Diversity in American Theater
From Catch Phrase to Meaningful Change
There has been much talk in recent years about the lack of "diversity" in American theater. This four part series is meant to redefine the conversation in a way that will move us past the buzz words and move us closer to meaningful change and actual inclusion.
Diversity—It’s a Noun
Three years ago the TCG conference was held in my city, Sweet Home Chicago. This was very exciting because since it was in Chicago, my theater company MPAACT (Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre) could afford to send me and my literary manager to the conference. It was our first time and I was very excited. For the first time in my life I was going to spend three entire days with hundreds of theater artists from across the nation and a few from across the pond discussing theater stuff. I truly believed that this conference was going to be the most awesome thing that ever happened to me. Well…
I can’t remember the exact theme of the conference, but the first plenary I attended on the first full day of the conference was around the topic of “diversity” in American theater. Now let me stop here and get transparent with you. I was suspicious of this plenary because of the subject. See, I cannot stand the word “diversity.” It makes me uncomfortable because I know what it has become code for. Anyway, for the first thirty minutes or so of this plenary, there were several accomplished men and women of color sharing some of their experiences with diversity, or the lack thereof, in the theater community. The conversation from the panel quickly became a call to action to the executive and artistic directors in the room to make the American theater landscape match the general population in cultural and gender representations. Then it happened. A middle-aged white man from a theater company in Minnesota stood to speak. He said that he would love to put more “…blacks on stage” but he knows that that would mean that he would lose his audience base because they wouldn’t be able to “…identify with those types of stories.” Hmmm…in that moment it became painfully clear to me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to add cultural and gender specificity to America’s theatrical landscape. People are bandying about the word “diversity” without having a real understanding of what the word means. Without a true understanding of the word, we certainly cannot move to a place of honest dialogue, and without honest dialogue we will not achieve real change.
So let’s start with defining the word “diversity.” Dictionary.com offers the following:
di·ver·si·ty [dih-vur-si-tee, dahy-] noun, plural di·ver·si·ties.
1. The state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness: diversity of opinion.
2. Variety; multiformity.
3. A point of difference.
I find a few things notable in this definition. The first is that diversity is defined as a noun and not a verb. This means that it is a state of being and not something you do. Hence one cannot perform diversity. This definition suggests that to simply do things that we think seem diverse (i.e., color blind casting) isn’t enough. The definition suggests that to achieve diversity, you have to accept difference as the rule and not the exception. Diversity has become code for throwing cultural and gender difference at a white wall and hoping that the differences stick, but being OK when some or all of them simply slide to the floor.
The first is that diversity is defined as a noun and not a verb. This means that it is a state of being and not something you do. Hence one cannot perform diversity.
Per the aforementioned definition, diversity at its core means that there are a variety of things that make up a whole that have different shapes, forms, and kinds. So I think it is safe to say that a state of being diverse can only be achieved if there is variety. We have attempted to achieve diversity by keeping most things in American theater culturally homogenous and adding a dash of difference. But the definition of the word diversity lets us know that this type of thinking is topsy-turvy.
Then there is this third part of the definition, “a point of difference.” A “point” is defined in its second definition as, “a projecting part of anything.” From this one can infer that diversity is the center, the focal point, from which difference and variety project. We have attempted to introduce diversity into the American theater landscape without diversifying the centers of artistic decision-making (producers, artistic directors, board of directors, etc.) in our theatrical institutions. How can we project difference into the entire theatrical experience when the points are culturally homogenous?
Since that experience three years ago, I have been at the center of many of these conversations about diversity. But I believe that none of these conversations will bear the fruit of change until we all embrace the state of being diverse and stop acting out diversity.