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Diversity and Theatre: A Letter to The Theatre Community

Diversity and Theatre
By Emily Ling Mei

When I went through the college application process, one of the biggest deciding factors for me was a college that supported diversity. But looking around at most universities’ Musical Theatre classes, they were overwhelmingly, if not all, white. And even then, those who did have diversity, I questioned whether if the students who were accepted were accepted based on their ethnicity. The cleverly designed pamphlets and posters showed their “token black” student pasted right on the cover. “Look at me”, it seemed to say, “we have black people too”.

Black and other non-white students were itemized; we were no longer seen as an individual like any other student, but a flag of some sort that showed prospective students, patrons, and others that the university was “progressive” and “diverse”. This is incredibly dehumanizing for us, and, I know at least for me, has caused me to wonder if I was evaluated differently from the white auditioners simply because of my skin color. My mom and I used to joke that I would have an easier time getting in to college, because everyone needed a “token Asian”. But, putting aside all lightheartedness, it was true.

I felt like as long as I had some sort of talent, colleges would consider me because they needed to prove their diversity.

While some may see this as an advantage, I find it incredibly upsetting. All the dedication, hard work, and tears mean nothing at the end of the day, all because they see me walk in the door and automatically they have made a judgement. I am not another auditioner, but an Asian auditioner. I know that when I leave the room, I will be remembered because of what I looked like, not for the artist I am.

I see this mindset reflected in the outside professional theatre world as well. More often than not, you will see one black artist in the ensemble, maybe an Asian if you’re lucky. The rest of the cast is white. While I take the time to celebrate those POC artists who have shown the world that POCs are just as capable, and more, of their white counterparts, I also have to question the casting directors’ and producers’ choice. Why only one? I know for a fact that there are plenty of talented, amazing POCs out there who could dance, sing, and act circles around those that are cast, but aren’t cast.

While I have no direct experience, I can only assume that the producers are too afraid to cast people who audiences won’t expect to see onstage. Audiences expect to see what they think they’re going to see; and because the amount of theatregoers is very white (and privileged), they expect to see themselves reflected back on the stage. But isn’t it the theatre’s job to not only reflect back what we see in the world, but to reflect back what we want to see in the world? Therefore, diversity in shows should not only be reflected, but expected.

If you want people to accept a world in which diversity is celebrated and not rejected, then your casting should reflect that.

Open audiences’ minds to a world where black people can play the roles that society does not want to see them in. The majority of POCs who get cast within their stereotype is unbelievable. If you want to change the world through your art, then wake the minds of others to the world that is, not the one that society wants it to be. For those of you posting about white privilege and ignorance, this is one step you can take to creating a better experience for POCs in the theatre world.

Another major fault I find within theatre companies is their choice to include one “black” show, like Fences or The Color Purple, in their otherwise white season. While these are brilliant pieces of work and deserve to be produced, they cannot be used by theatre companies to worm their way out of the hard discussion or representation in theatre. These pieces deserve a whole lot more than being used as an excuse that the theatre company is “diverse” and “supports the black experience”. If that’s true, then there should be a hell of a lot more pieces of work produced that do not focus on the white, middle-class American experience. And if they are focusing on that, they should be just as willing to consider POCs as other white actors. As mentioned above, it only opens the audience’s minds’ more to what could be.

As a current student at Roosevelt University studying Musical Theatre, there is much more still to do, specifically in the college world, in aiming to support a truly inclusive and safe theatre community for everyone. Here are some ideas:

  1. Diversity in the faculty! They have first hand experience of what it is like to live in the professional world as a working actor and will be able to answer the hard questions that current POC students will have regarding the workplace after college.
  2. Willingness to listen. We understand that you are the teacher. But the learning goes both ways. Be open to our experience, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Recognize that even though it may have been “OK” twenty years ago, it was never really OK and most certainly is not OK now.
  3. Casting. While I understand that diversity is scarce in many programs, it is never okay to choose a play that requires a specific ethnicity and then cast that actor without their consent. Our race is not a type. We are all unique individuals.
  4. Whitewashing. This kind of goes with casting, but because it is such an issue, it deserves its own point. DO NOT choose a play or show that calls for a non-white actor to play a certain character and then cast a white actor. This is a slap in the face to the playwright, and diminishes the entire POC experience that the playwright is trying to portray. Also, even though it should be obvious at this point I still see it happening so: DO NOT dress a white person up to portray a different ethnicity.

For my community theatre directors, the above list applies to you too. I have seen too many white-washed productions, cultural appropriation, and things very close to black/yellow/brown/red face. I’ve seen theatres use spray tan to change their actors’ skin color, shows with white actors trying to copy a certain dialect or accent to make them seem more like the ethnicity they’re portraying, and costume design that completely stereotypes that certain culture.

To my actor friends, if you are asked to do any of the above, say no. It is absolutely dehumanizing and humiliating to watch someone disrespect your culture, even if they don’t realize they are. Even better, discuss with the director/costume designer/makeup artist, why this makes you uncomfortable and have a discussion as to how it could be done in an appropriate, inoffensive way. If that can’t be done, then I suggest you quit. If you are offered a role that is listed to be played by a POC, turn it down and explain to the director why. If for some reason that is not possible, then, if the work is still able to retain most of its message, then do not pretend to be that ethnicity.

In conclusion, the theatre community as a whole needs to wake up.

While we have prided ourselves on the fact that we are, as an art, generally more progressive, we have a tendency to hide behind that and not put the real work into listening and raising up the POCs of our community. Make yourself uncomfortable, recognize you were wrong, take the time to really self-reflect and put yourself in our shoes. Thank you for everything you have done and thank you for everything you will do. Stand strong and fight for what you believe in.

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