Does Validation Matter?
For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to nominate only white actors and actresses for Academy Awards, despite a long list of eligible performances by People of Color. The recurring disappointment ignited a resurgence in the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, used during the previous year’s Oscars. So, what does this have to do with theatre?
We know that the theatre, film, and television industries are connected, and concerns around lack of diverse representation and acknowledgement of artistry apply to all. Hollywood has remained a homogenous landscape, dominated by white male directors and white actors since, well, always. Check out the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. While the report found that films with relatively diverse casts were more financially lucrative, People of Color, women, and LGBTQIA people remain overwhelmingly underrepresented in every position of employment in Hollywood. The bottom line? Even when it brings in more money, Hollywood is still resistant to diverse representation.
Luckily, national dialogue around “diversity” as a buzzword has sustained among theatre artists for the past several years. (Read two of my personal favorite pieces published on HowlRound about this very topic, You Want a Diverse Theatre? Prove it by Karena Fiorenza Ingersoll and Deena Selenow, and Diversity in American Theater: From Catch Phrase to Meaningful Change by Carla Stillwell.) Those of us who pay attention to Broadway know that this is not where you will find diverse representation flourishing. Alexis Soloski reported in The Guardian that this year’s new theatre season includes no new plays written by People of Color or by women.
When we look to regional theatres, is the picture much different? In my own city, Austin, the most racially diverse plays I witness are marginalized into two spaces: Theatre for Young Audiences, or Latina/o theatre. When our local equity house, ZACH Theatre, commits to producing stories by and about People of Color, it is almost always the Theatre for Families department that does so. When this happens, about once a season, they usually partner with Teatro Vivo, the local Latino theatre company, to shepherd the piece.
Why does this make me uncomfortable? Here is some context: Teatro Vivo is Austin’s premier Latino theatre company. It is a small company, but it is the primary space that Latino theatre artists in Austin can call home. ZACH Theatre, Austin’s regional theatre company, has an operating budget of over 7 million dollars per year. The City of Austin Cultural Contracts Office allocated $27,366 to Teatro Vivo in 2016. In this same year, the Cultural Contracts office allocated $200,000 to ZACH Theatre. In a city where 1/3 of the population is Latino, the city chose to give more funding to theatre that 1/3 of the population will not have access to. It isn’t a stretch to understand how one could be frustrated when companies like Teatro Vivo, companies that are run by and serve People of Color, are tokenized to serve the diversity quota of already thriving theatre companies. (Check out Assistant Professor of Theatre Roxanne Schroeder-Arce’s article on this particular example to learn more).
The Academy Awards are not a bubble. Millions of people will watch the awards on February 28th. Millions of aspiring Black and Brown artists will see that they do not have a place in film. When they look to the theatre, will they find anything different?
It’s important that work from artists of color and female artists is valued. Perhaps just as important is that white people and men see this work acknowledged. When this doesn’t happen, we see comments like those from Academy Award nominee Charlotte Rampling, who stated that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash is “racist to white people.”
“If one lives emotionally and physically isolated from diverse groups of people, it is easy to internalize the dominating narrative on who matters and who doesn't,” notes playwright Magdalena Gomez. This is why #OscarsSoWhite matters to the theatre. The Academy Awards are not a bubble. Millions of people will watch the awards on February 28th. Millions of aspiring Black and Brown artists will see that they do not have a place in film. When they look to the theatre, will they find anything different? Will they see non-white males being validated? Does validation matter?
Brian Herrera, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Princeton University, writes, “On the one hand, there are real limits to what any award cycle can be read to mean and yet, on the other, awards—as recurring rituals of recognition—matter to us because they provide an opportunity to consider and contest what the arts mean in our lives and our culture.” Put differently, maybe recognition matters, but the meaning that is constructed around who gets recognized matters more. When only white artists are nominated for Academy Awards, and when only white artists are awarded those awards year after year, that repeated acknowledgement begins to define what even counts as “art” in our country. Take the Teatro Vivo and ZACH Theatre example for instance. When the City of Austin awards the largest theatre company in town roughly seven times the amount of funds it gives the primary Latino theatre company, the City of Austin is making a statement about what counts as art and what doesn’t. At the very least, it’s a statement on which art is more worth funding. Adam Flores, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Fontbonne University adds, “We know the Oscars are a joke, yet they remain the validation for film. The issue isn’t solely #OscarsSoWhite but #ValidationSoWhite. So the BET Awards, Women in Film Awards, and Latin Grammy’s will always be secondary while they reflect a white system of validation.”
In many ways, #OscarsSoWhite is a rejection of the Oscars and white validation. It has succeeded in getting people to acknowledge the lack of acknowledgement. At the same time, #OscarsSoWhite exists because of the power the Academy has to shape what people pay attention to.
Playwright Jelisa Jay Robinson concludes, “Every impact that we make with our art is what truly matters in this race. Because it’s not about the awards. It’s not about seeking validation from the gatekeepers of society. It’s about the work. Keep writing. Keep producing. Keep acting. Keep directing. Keep publicizing. Keep providing opportunities. Awards and recognition will come, but focus on putting in the work and telling the stories you need to tell.”
To the artists that continue to be marginalized: What do you think? Does validation matter?