Theatre in a Fly-over State
The Racial Divide
Mark Twain once said, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky because everything there happens twenty years after it happens anywhere else." Interestingly, Louisville, KY is now being listed in national media as the next Austin, the next Portland, and even the next Brooklyn. This series focuses on theatre and film in a fly-over state like Kentucky that is struggling to not only join, but also lead in the twenty-first century.
The Slant Culture Theatre Festival (now defunct) is a Louisville festival whose third year coincided with my decision to be an arts writer in Louisville. I reviewed several of the festival’s plays and saw all but one of the sixteen productions. I had a great time watching and celebrating the Louisville theatre scene come together.
Sadly, it was a way to see just how white Louisville's theatre scene actually is. Although I don't have access to numbers from all the companies involved, I am using a list of productions from Slant's web site, which indicates there were a little over seventy performers. From my recollection, there were eight performers of color at the festival.
If we do the math, that means 9 percent of the performers were people of color. In contrast, 91 percent of the performers at Slant were white. To the best of my knowledge, 100 percent of the directors at Slant were white, as were 100 percent of the playwrights. Demographically, the greater Louisville area is about 70 percent white. Now I'm a playwright and a cultural critic—so I'm sure my math is dodgy—but I think more performers of color should have been involved in that play fest.
Louisville theatre has a race problem. As a bright blue spot in a glaringly red state, Louisville progressives of all stripes feel that we need to row together to keep the boat moving in the right direction and theatre is no exception. Louisville's racial divisions are an actual line—the 9th Street divide. I-64 neatly bisects Main Street. On one side, there are thriving museums, restaurants, and offices. Then, on the other side, there are run down buildings and empty industrial spaces. Just by taking a hundred steps, one can move from the "good" part of town to the "bad" part.
It's worth mentioning that on the other side of the racial divide there are some new predominantly African-American groups like Roots and Wings and 6’10 Theatre, who are doing good work trying to jumpstart a theatrical scene of their own. But that's a different blog post.
Louisville theatre has a race problem because America has a race problem. And I strongly suspect the theatre scene in your city has this problem too.
Overwhelmingly, this racial divide extends to our artistic institutions. Although they are run by well meaning folk, it's undeniable that white people are given better opportunities to experience and participate in art in our local scene. Nearly all of the big theatres, galleries, and art districts are on the "good" side of the 9th Street Divide. But it's not just location. It's content too. White plays, white actors, and white critics—everything is white.
Louisville theatre has a race problem because America has a race problem. And I strongly suspect the theatre scene in your city has this problem too. But, I live in Louisville and I do theatre in Louisville. Like many other hipster meccas, it's a great time to do theatre here.
American theatre is entering the throes of another regional theatre moment. Simultaneously, it's in the throes of racial discord unlike anything we've seen since the Civil Rights era. The cause for both sea changes is the easy access to digital technology, social media, and the Internet. Smart phones changed the game y’all.
But what this means is that we need to talk about race and theatre now. So let's talk. I sent an informal questionnaire around to several Louisville companies to see if they recognized a racial divide, and to get a sense of how they choose playwrights and cast plays. I got several big takeaways. Companies do recognize the problem, but they don't know how to fix it. First off, there are fewer well-known playwrights of color in the national discussion. Automatically, a pool of possible plays contains less of their work.
Next, most small companies have a niche. Maybe it's LGBT theatre, maybe it's feminist theatre, or maybe it's puppets. This niche has to get served before any other consideration. So, that cuts out many of the few works written and/or focused on people of color.
Third, in Louisville any time artistic directors get together and talk plays they ask, "Who do we know?" This isn't the dreaded pre-casting so much as it is just getting a sense of how big the talent pool is for a role. If artistic directors are worried their options for a certain role are too slim, they might not put a show on a schedule at all. All of a sudden the pool of minority written plays has been entirely weeded out of the selection process.
The bottom line is that allies in the theatre community have an uphill battle, which starts with stepping outside their own comfort zone.
This third point brings us to casting. A play doesn't have to explicitly be about people of color to feature actors of color. But the talent pool is already small because of the question: "who do we know?" The "good side" of Louisville, the side with all the amazing theatre and museums and such, is disproportionately white. So the accompanying social circles are white. So, when white people ask, "Who do we know?" The answer is often "white people."
You don't have to hate black people to put up a racist show—you just have to be afraid of working with new people. And we're afraid. When we use new actors (of any color) we are taking a chance, a chance that our show will not be good. The bottom line is that allies in the theatre community have an uphill battle, which starts with stepping outside their own comfort zone, and embracing the possibility of temporary artistic failure while we enlarge our social networks.
A good friend who is an artistic director of a company was dragging his heels about responding to my survey. He finally texted me, "Part of my problem is that, being made to meditate on this for a few days, I've reached a point where I'm a little mad at myself for not doing more to promote diversity." I texted back, "That's kinda the point. We should all be doing more."
Going along as we have been continues the trend of work that tacitly supports systematic racism. The first step in changing is constantly being mindful. When you make a season and when you cast a show, ask yourself: "Where are the people of color?" Ask what unheard voices are you addressing? If you don't have a good answer, go back to square one. Design a new season. Cast new actors. Step outside your networks, social circles, and comfort zones.