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January 05, 2012

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Joy

Yeah...I see this article as coming from the same impulse that led people to start spouting out that crazy nonsense about post-racial America after Obama was elected. Racism is harder to see, so it doesn't exist. People identify racial bias as the conscious animus of bad people, when actually today it generally operates as an unconscious process, often even as people consciously believe themselves to be anti-racist. (I'm reading THINKING FAST & SLOW--really helpful in understanding all this.) and the ONLY way to change it is to identify it, talk about it, drag it out of the subtext, into consciousness. See how it really operates--use the standard of strict scrutiny, examine our own minds & behavior & consciously work to make things better.

But the defensiveness you see in this article shuts down that process. I feel like I've seen this a lot--to talk about the way bias operates is too painful & charged, self-examination is too hard, so people pretend the problem is solved. Which gets in the way of progress. I think Jay Smooth is on the money here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU

Everyone I know in the American theatre is consciously not racist. And yet these dynamics persist. I think we've all gotta take a deep breath, be brave, look at the subtle and multifaceted causes, and take personal responsibility for creating change. Not being consciously racist isn't enough--we have to be consciously anti-racist.

And don't be too depressed-there's a demographic reality that our field has to face--the future is multicultural. Majority minority. And, like the republican party, theatres are going to have to embrace that fact or fade into irrelevance.

Scott Walters

When I read Tom's essay, I knew it would be controversial, and allow a lot of people to thump their breasts in outrage. But it amazes me how easy it is for people to thump, and how hard it seems for them to do anything that might change the status quo for the better. Tom and I have been putting statistics out there year after year showing the problem, and everybody nods and then goes back to figuring out how to use Twitter better. Any suggestions that might lead to change is greeted with "concern" or dismissal, because change might "hurt" some people or institutions that people aspire to, or worse might impact our own career. But those statistics that Tom puts out there aren't made up. So we have two options: accept them as permanent reality, or do something that leads to change. And my experience is, for all the chest thumping, people lack the courage and desire to change anything.

There is a documentary called "The Essential Blue Eyed," which revisits the teacher who did the experiment with her elementary school students where blue eyes were embued with all the negative stereotypes usually applied to African-Americans. At one point in the documentary, she is addressing a gathering of teachers, and she says, "Stand up if you would like to change your white skin color for black." She waits -- nobody rises. She then says, "That means that you know what's happening, you know it's wrong. So why aren't you doing something?"

So yeah, the quotation asks you to do something. Something more than sighing and expressing your oh-so-enlightened sensibilities. So let's see it. Let's see a suggestion for change that actually is radical enough to address this imbalance. Let's see YOU suggest something, instead of simply picking the holes in the ideas of others.

There is an essay about race and privilege that defines "prejudice" as something that happens at the level of the individual, and "racism" as something that happens at the level of the system. It is possible to benefit from racism even if you aren't prejudiced. That's where we're at now: we have a theatrical system that is racist, elitist, and urbanist. The author says there are three categories: "active racism," "passive racism," and "active anti-racism." Active racism is exemplified by the KKK and others who actively do racist acts. Active anti-racism are people who seek to intervene and actively counter-act racism. And Passive racism are people who don't do anything racist, but they just go along. The analogy is to the moving sidewalks in airports: racists walk fast forward, anti-racists walk fast backwards, and passive racists stand still but are moved along by the escalator. The latter is what most theatre people are -- passive racists/elitists/urbanists. And until they get off the schneid, then Tom's analysis is spot-on.

Isaac

Scott,

Nothing in your comment is applicable to 99Seats. It's all well and good for you to portray you and Tom as the only two willing to do anything about these problems but that's not true. 99 helped found the New Black Fest and has been working very hard (to the extent that he can given that he has a full time day job and is trying to have his own career as a playwright) to work on these issues.

Keith

Great post, J. This is why I couldn't understand why "Occupy Broadway" was centered on reading plays, performing and NOT challenging the institution.

Esther

I posted a comment on Tom's blog but I'll repeat it here.

First, I certainly don't believe that theatre is a "white people thing." I think there's theatre in every culture, storytelling in every culture.

When I go to shows in Boston or Providence, whether it be plays or Broadway tours, the audience skews white and older, even when there are stories with black characters. It could be that I go at the wrong time. Providence doesn't have a huge black population. (It used to have a black theatre company but it folded a few years ago.) In the case of Trinity Rep, it has an education program that brings students to the theatre but it doesn't seem to translate into getting them to go as adults.

If anything, I've found Broadway to be more diverse. From my own personal experience, shows that have black characters with strong storylines - Fela, Memphis, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Mountaintop - attract black theatergoers. People want to see their stories onstage.

I don't want to dismiss all of the hard work that's being done to encourage diversity among theatre audiences. I have friends of all races and ethnic backgrounds who enjoy it. I think the biggest barriers that divide frequent from occasional theatergoers are money and time.

Theatre is competing for people's time as our lives have become increasingly busy and more complicated and entertainment options have multiplied. It's tough to get people out of their houses.

If you look at who has the most time and fewest responsibilities it's students, who may not have the money, and older people whose kids are grown, who've achieve a certain level of affluence, who may be retired. Or in the case of Broadway shows, people who are on vacation.

I've only been going to the theatre regularly for about five years. What stopped me from going previously was the cost. I'm at a point in my life now where that's not an issue. And the other thing is, I never went growing up, except for school trips. As an adult, I never had friends who went. And I didn't think it was the type of thing you could do alone. (Although I go alone all the time now.)

Prieb

Theater people are the worst people I have ever met in NYC. They are the most bigoted yet proclaimed "liberals." under the sun. They are snobs,phoneys and they sneer at everyone. Vile bunch of attention junkies with ugly faces and fcked up souless dweeby faces.

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