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Diversity for Dummies Part Two

Why The Best Intentions Sometimes Fail

“A request for more diversity isn't really a plea to embrace stimulating heterogeneity. It's a plea to embrace minimal decency.”

Noah Berlatsky wrote those two sentences in the Los Angeles Times in 2017. The words tug at the heart. Who can argue against embracing minimal decency—being more mindful of others? Didn’t our own mothers drill as much into our little heads? But what is most striking in Mr. Berlatsky’s statement isn’t the altruism implied by the word “embrace,” it’s the power dynamic embedded in the word “plea.” It’s an accurate description of how the mandate of diversity has played out, with those on the outside pleading to be let in, hoping those on the inside has some reserve of minimal decency. Forget getting embraced.

That’s messed up. It’s also at the core of why many diversity initiatives go wrong. When the disenfranchised have to make appeals to be let in, it only reinforces the prevailing power structures. It’s a concession by the gatekeepers that their current practice of homogeneity is no longer acceptable. And while that may be true, it inevitably discounts the value that diversity brings to the organization. It’s not only about making space for others who don’t look and think like you, it’s how everyone at the table recognizes the change as an opportunity to be better.

Put Diversity at the Heart of the Creative Process

Some theatres look at diversity as an imposition, or worse, something necessary in order to avoid attracting the attention of the liberal police. We’ve seen theatres make corrections mid-season, changing casts, or swapping out plays for more politically correct options. When it’s done after the fact, it comes off as reactive, a “concession.” It’s not fair to those who might be affected, especially for artists who lose jobs because of the decision. It also puts the replacements in an awkward position, knowing their opportunity comes at the cost of others losing theirs. Diversity shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. One way to avoid this is to begin every project from a place of inclusion.

[D]iversity should not be an imposition, an afterthought, or a means to raise your chances for getting a grant. It should be at the heart of your creative endeavors.

Some theatres around the country, like the Public Theater in New York, now make “radical inclusion” part of their mission statement. I first came across this term at the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. “Inclusion to the point of discomfort,” was how it was first explained to me. For a theatre company, what might that mean? In the years since Nairobi, I start every process by asking myself a question: who’s not in the room and why? This applies to both artists and audience. The answers are often uncomfortable but eye-opening.

Many of you will recognize this scenario. A director has found the perfect cast, with a knockout creative team. Everyone is thrilled, except for one pesky uber-liberal staff member who points out that the whole of the enterprise is blindingly white, and almost entirely male. Whoops. After a moment of self-flagellation for the oversight, and to the relief of the theatre’s suddenly concerned leadership, the director agrees to recast one role and change one designer. A press release announces the theatre’s now diverse creative team, and a box of wine is passed around to celebrate. Meanwhile, back in the rehearsal room, everyone has their game face on quietly justifying in their minds the new Asian cast member’s role in the court of Louis XIV.

Okay. That’s probably an extreme example. There are times when casting for diversity’s sake can be a liability.

The point is, diversity should not be an imposition, an afterthought, or a means to raise your chances for getting a grant. It should be at the heart of your creative endeavors.

“At the where of my what now?” you ask.

Go back to how it all started. Who decided to put up a play about the court of Louis XIV? What led to the greenlighting of this project? Who were the decision-makers? Who chose the director? How was it cast? Who was allowed to audition? Was diversity an intrinsic part of the process, at every juncture? Was it a clearly stated goal that everyone heard and understood?

illustration that says Diversity for Dummies

Many theatres think of themselves as diverse, and consider diversity a given in everything they do. That’s not always true. As an artistic director of color, for a theatre company dedicated to Asian American artists, I still have to step back and consider my own areas of improvement. Have I fostered an environment of inclusion? For example, what did we do to make sure we reached out to the disabled and transgender communities? What kinds of faces and bodies are represented on stage? Do they have agency in telling their stories?

The answers will not always be ideal. There will be mistakes, and outright failures. What you do with those missteps, how you bring all the stakeholders in the room to address the challenges is what keeps diversity beating at the heart of your organization. Diversity is about and made up of people. It lives and breathes.

Diversity is Not Just an Ideal—It’s Also About Real People and Their Feelings

One of the most ignored aspects of diversity in the workplace is the psychological and emotional churn that comes with change, especially when it involves recalibrating the power levers.

Let’s be clear. Diversity is not only about bringing in people of varying ethnicities, genders, or physical abilities. It’s about putting them in positions of power. And because we’re dealing with people, there are likely plenty of feelings involved. Allowing emotions to fester, unaddressed, leads to plenty of resentments and dysfunction.

It’s not enough to require your employees to attend a day-long seminar on bias identification. You have to make it part of your daily work life. Talk about it. That’s easier said than done. Ask yourself about what scares people when talking about diversity? Some worry that feelings will get hurt, or they want to avoid trouble so shutting up is the best course. You’ll get different answers. What’s important is making space for every individual to feel valued, and heard.

Studies suggest that pitching diversity as a “must-do, or-else” directive makes people defensive. No one wants to be told they are biased, so avoid negative messaging around diversity practice. Instead, invite people to participate. When they show up, it’s because they’re personally invested in the process, and they chose to part of it.

Diversity is not only about bringing in people of varying ethnicities, genders, or physical abilities. It’s about putting them in positions of power.

Break the Habit

How’s this for a mission statement? “We aim to provide a welcoming, non-confrontational place where audiences can relax and enjoy worlds that do not differ from their own.”

I don't know about you, but this is not how I want to experience art. In fact, there are probably zero theatres that have this for a mission statement. And yet, many practice this type of “safe” programming, unwilling to disturb the status quo, reluctant to alienate a steady subscriber base, or, unable to conceive of the court of Louis VI peopled by actors of color.

“But there are times when casting for diversity’s sake can be a liability.”

I don't mean to pull a “gotcha,” moment, but if you agreed with my previous statement, then we need to talk. The court of Louis XIV can be diverse; it can have Asian, Latinx, and Native American actors in it. It’s theatre, and using the “authenticity” excuse to cast only white actors is a form of bias. That’s right, for the most part, authenticity is code for bias. It’s used to exclude people that don’t belong…and in most cases, it’s used against artists of color.

I can already hear a voice saying, “If authenticity is not a thing, then white actors should be able to do August Wilson plays.”

Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go.

We don’t live in a world where all things are equal. Artists of color, artists with disabilities, and transgender artists have far, far fewer opportunities to work. Diversity initiatives in the theatre are meant to increase those opportunities. One way to do that is to put them in all plays. That is what’s meant by break the habit. Make a conscious decision to put diversity on your stages, every time.

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I came across an article quoting Stephen Sondheim and his thoughts on color-conscious casting. It sent me off on a tailspin. I had to write down my thoughts and try to address a longstanding canard: that any actor should get to play any role.

Kent State University recently cancelled a production of “West Side Story,” after students complained that none of the lead roles meant for Latinx actors were cast with Latinx students.  Rather than deal with controversy, the university chose to cancel the show. This might be a case of once bitten, twice shy. More on that in a bit.

After the cancellation, a titan of American Theater chimed in. During an interview on public radio, Stephen Sondheim said, “That kind of protest, I just find sort of silly. If you carry that to its extreme than you’d have to say that an actress couldn’t be played by anyone but an actress and that a mother couldn’t be played by somebody who hadn’t been a mother. I mean, it’s ridiculous.” You can read the interview  here.

It’s not the first time a school or university has shuttered a show because of casting controversies. As recently as January 2018, Ithaca High School in upstate New York scrapped a production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” after some students insisted that only an actress of Roma descent can play the role of Esmeralda. But cancelling the show did not put an end to the dispute. Brietbart News picked up the story, and it soon made it to the neo-Nazi blog “The Daily Stormer.” The school was accused of anti-white racism.

Kent State University chose a similar path, but instead of Breitbart, they got Stephen Sondheim – a marked improvement, any way you look at it. But how much of an improvement? Like Ithaca High School, Kent State was taken to task for succumbing to the demands of yet another “special interest” group, in this case Latinx students. Must the Jets suffer because a few disgruntled wanna be Sharks didn’t get the roles they want? And if these Latinx students insist on authenticity, then only those from Puerto Rico can be Sharks. And if only Puerto Ricans can play Sharks, then only a real Polish cop can play Officer Krupke. And, if only a Polish cop can play Officer Krupke, then Chino should be part Chinese. Yes, Mr. Sondheim went down that rabbit hole. But it’s the wrong rabbit hole.

Let’s go down this one.

In 2015, at the same Kent State University, Robert Branch, a white actor, was cast to play Martin Luther King in Katori Hall’s play “Mountain Top.” The director, who is black, wanted to play provocateur and thought casting a white dude to play Dr. King would spur a healthy debate. About what exactly, it’s hard to say. It sparked outrage, from the playwright and from many people around the country. The production went on, anyway.

In 2014, a Seattle production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s enduring chestnut “The Mikado,” featured a mostly white cast, and two Latino actors. Not one was of Asian descent. The actors wore makeup and costumes to make them look Japanese, a practice called yellowfacing. The production went on in spite of the outcry from Seattle’s large Asian American communities. Mike Storie, the show’s producer, justified the yellowfacing this way: “It’s a fun show. I personally have never heard any complaints.” He likened shutting down “The Mikado” to banning Huck Finn from libraries. When asked if he might consider doing a blackface show, Mr. Storie’s response was “Not really. It would depend on the context. If it was a historical production where it had some context, that’s fine.” Read about it here. What we have here is another case where “historical context” is wielded to justify continued portrayals of blatant racism today. But the “context” Mr. Storie uses as cover insists on excluding the perspectives of Asian Americans who are offended by seeing their cultures caricatured on stage.  It’s the same context used to justify the racist attitudes displayed in works like “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” and “Showboat,” to name just a few. It’s the context that says “this was how people behaved back then, we’re only showing things as they were, so stop trying to make everything about you.”  It’s the context that allows “The Mikado” to be performed with all-white casts. The context that opera companies use to justify their casting decisions by pointing out that the roles were originally written by Gilbert and Sullivan for white opera singers, which require accomplished operatic voices, implying that Asian Americans don’t have the chops to sing “Tit Willow,” or “Braid the Raven Hair.” 

That context.

Performance histories of film, television, and theater are littered with examples of white-washing. You don’t need to look very hard to find them.  In 2011, TheaterWorks staged Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Motherfucker with the Hat,” using two white actors to play the two Puerto Rican lead characters. Mr. Guirgis went public with his displeasure, but the play went on to finish its run.  In 2016, Porchlight Theater in Chicago cast a white actor to play the lead character of Usnavi in “In the Heights.” In both big and small screens, we’ve seen John Wayne as Genghis Kahn, Emma Stone as Allison Ng, Jim Sturges turning up with slanted eyes, Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang, Tilda Swinton as a bald monk of indeterminate origin surrounded by all manners of Orientalia, and Ashton Kutcher as the South Asian Bollywood Producer Raj. And let’s not forget Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Aterton in that cinematic gem “Prince of Persia,” which also featured Ben Kingsley, who decades earlier won an Oscar for playing Mahatma Ghandi. 

So, you ask with a shrug, it’s a testament to these actor’s versatility, and the utopian concept espoused by Mr. Sondheim himself. “Every actor should be able to play any role.”  After all, isn’t that at the core of “acting,” pretending to be someone else?

To that I say  abso-effing-lutely. Let any actor play any role, regardless of gender, physical ability, or ethnicity. Open up the entire theatrical canon to all. 

But first, some ground rules. 

  1. Every artist is given unrestricted access and control of artistic production and distribution in all forms of media;
  2. No one gets paid for the work;
  3.  No exceptions.

These conditions should approximate a level playing field where the idea that every actor can play any role mightmake sense – a utopian playground of equal access, equal opportunity for all. Where you can have a white Othello.

Oh wait, Olivier already did that

The fact is, we live in a world where we don’t have a level playing field.Where 80% of all paid gigs on Broadway and Off Broadway go to white actors. (I don't have national stats, but I imagine they're within the same range, if not worse for non-whites.) Where the most produced plays are often by white men, and power is mostly held by white producers and artistic directors. That’s the world we live in. Where the entire canon of Western theater literature has far more roles for white actors than for all others combined.  In the few instances a role is specifically written for a person of color, should a white actor get it too? 

But…but…there’s color-conscious casting everywhere nowadays.

Yes, color-conscious casting has allowed actors of color to access traditionally white, or non-ethnic specific roles. But they are the exception and certainly not the rule. Color conscious or non-traditional, or multicultural, or whatever you want to call it kind of casting is encouraged because it must correct a gross imbalance, and provide opportunities to underemployed, underrepresented bodies and faces. Disabled, transgender, and actors of color do not have access to every roleSo why would a group that already has 80% of all available work say that it’s not fair for them if they don’t also get a crack at roles specifically written for the underrepresented? 

I am a Sondheim fanatic. But my idol completely missed this chance to do the right thing.