fbpx Diversity in American Theater | HowlRound Theatre Commons

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.


A partially highlighted definition of diversity.


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.


Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

This four-part series redefines diversity in a way that will help us move past the buzzwords and closer to meaningful change and actual inclusion.

Diversity in American Theatre


Add Comment

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

Newest First

Thank you! And let me clear in saying that as a woman, I have spent most of my life having to identify with male protagonists, and it's not hard to do at all, as long as they are well-written. As a person who ran an all-female Shakespeare company for over a decade, I know from my box office receipts than men have no problem identifying with women in lead roles (playing men or women). As a white person, I have no trouble identifying with characters and actors of color. And if I don't "identify" with them directly simply because they are experiencing something I have never experienced, then hooray, because I get the privilege of having my eyes opened and learning something new. Nobody but nobody needs to baby their audience by only showing them what they already are and already know. That is not art. We are in this work to lead our communities, to illuminate people on the diversity that already exists already around them, and to help every person come closer to understanding someone else's point of view. No excuses, people!

Carla, I appreciate this post so much. I attended my first TCG Conference last year. As a Young Leader of Color, I was one of many and we were primed to be a core shift. I say were, but feel strongly that we ARE in ways that are quite simply extraordinary, dynamic and inspiring. I left the conference feeling empowered. I had a specific call to action to address issues of Diversity and Inclusion on a local, regional and national level and a platform to do so.

My point of entry has been my blog and now TCG's amazing blog. As an African American playwright, dramaturg and teaching artist, I focused on race and gender parity and equal opportunity and access for local theatre artists (local being the D.C. theatre community, of which I'm a proud member for some seven years).

But is this change? Is this progress? I think so. I think people who were afraid to share their thoughts and experiences, now feel empowered to do so. Empowerment is essential to progress and forward motion. HowlRound is a part of this magnificent change. My god, the conversations and actions steps being presented are revolutionary.

Still, a great deal of pandering is taking place at the local, regional and national level. Some of it is done in blatantly obvious ways, while others maneuver much more subtly and dangerously so. It's a reminder to me that not everyone cares about these issues, and that is what frightens me most.

I went to bed last night deeply saddened and disappointed in the continued absence of opportunities for women directors and playwrights in upcoming festivals and seasons. And I say this not to disparage my respected peers or beloved community, because I believe in this community and know that we can do better. I say this as a call to action, a plea to care and a reminder to be vigilant.

The most uncomfortable thing for me about this whole conversation in the theater is how behind the times it is compared to the corporate world. I work a day job in a NYC agency--all kinds of people work here, in all kinds of positions. This is an everyday normal reality for millions of people in major cities. It's also normal to go to the theater in a major city and see an office or job environment depicted on stage, and everyone is white--or the non-white characters have their non-whiteness as a major character issue. I'm white, but my interactions with nonwhite coworkers are not about race--they're about job stuff and what did you do this weekend and our kids and whatever. But in the theater it's still such a Big Deal to have a multiracial cast. It has to Mean Something. Now granted, sometimes it should! Race is a major topic! We should be writing about it! But it's just embarrassing to know that my artform is about 30 years behind my day job on making this a regular and expected part of normal life.

Thanks again for bringing this issue/topic up. - As well as other NOUNS, this word "diversity" is in need of (re)definition and appropriate attention. However, we are subject to the economic realities of those "theatre makers" who are looking to survive in a marketplace where they need meaningful ways to sell tickets as they move forward. (sad face) The companies, organizations and groups that ARE addressing change and "diversity" as their mission exist as the nexus for transformation. Looking forward to hearing more from MPAACT and others: switching nouns to verbs is pretty powerful.

Thanks for this, Carla. Folks may also be interested in checking out Jacqueline Lawton's blog series on the TCG Circle in preparation for this year's national conference in Dallas, which features "Diversity and Inclusion" as one of its major programmatic arcs. The introduction is here - http://www.tcgcircle.org/20... - and clicking on the "Diversity and Inclusion" tag on the right will get you the other posts. I too was at the Chicago conference, and found it similarly frustrating. But since then I've been really inspired by the way TCG has prioritized the pursuit of a deeper, broader, and more thoughtful conversation around diversity and inclusion in the theater. I'm really looking forward to Dallas!

Megan, thank you for sharing the exciting work that TCG is doing and for contributing so brilliantly as you have. I'm honored to be a part of TCG's efforts to address these issues actively. I'm also really excited about this year's conference and look forward to what more can be done in these areas. What's more, I'm appreciate that HowlRound is creating a space for this dialogue. However, frustrating it can get, I think it's an exciting and revolutionary time to be a part of the American Theatre.

Thanks for the real call to arms. Maybe instead of worrying about how many blacks or asians or hispanics are cast, theater will learn that it needs to focus on the diversity of ideas and approaches. In order to do that we need to stop wrapping ourselves up in our safe theater spaces with all of our like-minded friends and supporters, and start allowing diversity to exist at the core of our work, not just in the colors represented in our casting. For every project that is made, casting is almost the last step we deal with. Let's move diversity to the first step and we'll surely attract new and different audiences, and become theaters that are integrated in the whole community, not just the upper middle income, mostly white, audience that makes up the majority of the regional theater audience today. We complain about not having enough resources for this or that, but the real problem might be that we've gotten too comfortable with our lives and our work. If we don't make the change, you can bet that there is another generation coming up who will.