Why “Diversity is Encouraged” Is Not Enough

For nearly two decades, I’ve evaluated scripts submitted to festivals and contests, grantmakers and literary offices. I’ve read for major regional theatres with the goal of identifying playwrights with whom they may forge relationships; I’ve read for hyper-local producers with very specific thematic and demographic aims. As many of HowlRound’s readers are aware, every organization has different a process and method of evaluating submissions. They all also have different rules. Some insist playwrights delete their name from the title page. Some insist playwrights include a synopsis. Some insist playwrights include a character breakdown. Some insist playwrights detail how their plays address a particular mission.

For no particular reason, I have a habit of keeping a lot of those scripts, stashed on my hard drive in case…I don’t know, I get nostalgic for the time I urged an organization to decline that musical about Mormons in Africa. Really, I have those scripts because I’ve generally forgotten to delete them once I’ve downloaded them from gmail, New Play Exchange, etc. But now I’m glad I’ve kept them. In my role as a reader I’ve noticed a troubling trend of late, and it’s prompted me to revisit some of those old files to test my gut feeling, which my hard drive confirmed. In recent years, it has become all too common to see scripts with a playwright’s instruction that “diversity is encouraged” in casting. I usually have no way of identifying these playwrights who “encourage diversity,” sometimes because the scripts are anonymous, sometimes because they may share a common surname, always because I’ve never developed a habit of looking up who they are if I could. But my gut tells me many of them are white.

All too often, the default body in American theatre is white, and new play evaluators, casting directors, directors, producers, and indeed playwrights too often assume that if a character is not explicitly described to be non-white, then they are.

As diversity and inclusivity have become vital considerations in season planning and audience development, producing and granting organizations are scrutinized for equity and parity. As many organizations attempt to diversify their offerings (however rightfully impatient we may feel with the strides), they seek characters from a wide range of ethnicities, races, and cultural backgrounds. They do so not only because such works look like America, counter-historical supremacy, and reflect a more ideal composition of their audiences, but also because they represent employment opportunities for artists from underrepresented backgrounds. So why shouldn’t playwrights note that they “encourage diversity” in the casting?

Because it’s cheap. Playwrights: it’s disheartening to open your PDFs to find no character breakdown—to find no listing of how you understand the people who populate the universes you take pains to create. I don’t want to know your characters better than you do. Please tell me about your people: give them an age, give them a gender, give them a race, let them have a history. Another version of “diversity is encouraged” is “characters are race-neutral.” I don’t understand a “race neutral” character any more than I would a “gender neutral” character, and it risks robbing a character of a true identity. Ambiguity doesn’t suggest your play will enter a larger conversation.

All too often, the default body in American theatre is white, and new play evaluators, casting directors, directors, producers, and indeed playwrights too often assume that if a character is not explicitly described to be non-white, then they are. The character list for Death of a Salesman reads:

willy loman

linda

biff

happy

bernard

the woman

charley

uncle ben

howard wagner

jenny

stanley

miss forsythe

letta

It could also read:

willy loman, white

linda, white

biff, white

happy, white

bernard, white

the woman, white

charley, white

uncle ben, white

howard wagner, white

jenny, white

stanley, white

miss forsythe, white

letta, white

I don’t have a bone to pick with Arthur Miller. And certainly there have been productions of his play that feature actors who are not white, and we can debate whether they all should. (Edward Albee’s estate has certainly weighed in.) We can discuss the value and future of new plays that have wholly white casts, but what would happen if playwrights always specified their characters’ races? Would “, white” lead some white playwrights to recognize they create only white characters? Would “, white” remind evaluators and potential producers that a season of “, white” plays risks not fully representing their community? Would “, white” remind us all that “color-blind” casting is too complicated to be a policy or reflex? At the very least, “, white” would remind us that we too often assume characters are white unless a playwright explicitly says otherwise, while the non-white characters are marked again as other (the “Negro Woman” in A Streetcar Named Desire). This assumption has lasting implications for how a play is considered and produced, including who is cast (read: hired). (The same, by the way, could be said of characters with disabilities.) We continue to discuss the extent to which playwrights can create characters with whose perspectives they have limited familiarity. That’s a debate we should have as, hopefully, more and more playwrights create characters that are of backgrounds different than their own.

list of characters
The character list for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate.

So, playwrights, please stop “encouraging diversity”—go ahead and create it. True inclusivity requires labor, and mere “encouragement” is not working.

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From grade school to high school, I participated in traditional plays at a local community college that were consciously cast as multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-national, multi-ability, multi-gender-identified...you get the point. The amazingly conscious and sensitive director, Clay David, was all-inclusive and it made for a warm welcoming environment for both the actors and the audiences.

Thanks to you all for your thoughts. I agree with Hailey that there are instances of color-conscious casting that can make a classical/fixed text meaningful in new ways – and heaven knows we won’t (and shouldn’t?) agree about how effective particular interpretations are. I agree with Erik, too, that there are instances in which new works are produced with producers being thoughtful about diversity and inclusivity. And, Erik, you bet – I hope more producers take it upon themselves to repair the default-ness I describe. It’s not my intent or interest to dictate or encourage certain stories or ways to tell stories over others; if a playwright wants to write a play about aging and disease within a Jewish family (Jennifer Maisel’s The Last Seder), it wouldn’t surprise that the characters and actors are white. If a playwright is compelled to write of a Nazi-era filmmaker (Jordan Harrison’s Amazons and Their Men), it wouldn’t surprise that the characters and actors are white. Godfrey suggested that my primary interest is that writers be intentional, and that’s my hope. Maybe I was overly insistent about the format and content of a one-page character breakdown. Lydia Diamond, in her opening notes to Stick Fly, does not state the race of any character other than the one white non-family member; still, the play makes it clear that all the others characters are black. Based on the play, Kimber cannot be Latina or Native American; based on the play, Taylor cannot be Latina or Native American. My hope is that playwrights are vigilant about the characters they create and the environments in which those plays are developed and produced, about the people who could be cast – the people who could be hired. Absolutely, I agree there’s room for interpretation, revisions, reimaginings, new directions as a new play is brought to life, but those often take place when a playwright is in the room. When they are not, there’s only the play, and the play should suffice. I want playwrights to write what they want and to write who they want; I just want us all to consider more deliberately who we’re creating. (And I say “us” because I’m a playwright who has been guilty of the default-ness I’ve described above.)

Perhaps if "encouragement" is not working, the responsibility should be on theatre companies to take the initiative and cast more diversely? I agree with the message of this piece- that theatre should be more inclusive for performers and other theatre artists of color, but I think your analysis of the playwright's role in this problem is flawed in a number of crucial ways.

First of all, you seem convinced that the playwright should be as specific as possible in their character description, in terms of a character's racial background, gender, and personal history. While I understand that deliberate vagueness in character descriptions can be seen as laziness, being as explicit as possible about these details when it isn't crucial to do so can also stifle actors' and directors' creative freedom when interpreting the work. It's not the playwright's job to write out the lighting cues for every scene; why should they micromanage the direction of the show on the page as well? A good playwright realizes that any production of their work is going to be a collaborative effort, and that realization comes with an acceptance of their own boundaries.

Also, even if "diverse casting encouraged" somehow implied "default to white" (which I don't believe it does), that wouldn't have to be the end result. By choosing to not specify a character's race (again, when this detail isn't a crucial aspect of the play's plot), the playwright gives the theatre company the freedom to cast as they please. If a company chooses to decline the open invitation to create more diverse theatre, shouldn't the onus be on them? Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, MA is just one company taking advantage of this freedom; they're currently producing David Auburn's Proof with a primarily Asian cast. These inclusive creative choices are being made, and I believe they should be made more often. If more internal and external pressure is put on theatre companies to cast diversely when the playwright gives them the freedom to, then perhaps they actually would.

You're not really telling playwrights what to write, are you? It's one thing when a playwright is commissioned by a theatre to write plays with a focus on diversity, it's another thing to tell an artist how to express themselves. It is there story to tell, and it is up to us to determine if we want to hear that message or not. Non-writers make it sound so easy. New play development is an arduous task, and yes, someone needs to be responsible in assuring that all aspects of the human experience are covered. But, these little lectures from a whitesplaining point-of-view only makes the author feel better about themselves, and do nothing to advance the struggle.

Yeah...I'm not sure this was whitesplaining. I think it's just asking us writers to be intentional. You're not just writing a play. Everything you say (or don't say) about a character, in terms of their breakdown, is a political act. It IS easy to just say who you mean these characters to be or what representations for your characters will be most effective for understanding the play. It could be as specific as the Branden Jacobs Jenkins example, or it could be something like: "Willy Loman, 50s, salesman; Linda Loman, late 40s, his wife, a different ethnicity than Willy; Biff, 30s, their son, takes after his father; Happy, their youngest son, 20s, takes after his mother." It's specific, but allows for so much in the way of creativity for artists working on that play. That could make for an interesting family drama, while being intentional in terms of representation. It just feels a little disingenuous to not be real specific about what races/cultures/nationalities you intend to represent in your plays. I think holding playwrights more accountable for who they intend to write for is no less necessary than holding directors, casting directors, and theatre institutions accountable for diversifying theaters.

I'm currently revising a play with extensive casting notes because I'm trying to ensure the casting doesn't 'default to white', for which I feel 'diversity is encouraged' is a euphemism. I wonder, Matt, if you'd be willing to take a quick glance at the notes and see if they succeed at all. Thank you.

This is great, and I completely agree with the principle-- writers have to put in active effort to diversify their works. But I think there's an important caveat to your conclusion to be made for writers working within non-naturalistic frameworks, or even certain historical settings. As the linked article about Duchess of Malfi highlights, there is so much storytelling power in racially conscious casting, and I think there are styles where it's perfectly appropriate (and often very interesting) for a writer to leave those decisions to the theatremaker, because while they do carry meaning, it's not meaning that's inherent in the text in the same way as in a naturalistic style.