Playwrights of Color, White Directors, and Exposing Racist Policy
Damn. This thought reverberates through my body, an ultrasonic sound wave carrying much more than disappointment and dismay. As a Black director, actor, and facilitator of anti-racist theatre, I am unable to shake myself free of the viscosity of thoughts I’m having around another company’s decision to uphold a racist policy: hiring a white director to stage a play written by a playwright of color. This has happened time and again: with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home From the Wars, James Ijames’s Kill Move Paradise, David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Racist policy, as defined in Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi, is any policy regardless of original intent that yields a racially unequal outcome. The Artists’ Anti-Racist Coalition—formed recently by Stephanie Ybarra, Jacob G. Padrón, David Roberts, and Roberta Pereira—collected data from the last decade of Off-Broadway seasons and found white directors were hired to direct across ethnicity—meaning they were hired to direct shows written by people of color. This in contrast to how directors of color were mainly hired to direct shows that aligned with their racial identity. A racially unequal outcome.
How is it that these decisions are continually being made alongside the current societal shift to mitigate white hegemonic culture? In the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois believed racism in America could be persuaded and educated away; equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives are rooted in the same belief—that if you expose inequity, champion diversity, and educate people around issues of white supremacy, that will be enough to effect change. Absent is addressing the calcified racist policies that promote cultures of silence, scarcity, and gratitude.
These policies are ever-present in theatre. Hiring white directors to direct a play by a person of color—no matter if the playwright recommended them or if the artistic director made the decision—is a racist policy that allows racism to metastasize throughout the rest of the process. This choice impacts the playwright’s work, the space in which actors of color create, and the experience of theatregoers of color who see the play. All artists have the choice to make and support work that upholds or opposes this racist policy.
Thoughts From Actors
When a white director is hired on a show written by a playwright of color, it impacts the experience of the actors of color who are performing in it. Their experience is directly shaped by whether the director and producing theatre are guided by an anti-racist theatre ethos.
While I’ve yet to be cast in a playwright of color’s play directed by a white director, I have been cast in the role of a white character in a white playwright’s play. The connection between the two experiences is a shared practice of neutralizing race. In the plays I’ve worked on, my race and its impact in the world of the play were never addressed by the director. I was always left wondering which parts of my Black identity were expected to be concealed, and I never felt like it was okay for me to talk openly around the imposed cultural erasure. This kind of role was always a struggle and resulted in trauma held as micro-contractions in my body. I lived with the real fear that if I spoke up about issues of racism and the accepted practice of racial neutrality to anyone other than actors of color I would be labeled as unprofessional and would never work again.
Hiring white directors to direct a play by a person of color (…) is a racist policy that allows racism to metastasize throughout the rest of the process.
I was curious about what actors of color who have been cast in a playwright of color’s play that was directed by a white director had to say, so I spoke with an actor who identifies as Latinx and another who identifies as Black. I acknowledge that there are as many opinions as there are actors, but it is important to give voice to how some people have been affected.
The theatre industry functions on relationships, which can make it extremely difficult and intimidating for actors of color to bring up polarizing topics, such as racism, with their white colleagues, as there are unspoken rules that tout silence over discomfort and about how actors are expendable so it’s best to not make waves. Retaliation is also a constant factor for actors of color who choose to speak truth to power, as if their first-amendment right has no place in the theatre. The Latinx actor I spoke with said that, to them, speaking out has been interpreted as them attacking or calling the white director a bad director. But rather than making an attack, this actor speaks out because they believe it’s important to examine the white directors’ self-proclaimed capability to tell any story and what that has meant for the actor emotionally, spiritually, and physically throughout the rehearsal process.
Another issue that arises is when some artistic directors attempt to label a playwright of color’s text “universal” as a way to support their decision to hire a white director. The Black actor I spoke with, who’s worked on numerous plays written by people of color and staged by white directors, feels this excuse grants the director the authority to gloss over or ignore specifics of race and direct the piece in spite of their racial difference. This type of thinking can create a rehearsal process ripe with unchecked microaggressions from the white director to the actors of color. Both the Latinx actor and the Black actor shared instances of culturally specific script interpretations that resulted in character choices that were dismissed because they came from an experience the director didn’t or couldn’t recognize. On top of this, these directors sometimes justify their vision for the play as correct because they have a relationship with the playwright, effectively conflating relationship with knowledge.
There is room for the process to be much more expansive when it comes to addressing the racism that actors working in the theatre often endure. An anti-racist theatre ethos is the framework through which space is defined for conflicts to be aired, addressed, and resolved in transparent and healthy collaboration. Producing theatres can mitigate racism inflicted upon actors in the rehearsal process by hiring directors of color and leaning into the discomfort of racism rather than ignoring it.
Directors sometimes justify their vision for the play as correct because they have a relationship with the playwright.
Thoughts From Theatregoers
As a theatregoer myself, whenever I attend a show at a predominantly white institution I become keenly aware of my Blackness, especially when the play was written by a playwright of color and directed by a white person. I am on alert for the ways my culture will be displayed. It takes time for me to settle into the story as there is so much daily mistrust fueled by racism between Black people and white people.
I spoke with another theatregoer of color who has seen plays by playwrights of color directed by white directors. Echoing the observation made by the actors I talked to, the theatregoer mentioned the pervasiveness of how rapidly a production can go from being a play about a specific racial/ethnic group to one about the “human experience” when white directors justify their leadership and involvement in the process.
Last year, during a production of Ijames’s Kill Move Paradise directed by a white person, this same theatregoer wondered if the director had considered the experience Black men in the audience would have. The script points at the relationship between Black (the performers) and white (the audience/observers), but this theatregoer didn’t feel held or safe in the space. “I felt like my identity, fears, and pain were on display for a predominantly white audience,” they told me.
This person believed a Black director would have considered the intersectionality of Black male identity with racial trauma and created space for Black male audiences to watch the show without adding to what they already carry. This consideration may have appeared in the form of a director note in the program or it may have come up in the way the talkback was curated. But there was no note and rather than the talkback being a thoughtful analysis of racism and white people’s accountability to the ongoing violence against Black males, the show’s predominantly white audience was allowed to interrogate Blackness in an extremely disconnected and impersonal way, which resulted in the theatregoer feeling othered in a space they should have felt centered in.
[Jennings] sometimes finds her own stance conflicting because there are many talented white directors she admires and would love to work with one day.
Thoughts From Playwrights
While playwrights of color all have different opinions on the matter, many want to ensure their work is not used to perpetuate racist policies. Celeste Jennings, who is currently an artist-in-residence at Hattiloo Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, creates work that speaks to the complexities of racism and discrimination. Her ultimate goal is to write stories that honor Black people and allow a lens for other ethnicities to learn, hope, laugh, and cry alongside them, and she believes she will only be successful if the director is Black or a person of color. That said, she sometimes finds her own stance conflicting because there are many talented white directors she admires and would love to work with one day.
Some playwrights of color are very interested in practicing an anti-racist framework. For Kiki Rivera, a playwright from Hawaii whose work aims to elevate Pacific Islanders on stage and behind the scenes, playwrights of color are part of a much larger movement that empowers people of color by creating space in the arts industry. “It’s counterproductive to the movement for a white director to direct my shows,” they explained. Nina Angela Mercer, founder of Ocean Ana Rising in New York City and doctoral fellow of theatre and performance, has a deeply rooted pride in her Black identity. Her life ethos is anti-racist—“I am the antidote to white supremacy because I am all up in my Blackness as an experience,” she told me—and she said that in whatever scenario her plays are produced, she asks questions about context and vision, demanding an anti-racist framing.
For his part, Beto O’Byrne, playwright and co-founder of the multiethnic producing collective Radical Evolution based in New York City, is not interested in creating work that inflicts any kind of trauma on the artist or audience. He and Radical Evolution’s other co-founder, Meropi Peponides, believe their organization has a larger responsibility to address and confront racism—not just as artists but within their community. They participate in anti-racist action groups and collectives like Artists Co-Creating Real Equity, an affinity group of the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond. O’Byrne also co-facilitated Lit Counsel, a development intensive that provides male playwrights of color the opportunity to create and interrogate how this aspect of their identity is involved in their creative process. Both O’Byrne’s and Peponides’ participation in these groups, and their strong anti-racist analysis, influences the decisions they make around who should direct the work they create.
I am encouraged by what appears to be the next evolution of real equity through action: playwrights of color both acknowledging that theatremaking is a collective action and engaging their positional power regarding who directs their work. Those choices help build brave, anti-racist spaces.
We can create theatre practices that are ensconced in anti-racist values, but not through the harmful continuance of willful blindness. James Baldwin has said: “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” His words strengthen my desire to live in a world where anyone can direct anyone’s work. Where cultural connection and collaboration can happen with acknowledgment of our diverse experiences and racism. Where we humble ourselves to listen to the people in the room who hold greater knowledge about the perspectives centered in the play. Where we value pausing for disagreement and calling out white supremacy with a culture of impunity. Where theatregoers of color can watch a show unburdened by a deep mistrust of misrepresentation and where a racist policy is always countered with an anti-racist one. To get there we need to corroborate the existence of racism and racist policies in our industry, until then I’ll keep sowing seeds for our collective liberation.