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October 14, 2009

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Adam

The state of black theatre is . . . fine.

Not bad, not great, just fine.

The state of the black (and latino/a and Asian) theatre organizations is . . . not so good.

And to me, that's the real challenge.

The big and medium sized theatre institutions have a responsibility to present a broad spectrum of work and when they want to include black theatre in that spectrum they have plenty of good, interesting choices.

But there problem is that there are very few culturally specific theatres that have the resources to develop playwrights or give their plays the platform they deserve.

If you want diverse theatre in our life, we have to create more diverse theatre institutions.

Josh

I really haven't the foggiest idea. I guess that might be part of the problem right there.

99

Adam, please define "fine."

I think diversity in the institutions is a separate question. This for me is a temperature taking thing: how do the artists feel, what are the plays about, who's seeing the plays. Yes, there are plenty of good, interesting black writers out there, but what opportunities are available to them? To any writers of color? That's part of the picture.

August

Is there a study on black artist representation similar to the aims of the Sands report out there?

I'd also be interested in any reporting/number crunching out there connected to Adam's concern.

Is there any comparable effort locally to the 50/50 in 2020 for black artists?

In general, I would love to see an organization with resources take a hard, rigorously researched look at the demographics, economics and cultural impact of all points of diversity (gender, race, age, economic, geographic, political, sexual, religious) in the field. From there, we might be better able to say where we are, where we want to be, how to get there, and why it's worth going there in the first place.

Anecdotally, we just recast a role for a black actress in our upcoming production of The Lesser Seductions of History (we lost our wonderful actor to health reasons) and saw an astonishing amount of talent. On the one hand, that's exciting; on the other, it means those talented actors were willing to work for our small stipend perhaps because better paying gigs weren't out there.

99

As far as I know, there's no study afoot, but that's one of the things I've been thinking about. There's a lot of anecdotal, word-of-mouth stuff going around, but not a lot of definitive information. I'm no economist or statistician, but I'd love to be involved in something like that.

My sense of it (again, stuck with anecdotal stuff) is that the major theatres have one slot for a "black" play, with a majority or all black cast and that's the extent of it. Outside that one slot, there are very, very few black artists involved in these theatres.

isaac

Can I ask people out there how they feel issues of representation of blacks on stage and black actors is working out? It seems to me that since the Brustein/Wilson debates, we've reached this reality where black people are only "non-traditionally cast" in classics, and in contemporary theatre, unless a part is written specifically for a black character, black actors will basically never end up being cast in the role. Meanwhile, most white writers are-- for a variety of reasons-- not writing a lot of black parts. And thus, doing the math, opportunities for black actors are quite limited.

Also, Gus, you're one of the few white writers i know who regularly writes black characters. Or has written any, frankly. I'd love to read about your experiences doing that.

August

The response to the black characters in my work has been varied. Kidding Jane deals primarily with race and violence, and it generally makes people uncomfortable (it makes me uncomfortable). I had a theatre (very politely and with good reason) drop their interest in the play when they found out I was white. The conversations about race in the rehearsal room were often intense, and I learned a lot about my own racial perceptions/assumptions. I was lucky that the Portland Stage workshop cast Keith Powell, who really challenged those perceptions and became my partner in the development of the play, leading to the workshop in NYC with Ellen McLaughlin. Their work on that play remains one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre.

When the play was staged as part of a festival in Ohio, the audience talkback was fascinating. The Dayton Daily News was pretty accurate in its description: “But it was another of the six new works that had just as many people talking, both pro and con. August Schulenburg's Kidding Jane, an alternately brilliant and disjointed barrage of profanity, wit, hip-hop attitude and racial confrontation, went off like a verbal hand grenade…” Once the majority white audience felt the opening to talk candidly about race, they didn’t want to stop. The cast and crew of that show were just beautiful in their commitment to that difficult play, but I definitely walked away from that experience shaken. I haven’t really pursued it since, though I’d love to work on the troublesome 2nd act and see the play fully produced in NYC.

Good Hope is a primarily black cast, but because the play is set in historical South Africa, the conversations about race were much less intense. However, several people have faulted me for having writing the play’s narrator as a white British woman (Rebecca). I wanted to write about the strange and terrible love affair of the early British settlers to the still thriving Xhosan community, and thought I’d written Rebecca as clearly flawed as she was sympathetic. But because she was the prism through which we were brought to the experience of the cattle killing, a few people felt the structure of the play was itself colonialist.

The Lesser Seductions of History deals with race, but less centrally than GH and KJ. The two black characters (Martha and George) in the play move through each year of the 1960’s and are gradually radicalized by the violence of the decade, though that is just one part of their complex journeys. So far, our discussions of race in rehearsal have lacked the intensity of GH and KJ, which again may be due to the historical nature of the play and the simple fact that Martha and George popped out of my head as two of the strongest characters in an Ensemble driven play, so the center of gravity has always moved towards them (the other characters have hopefully reached a similar strength, but I had to work for them).

I’m half way through a play called Stepping that follows a brother and sister in Harlem with the ability to step through worlds, but because (as of now) the only white character is Death, the play’s relationship to race feels less richly tense than in the plays above. Which is another aspect of diversity on stage that’s worth talking about, I think.

The non-racially specific roles I’ve written have, in production, been cast white, though there's been near misses the other way. Within Flux, we are having the discussion of what diversity and inclusiveness mean to the company; I personally would like us to move towards a greater diversity in every measure, for the simple reason it expands the kinds of stories we can tell, leads to a richer internal process, and better reflects the community in which we live.

In general, black actors, directors and audiences have been helpful and supportive of my work on these plays, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t made mistakes and that I still don’t have a lot to learn. Still, I think it’s really important for playwrights to reach outside of their own experience and risk those mistakes.

Thanks for asking - looking forward to reading others experiences.

Adam Feldman

(Just for the sake of clarity: The "Adam" who posted above is not me.)

Tony Adams

I'm assuming (and correct me if I'm wrong) the first Adam is Adam over at Mission Paradox.

I dunno. I have far more questions than answers. In Chicago at least, Latino Theatre(s) and Black Theatre (s) seem to be on opposite trajectories.

Not too long ago Tanya Saracho (if you don't know her work, it's probably only a matter of time, she's pretty badass.) said she's convinced the next big Latino Theatre movement is going to come out of Chicago. I don't doubt her on that.

More and more institutions are programming black work (and The Court is doing a lot of August Wilson's fantastically well) and a couple of companies are doing their thing like BET and MPAACT. Congo Square was on a roll but have struggled lately. I don't get the same sense that there's a movement underfoot.

Adam Szymkowicz

It's not me either.

99

As I said at my post, I have sort of the opposite problem from August: my plays tend to have too few black roles in them. Maybe it's a consequence of often being the only black person in any given room. So I struggle to find A) ways to cast blindly and B) to defend that casting from a story standpoint since it often adds complications. Most of the theatres I work with have a surprisingly thin bench of minority actors, who are usually pretty busy, so hard to get, especially for developmental work such as readings. I've had to compromise in terms of type, age and, on more than one occasion, race in order to just get a body in the chair for some things.

As a writer (and as a person), I hear a lot about how my "voice" doesn't sound black. And it strikes me that that's what theatres are looking for. Maybe I'm wrong and they just don't like my plays, though.

Jack Worthing

I've said it before, and with the recent discussion about 'gatekeepers' I'll say it again: someone decided that black playwriting in America is Tarell Alvin McCraney, and nothing else. (Yes, yes, I know Tanya Barfield gets work, but is there really any comparison?) I'll refrain (for now) from discussing the possible reasons for this, but it's worth considering why establishment theatres latch on to a single writer of color.

99

Whelp, there you go, Jack, blowing up comments threads. But the key question is: what do YOU think? Yes, TAM has won some nice awards, some accolades and productions, but so have a lot of other folks (and they're doing more than "getting work"). Leave that aside and let us know what you think.

The second point about the space for more than one voice is a good place to start. I got started thinking about this because I realized that it's been 4 years since August Wilson passed and, in many ways, he was that one voice for so long. Has someone else taken his place? Should someone else take his place?

isaac

Jack,

Saying something unsupportable in two different comment threads doesn't make it any more true. Here in New York, TAM is being produced by one theater this year. He was produced by one last year. In the meantime, Lynn Nottage, S-LP, Coleman Domingo, Eisa Davis, Nathan Louis Jackson, Christine Anderson and Zakkiyah Alexander are some of the black playwrights who have received (or will receive) high profile productions in the time in between those two productions. Regionally, TAM isn't the only game in town either. Danai Gurira's Eclipsed is getting a lot of play. Intimate Apparel continues to be produced a lot etc. None of his plays are in TCG's most produced plays of 2009-- in fact, I'd argue the bigger issue is that no black playwright is on that list.

This is actually one of the few areas that I think has definitely gotten better since August Wilson's death. I'm open to hearing some discussion as to how I'm wrong about this, but that discussion would have to include some actual content.

99

That's a pretty incredible list, and it doesn't even include Charlayne Woodward's new one woman show or Thomas Bradshaw's work. That's basically what Adam Feldman at Time Out was saying and I'm not disputing it at all. The point isn't that it's hard out here for a black playwright necessarily, but also what opportunities are there. And why isn't Intimate Apparel on that list.

I don't know if it's gotten better, exactly. The loss of August Wilson definitely left a vacuum and it seems like, rather than choosing one playwright to fill that vacuum, a number of others are getting chances. But it still feels like it's only one chance. The Public Theater is the only major NY theatre with more than one black playwright in their season. That's part of the issue.

The other part, and the part I can't totally speak to, because I have seen ALL of the work, is about content. What are these plays about? What are the expectations of a play by a black playwright? I know that gets us into stickier areas, but that's part of the conversation for me.

isaac

Ah, now the issue of Tokensim is a much more worthwhile discussion, 99! You're right, all of those playwrights are to some extent vying for the one People Of Color slot at those theaters.

It's a weird zugzwang. On one level, it'd be great if we did away with the socially-enforced one play by a person of color a year quota. A the same time, i think we all assume that doing away with it would mean fewer plays produced by people of color, not more. BUt the quota also has become a max, not a min.

We also left out the Signature, which has done amazing work in featuring black playwrights. I mean, an August Wilson year, a Negro Ensemble year and an S-LP year within a five year stretch? That's pretty great.

99

For me, tokenism is always a part of this conversation. It has to be. The whole notion that there is one slot available for A Serious Black Play changes the way a black writer thinks about their work and their career. You better make sure you're "saying something," particularly with that first play.

The Quota, like most weak affirmative action efforts, has become a crutch and a trap. Rather than even thinking of it as a slot for a good play by a black writer, I think most theatres are looking for A Serious Black Play. They're also fulfilling their Quota for minority actors, so the whole thing acts as a release lever and then they don't have to think about it again.

The Signature's NEC season is a good point, as is the upcoming S-LP season. I know I shouldn't be looking gift-horses in the mouth, but I still find it a shame that those are the only times we see black people on that stage. Actually, I'm downplaying Chuck Mee's very excellent work at multicultural casting.

In a way, this is largely a question of true diversity and multicultural theatre.

RVCBard

Has someone else taken his place? Should someone else take his place?

I would hope not. I've been thinking and writing a lot about this lately, and it seems that my main issue with Black representation is this underlying assumption that there's only one legitimate way to be Black. Not by people who are aware of the issue, but by the people responsible for presenting and promoting Black-made and Black-oriented theater. I talk a lot about this over on my blog and at my LJ.

cgeye

RVCBard, I think that's connected with what 99 said -- that there's one type of black voice producers expect in a Serious Black Play, and a play's seen as weaker if it doesn't have it.

And I bet a SBP would be unfeasible if it had no black actors in it. *That's* where the Quota is, at its roots -- plays are a job program.

I know we're nowhere near the progress needed in our society for people to write across racial lines and sound grounded and non-stereotypical, and we still put such stock in realness that we want our women's plays to be written by women, and our minority plays to be written by the proper minority. But as Gus illustrated above, isn't the problem a matter of trust -- being able to work with your actors to get to a place of trust?

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