’s important to recognize that the responsibility is on us to learn how our actions and words affect groups that are underrepresented in positions of power and influence in our society. It’s not someone’s job to teach us how to behave in the conversation—it’s our job to create the space for conversation where careful listening and thoughtful engagement helps us uncover how to interact with people with differing backgrounds who may be saying something that’s hard for us to hear.

Every theatre practitioner has had to learn to steel themselves against audience members, producers, funders, and press who take issue or simply don’t like our aesthetic choices or perspective.

While that is a sentiment with which most people agree, I think it’s much trickier in practice because of what our job entails. Every theatre practitioner has had to learn to steel themselves against audience members, producers, funders, and press who take issue or simply don’t like our aesthetic choices or perspective. It is difficult to unlearn this impulse in the context of conversations—especially critical conversations—about diversity. As artists, it’s not our job to please everyone. But as privileged individuals (let me throw down right now and just say as white people) it is our job to step back and reevaluate how our assumptions and our behavior might be railroading all kinds of people, perspectives, and potential conversations.

Although counterintuitive, I would posit that the practice of art making in a commercial context and these tough conversations about diversity and inclusivity are actually at odds with one another and create difficult moments among colleagues and across the field, despite the fact that many people on either side of the issue may feel that they occupy the same political perspectives or philosophical commitments. We all want to have a more inclusive American theatre. We just don’t want to be told we’re going about it in the wrong way.

Finally, I’d like to suggest that some of our most beloved forms of art making may reinforce the power structures that make our field less inclusive than we might wish.

Here in Chicago, we live or die by the creed of ensemble theatre and the belief that long-term collaborations across space and time create a quality of work not achieved in short-term relationships. But ensembles lend themselves to like-minded thinking—hence a rigorous commitment to collaboration—that encourages people from similar walks of life to gather together to make art. Ensembles let us off the hook to move radically out of what is known and comfortable as we author creative works. The whole “start in a church basement” ethos does not necessarily encourage the sort of regular, difficult interaction that a more diverse set of collaborations creates. Ensemble theatre provides a shield from radical inclusivity as it privileges the notion that a self-selecting set of collaborators is one of the highest ways of making art. And while I (and many others) can point to noticeable exceptions, one only has to look at the lack of Asian Americans and Latinos in Chicago’s most prominent ensembles to see examples of this origin story and its resulting difficulty to create meaningful interactions across ethnic (and aesthetic) lines.

The rest of the week you’ll hear from various theatre practitioners across a spectrum of viewpoints tackling the question of who gets to tell what stories and what responsibilities that engenders. It’s way past time to have these conversations in loud voices in the front rooms of all of our institutions. We’re all turning to Facebook because there aren’t a lot of clear alternatives. HowlRound should be that alternative. Let’s get started.



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Thoughts from the curator

Spurred by the controversies over the adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened in 2014 in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage.

Race and Representation in American Theatre


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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Excellent piece. I was especially struck by the paragraph about ensembles. Chicago theater artists (myself very much included) tend to pat ourselves on the back, feeling the ensemble-based approach is a best-practices way of theater-making (and tending to support our "founding ensembles" when they find themselves in conflict with Boards seeking new artistic directors and greater diversity). But it is important to examine your point about self-selecting groups of collaborators.

I am just revisiting your essay now, two weeks after your posting, because of the case of Wendy Doniger (which has been in the headlines the last couple days). That case makes it clear that the issues raised in your HowlRound series are, of course, not limited to theater. The reaction to Doniger's book "The Hindus" in India, and subsequent recall and pulping of the volumes, prompts the same type of questions as you raise above.

Thanks Rebecca for your thoughtful article and the responses have been fascinating. I come at the issue from an Asian American/Canadian perspective, and as a playwright, director and former artistic director. I like the use of the term "narrative domination" as a way to get at who actually has the power to make the play selection, choice of director and casting etc decisions in theater. For Asian Americans the longstanding tradition has been of "white artists" writing about Asians and Asian Americans (from Madame Butterfly and The Mikado to King And I and Flower Drum Song as a few examples). And with that the leading Asian male roles were often cast with white actors. But over the past fifty years that tradition is gradually being changed with the emergence of playwrights from Frank Chin and Wakako Yamauchi thru David Hwang and Velina Hasu Houston to the huge new wave of playwrights like Lauren Yee, Michael Golamco and Young Jean Lee. (to the credit of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, they allowed David Hwang to write a revised version of Flower Drum Song which I think works much better from an Asian American perspective and revived interest in that musical). There are major exceptions, like Miss Saigon which of course created major controversy on several different levels and Mulan which came out of the Disney Machine. But the phenomenon of white writers writing about the Asian American experience seems to have subsided somewhat. (I think the more common example now is the white playwright adapting books written by Asians/Asian Americans and trying to be faithful to the original material such as The Romance of Magno Rubio by Lonnie Carter based on the story by Carlos Bulosan) The major complaint now is why are so few of these plays by Asian Americans about Asian Americans being produced at theaters across America? There are a handful of major Asian American theater companies but they cannot produce even a majority of the plays coming out now and why aren't these plays being produced at the major regional theaters? (there are of course the audience demographics for those major theaters and the hierarchy of white leadership making those play, directing and casting selections based upon their particular perspectives) So change has been in the making but there's a long way to go in the playwriting arena.
(my pet peeve remains white writers who write secondary Asian American characters who happen to speak broken English because they are not really from here and it's funny, to them)

I believe our major challenge now is in the area of casting and "yellow face" performances. There is ample evidence that Asian American actors remain marginalized in terms of casting in Broadway and major regional theaters. As an Asian American theater artist, I would love to see yellow face" performance go the way of "black face" performances. I can't think of a recent "black face" performance but I can cite a number of "yellow face" performances at large and small theaters. In the case of larger companies, it seems that they can't find or decide not to bring in capable Asian American actors to cast. In the case of smaller companies, they can't find or can't afford to bring in Asian American actors, or in the example of ensemble companies, there are simply no Asian American actors in their company. With the larger companies, I believe it reflects their financial, artistic or marketing priorities based upon their particular perspectives. I believe that the core ability to accept "yellow face" as an artistic or practical reality is a reflection of that person's particular perspective. They may believe theirs is the universal perspective but that's the "blindspot".
In the case of smaller companies and ensembles, I simply ask them to be respectful and cautious in their approach. It may seem like a grand idea to stage Shakespeare in Japan (and it's been done how many times) but using a cast with no Asian Americans and virtually no input or consultation from Asian American theater artists is probably not very smart. There have been plenty of diverse cast productions of Asian/Asian American material, but again, if it's a case of tokenism where the Asian American actors play the minor "window dressing" roles and the white actors in "yellow face" play the leads, it kind of rings hollow. It's a delicate balance between good intention and deeper understanding and I just hope it can be achieved through respect and artistic creativity. And in response to the question of why then should Asian American actors play traditionally white roles, I go back to the "narrative domination" point where the predominance of "white privilege" is so apparent that casting an Asian American actor in such a role becomes an expression of inclusiveness and the idea that race need not be the key to access to power in this kingdom of theater (though in fact and unfortunately, it rather still is). Being an optimist and having worked as a theater artist these past thirty years, I can see major changes have been made but many challenges remain. We certainly can't all agree on everything but with respect and a true sense of creative investigation, we can keep moving forward.

In my opinion it is appropriate, but any time a story is done by those traditionally in power that touches upon race or culture, It is going to be at least somewhat controversial. For an extreme example or hypothetical, has anyone here ever heard the story of Rachel Plummer? She was a woman on the plains kidnapped by Comanche Indians. She was raped, her baby was killed. They did so, by tying the little baby to a rope and dragging it by horseback through cactus, tearing off the baby's skin, and essentially torturing it to death in front of the mother. I'm interested in that story, because it is true and because it is about the cruelty human beings can inflect on each other and the power of the human spirit to survive.

However let's face it, Not only did Custer kill a whole lotta Indian babies himself, The genocide that occurred, left surviving natives relegated to second class citizens, discriminated against and portrayed as savages while excusing white Americans, for the wholesale slaughter of an indigenous people. This of course when on long after the days of the American Frontier were gone

So, If a white person were to stage Rachel Plummer's story, which is entirely true, Questions would be asked, about the motivation for staging the play, People would ask what about the also true stories of Indian babies killed by Custer. Have not whites killed tortured Indian babies too? Why isn't that being asked? Can this story be used as justification for discrimination against Indians today?

The way history turned out in the plains Indians wars and subsequent years will have a huge impact on people's perceptions.

My Question though, is this (trying to tie my disjointed thoughts back to the discussion) Does the artist intentions matter more or less than the Cultural and racial tensions left by history?

For example, if someone told the above story not because they want to justify white barbarism, and not because they think Native Americans were any more savage than those who came to conquer but because cruelty is cruelty and survival in the face of extreme cruelty is hopeful. Would that or should that outweigh the fact that even today native Americans can face discrimination? Should you stage it knowing that some racist somewhere is going to look at the work no matter your intent and use it to justify their discrimination?

It seems to me, their is no easy answer but even in a much less extreme example it's difficult to have a discussion of this nature, no matter what the intention without current power dynamics coming into play.

Hi Sun Yoo,

What an unreal, fascinating example. I was going to look it up and then realized that I am not sure I want to actually read about it... One of the things that your comment made me think about is the powerful dichotomy between the individual experience and the historical and political context. While it's true that individual human cruelty is universal, I think it might be a mistake to equate it to entire systems of injustice, oppression or genocide. There's something that rankles a bit to think about a single story of horrifying violence being held up as an alternative narrative to (as you so clearly lay out) decades if not centuries of violence, and abuse. My question is- what is the responsibility of the artist (in this case the hypothetical white artist staging this story) to making sure that the audience has the correct information and experience to view the individual story within the context of the whole historical picture? How the artist imagines and executes that seems to be of upmost importance.

Maybe one of the reasons why there is no easy answer is that the artist's intent must in some way be clearly translated to the audience. Otherwise, in my opinion, it is not worth much. Is that wrong? It could be.

Thanks for such a great example and questions,

"Once we lost a clear villain in the conversation, we had to navigate a much more complicated world where everyone’s intentions were good, but individual lived experience of the impact differed so widely." Looking at this issue through the frame of privilege is so helpful. Is it good that a hypothetical white male playwright writes a play about communities of color? YES, it results in more roles for people of color...or NO because these are plays already being written by communities of color and they can't get read because the field is dominated by white male voices. This is less a conversation about cultural appropriation and more about narrative domination. "Can a white person write, adapt, direct, or perform stories from a different culture or race?" It's not CAN...? It's SHOULD... ? because we already ARE...

Hi Claudia,

I love the challenge to think about cultural appropriation and narrative domination as distinct things. In my mind- they are intertwined. Artists in positions of privilege dominate narratives and because of that can culturally appropriate all kinds of stories, text, and experience without any context (historical or peer generated) surrounding that work. I'm curious about the possibilities if I start to separate those out as different problems. And yes, I completely agree that the question is not so much "can" as "should". I was interested in evoking the question as the "unwritten rules" that get argued over (hence the use of the word "can") I've had many conversations where artists with privilege (whether race, class, gender etc) will complain that they "aren't allowed" to do certain things. By openly evoking that there are rules (and perhaps different rules depending on who the person is or what they perceive), I hoped to prompt real discussion over how they are governing art-making even though they are so rarely discussed.

Thanks for such smart, interesting thoughts. Would love to continue the conversation.

I keep coming back to this idea that you presented, Rebecca:

"It’s not someone’s job to teach us how to behave in the conversation—it’s our job to create the space for conversation where careful listening and thoughtful engagement helps us uncover how to interact with people with differing backgrounds who may be saying something that’s hard for us to hear."

I'm thinking about this from the perspective of a soon-to-be graduating Undergrad student who invests a lot of reflection into the challenges you identify in this article. I think it might actually be ALL of our jobs, collectively, as members of a community committed to sharing stories with an identifiable audience, to teach how to behave in the conversation. As a student, my most valuable learning has come from the people I've encountered who have enlightened to me the fact that these are conversations I must participate in as a 21st-century theatre person, and there are certain ways to participate in the conversation (be respectful, not jump to conclusions, learn to hear every voice, etc). I would not be so aware of my privilege if I hadn't been taught. I don't think I would have sought out that knowledge myself. I had to be informed, and I had to wrestle with it, and I have to continue accepting the challenge of wading through its implications.

The conversations happening within the theatre community about race are parallel to the conversations happening in countless other communities. I believe--and my experience has shaped this belief--that the ways in which we approach the conversation and match our actions to our words will contribute to the conversations our audience members are having in their own worlds. Only when we agree to teach each other can we all collectively sort through the messiness together. You do articulate this beautifully, but I think there's something to be said for aiming for the balance of conversation, which is what we keep saying we desire: we create space so that we can be taught, we listen and internalize, we channel that information, we teach, and we receive feedback, and hopefully through practice and failing forward we get closer to our goal.

Your article is so successful in concisely identifying the challenges that are on our minds. I think your points about privilege and its effects are incredibly on the mark. I also think that the second half to your argument is that only after we've been listeners can we become teachers, and the things we will be able to teach about because we listened will be instrumental in contributing to the larger societal discussion.

Hi James,

Thanks for the lovely things you've said and for the smart, clear way that you've synthesized and articulated what I am doing in this article. (It helped me see its structure more clearly!) I also think it sounds like you have done remarkable learning in your undergrad career- and allowed for deep learning and listening in a way that few of us are able to do.

i am struck by your comments about "aiming for the balance of conversation, which is what we keep saying we desire." My first thought is- does everyone desire that balance? Certainly I do, and it sounds like you do- but I wonder who are the detractors from this conversation and how are they dominating or silencing this discussion?

But I'm actually more interested in how we achieve this balance from our currently lopsided position. While co-creating space to teach and to listen in tandem with one another is ideal, in practice, I worry that too many of us from a position of privilege put the listening secondary when it really needs to be first. It's tricky territory- to try to figure out how we achieve a more balanced conversation from where we are, rather than the ideals of where we'd like to be.

Thanks for such thought-provoking comments!

Really happy to see this discussion- as a First Generation Thai-Peruvian it's something I've thought about constantly during my time in the American Theater (full disclosure: I worked at a large institutional theater for the past 9 years as an Artistic Associate & Casting Director)

I've come up with a little visualize exercise for those with strong imaginations- hope it might put some perspective on what we people of color see in the American Theater every day:

1. For one full day, try to imagine that every White Person you see is a different race- totally swap them out, so if you pick Asian, every White Person you see is Asian, and every Asian Person is White (and you remain whatever you already are) Depending on where you live, this might totally be a one-for-one swap, and you'll notice no difference/it will be really hard to keep track and hold the mental image. You might also be seeing a grip of Asians all day, and wonder where all the White folks went.

2. For the next month, keep trying to do this whenever you're at a Theater (not only the lobby or the house before the lights go down, but also during the day time if you work in a theater, or are meeting at a theater not to see a show). Keep swapping out races- let's say Latino for a day- if you're at the theater a lot, you would notice that the overwhelming majority of people working at/supporting these places are Latino, and you'll maybe start wondering "where the White people at?" And also maybe- "are they going to break out and start salsa dancing at any moment?"

3. Extend it to all of the Artists working at/being produced at Theaters- this is particularly fun when the season announcements start rolling out- and choose another Race. It would be pretty crazy (and amazing) to see a season bursting at the seams with plays by Native American playwrights, being directed by Native American directors, starring Native American actors, and being attended by Native American audiences (because for this exercise we're replacing White people with Native Americans and vice-versa, and we can all look through season announcements for the past couple of years and just see how much work is produced/written/directed/starred in/attended by White people)

Now imagine that your vision got stuck on one of these days (remember, your race hasn't changed through all of this), and you find yourself surrounded by people of a different race/culture (“where did all the white people vanish to- I see them out in the streets but not in the Theater!!”), and if you work at a Theater, you realize that you're in service to support Artists and Audiences that don't look like you, and who's stories may not relate to yours. You might also start to feel out of place and feel like the theater isn't meant for people like you- as much as everyone around you talked about the need to find that great White Playwright, they're not sure if the work will land with the audience, and as interested as everyone is in hiring White artists, they should only work on specifically White work about the White experience, and you know, the audience might not go for that because they're more comfortable seeing themselves on stage, and we can't risk losing our Pacific Islander mega-base...

That's been my general experience of the American Theater. Totally flawed exercise, but if you actually try it you might start to understand what people of color see when they go to the theater and look at the staff, audience, and work. Might also help you understand why people of color get touchy about the whole representation on stage/cultural appropriation thing- it’s not just about one incident or one show, it’s about an entire system of power and entitlement.

I've also tried swapping ages (old folks for young) and thinking about the 1000+ shows I've seen over the last 9 years, my scouting experience would've felt like I was on Bieber-Tour.

Daniel, you're right on target! I've thought of proposing that very exercise many times. It's a very simple but powerfully illuminating image for those of the dominant culture to conjure up. In my experience, few have the interest, desire, or courage to do so. It's profoundly disturbing, and in the end, who has any vested interest in relinquishing power?

Thanks for getting this discussion started! Along these lines of audiences feeling welcome, a thought that's occurred to me in the last few days as I've been chewing on issues of privilege, power, and responsibility--

So many of our larger theatre institutions are supported by national governmental funding agencies. Now, I haven't fully thought this out because, admittedly, I don't really understand the inner workings of arts funding mechanisms and how they are tied to tax payer money. But it seems like there might be a case to be made about our ethical and fiscal responsibility as artists to create theater environments that invite audiences that reflect national (or regional) demographics.

I'd be interested to hear from people who have a better understanding of arts funding.


I love this exercise for its powerful imagination and its clarity of task. I wonder if there are ways to make it present and practiced in wider contexts? (What if TCG started each year like this?!)

Your response also made me more deeply consider how this impacts theater makers who work primarily in administrative capacities (quite possible that isn't how you define yourself- but I was struck by this idea while reading your response!) So much of our conversation about diversity is about who is making or seeing work directly inside the theaters or who are the most powerful players inside a company. The notion that "you realize that you're in service to support Artists and Audiences that don't look like you, and who's stories may not relate to yours" when working inside a company's administration is not addressed enough. I wonder if many of the complaints about the hierarchical nature of many large theater companies contribute to the lack of honest conversation about work environment in these places.

Thanks for such great, generative thoughts. Would love to discuss more-

Great start to a conversation, everyone. I am thinking about how much Jackie Siblees Drury (We Are Proud To Present...) and Michael Friedman ( Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) could contribute here if they chose to. And Thomas Gibbons (Permanent Collection) and Young Jean Lee (The Shipment, Straight White Men). And Kirsten Greenidge (The Luck of the Irish). Having just watched Company One's production of We Are Proud load out of ArtsEmerson, it is a subject much on my mind.

Great piece, Rebecca. I'm fascinated with the ways this same discussion is happening right now in Hollywood and in feminism. People are getting called out right and left for their privilege and it's creating a lot of (hopefully productive) friction. I, too, think that as theater people we should be better at having these conversations, yet we are facing all the same problems that people are in other fields.

Do you think that the nature of conversation is different in film because the stakes- economically speaking- are so much higher? Money and fame are available in film in a way they rarely are in theater, and the audience for commercial film can be on a global scale. I always think that theater ought to have a better relationship to these conversations about diversity and privilege because money is not as prevalent, but maybe it's because resources feel scarce that the problems are even more starkly enacted. Thoughts?

It's definitely about resources on any scale. Who has them, who doesn't. Who is getting paid to make stuff/teach/write and who is not. The conversation is only different in film because people can now use the internet to make their own content at very low cost and if they're smart, they can monetize it and actually make a living from it. In the theater, we can produce our own work, but nobody can make a living doing that any more than they can make a living being an adjunct or a freelance writer. In all fields, the institutions that control the resources don't want to change, but the people being left out (predominately women and people of color) are at least starting to speak up in mass about it.

This is an excellent opportunity for discussion! I'm really looking forward to reading the follow-up pieces to this. Thanks for starting this sensitive and important conversation!

There is a reticence to speak honestly and openly about matters of race, gender, and sexuality on the internet. Even people with the most honest and positive intentions can see their words twisted, and see their reputations stomped by virtue of an online conversation gone awry--and the herd mentality. That very dynamic, as well as a medium that can overcome it, is worth exploring, well in advance of the (quite worthwhile) exploration of this subject.

I'm very happy to see this topic come up for discussion, but I do think there is a problem with the question being asked: "Can a WHITE person write, adapt, direct, or perform stories from a different culture or race?" This makes the same mistake that many white people make, of assuming that there is something different about being white than about being any other race, or assuming that White is not, in itself, an ethnicity. A better question to ask would be, "Can ANYONE write, adapt, direct or perform stories from a culture or race that is not their own?" Can an Asian American author write a sensitive portrayal of the Irish potato famine? Can an African American author successfully adapt the Tale of Genji, or 1001 Nights? (For that matter - can men write about women and can women write about men...) Surely there isn't something inherently different about white people that makes stepping across cultures a larger leap?

My own answer would be yes, absolutely yes - it is a routine part of our job as theater artists to step outside of our own experiences and to tell other peoples' stories. When stepping across cultural lines, artists just have to be even more vigilant about being sensitive, empathetic, and aware. But before we even debate the answers, let's make sure we are asking the right questions.

Hi Eleanor,
Thanks so much for responding to this with your thoughtful and nuanced questioning of my own framing for this piece and this week. I actually debated that very sentence for quite some time while working on the article. I held similar reservations about what you articulated so well: "the same mistake that many white people make, of assuming there is something different about being white than about being any other race..." (and the excellent arguments you continue with from there- including ideas about appropriation across not only racial lines but also gender- and I would add class.) Ultimately, a discussion about representation on stage is (and should be!) large and pluralistic. It is about how people people stretch across ethnic and cultural lines in all directions to borrow and to re-tell each other stories. The rights and responsibilities may differ depending on who is reaching and whose story they are are borrowing- and that is a subject that I very much want to delve into and to explore.

Ultimately, the reason that I decided to explicitly ask if a white person can write/adapt/direct/perform is that I hoped to talk openly about the massive position of privilege with which white artists operate within the United States. This privilege- while of course not uniform nor all-encompassing- is not so much about the notion of conflating white with ethnicity but rather about who are the decision makers (both artistic and financial) in the powerful theaters in our country. When I think about the most egregious examples of cultural appropriation that have captured our field's interests, debate, and discourse- perhaps most notably Peter Brooks' adaptation of THE MAHABHARATA along with many other examples- they have almost exclusively been about white, critically acclaimed artists appropriated foundational texts from another culture. I have personally found in many conversations about this topic that participants can deflect uncomfortable realities about privilege and power in our field by wanting to talk about the most universal questions of appropriation which let's them off the hook from having to identify or to discuss their own privilege. (Not suggesting that's what you are doing- trying to let you in on my thinking that led to my wording) It was my hope that by bluntly asking a question that acknowledged white artists privileged position within our own current system of art-making that the conversation could not shy away from uncomfortable realities of power and economic forces.

It may have been the wrong choice. I am torn between what I feel is the reality of where our field is (a place where we are still just beginning to confront notions of white privilege in a holistic, systemic way) and to where our field must evolve (a place in which ideas of race and representation don't automatically involve white people as a monolithic cultural entity or primary part of our power structure). This is my attempt to have this discussion within the hard realities of the field and industry rather than just as ideas and philosophy. I would love to continue to hear your thoughts on this subject- I have found it tricky to balance all of these forces, as I hope my writing suggests.

Thanks again for your conversation,

I think a White American writing a Black character IS different than an African-American writing an Irish character. For me right now, a white theater-practitioner,
isolating the question is appropriate. I understood Rebecca to be raising
questions, not about writing across culture and gender, but about racism and
white supremacy in America and how it plays out in the theater world. I’m
interested a continued examination of how white-led theaters and artists are serving
to dismantle white privilege and racism and how we perpetuate it (however unintentionally) in the decision making on and off stage.

Hi Rebecca,

Thank you so much for writing such a thorough and generous response to my comment! I completely understand the idea of wanting to focus the conversation - while I was responding to an abstract artistic side of the question, you are right that the real problems lie in a much larger power structure. I do still wonder whether, as you point out, we are using the word white as a standin for the word privileged. But, sadly, it's still a close-enough standin.

Except that is not the question, Eleanor. And actually white is not a race - white is the acceptance of a set of privileges and, if you are doing the work, an examination of those privileges. It is, however, the dominate culture and thus the question is asked from that context. That is why it is not inherent but difficult for those in this position to make the "larger leap" - hence the :"leap" and the 'larger' - As a black american - white is not a leap for me.

I concur with what you're writing. Questions of appropriation are a mix of both action and intention and require a recognition of when we are in our own blindspots about race and gender and how we address our own complicity in institutionalized and systemic forms of privilege. It requires innerwork, a constant re-evaluation of what am I making, what am I representing by what I put onstage as well as a reliance on instinct--x or y is how this story or character wants to be told.
As an artist or gatekeeper, do you have colleagues who will operate as checks and balances to ask you about your choices? Are these colleagues able to be honest with you or are they going to keep their real feelings to themselves? What resources do we have when making work that we can call on to check in--hey what are the ramifications of this or that decision? Ultimately, we have to trust our instincts--they will lead us down the path--but that path may be bumpy and we have to be willing to sit in the fire. It's easy to demonize people and point out their traits we despise, but how can we instead become more invested in learning from and teaching each other about our blindspots? There is, in fact, an organization founded by actor Russell G. Jones called The Blindspot. It's a place where artists get together and talk about our assumptions. The more we know about each other as people, and not as Other, we ingrain thoughtful approaches about multi-culturalism and inclusion so that our instincts become players in creating work that is richer and more nuanced.
One step is to have your own mission statement about the kind of work you wish to make or produce and to see how does that broaden your own circle? If you want to make theater for a certain demographic, then do it--but own that that's your mission, rather than giving lip service to inclusivity. But if you want to make inclusive work, take steps to know what life is like outside of your own shoes, and keep walking, keep asking, and be willing to engage in rich dialogue with the least defense you can muster and be familiar with yourself and your intentions. We are--most of us--going to inadvertently hurt others and fall into our own blindspots. But how we rebound and grow is our challenge and our responsibility. It is not our place as artists to legislate who gets to tell which stories, but it is--I believe--our place to see that how we tell a story has an impact on others and to be willing to examine our intentions and to see if our stories land the way we mean them to. Know your own sets of privileges and your assumptions about others and be in dialogue with yourself about all the choices you make--from the way you spend your money on other people's art, to your interactions with strangers, and to the people in your plays. It's a process. It doesn't end and you don't get a gold star. So honesty and a willingness to stretch go a long way. Intention + instinct + curiosity + debate can lead to work that provokes nuanced lives on our stages.


Thanks for such a thoughtful, generative response. I just looked up The Blindspot and I'm really excited to learn more about it. How would the american theater be different if we routinely talked about our blindspots (the we here being perhaps most importantly big theaters or big donors) instead of erasing all signs that we might have them?

I'm also excited about your thoughts about having mission match actual practice. I'm always so discouraged the mission statments are universal to the point of meaninglessness (obviously not all- some are incredibly specific and tied directly to the organization's actions!) But far too many talk about community or storytelling in such broad strokes that they don't define or hold their organizations to anything. How would we feel if some theaters openly acknowledged that inclusivity was not a value they held? Part of me thinks that is at least an honest place to begin discourse. How can we make "mission driven" art start to be a place of accountability rather than a nicety?

Thanks again for your conversation,

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