In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit notes the influence that the Czech rock band, The Plastic Peoples of the Universe, had on the liberation movement in the country during the fall of the Soviet Union. She connects that strange circumstance to the “equally strange trajectory that created rock and roll out of African and Scots-Irish musical traditions in the American South, then sent rock and roll around the world, so that the sound that had once been endemic to the South was intrinsic to dissent in Europe’s east.” A similarly disparate set of relationships inspired Puerto Rican theatre artist, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who connected a lifelong love of hip-hop to a relatively obscure and hefty biography of the nation’s first Treasury Secretary to create one of the most iconic pieces of twenty-first century American art, the musical, Hamilton. When Miranda first performed Alexander Hamilton at the White House in 2009, he nervously introduced it as a conceptual work about someone who embodied hip-hop—and was greeted with bewildered laughter from the audience. As we know, the corresponding Broadway smash was nominated for sixteen Tony Awards and made stars of its creator and most of its cast members. When was the last time a musical did that? It even embroiled itself in a political controversy when cast members delivered a direct appeal to Mike Pence shortly after the election. Over the two years after opening on Broadway, Hamilton is still running, with now close to a thousand performances; this work of art has been a game-changer for the theatre world, putting people of color front and center as creators and stars, repping hard for immigrants as the engine that drives this country, and making hip-hop an art-form worthy respect in theatre.
Yet, a recent Actor’s Equity report, “Theater Jobs Skew White and Male,” tells something different. Detailing demographics figures for shows on and off Broadway between 2013 and 2015, the report shows a landscape where the most jobs with the highest salaries are awarded to white men. It tells theatre practitioners what they already know. That this field, despite its lineage as a voice of the working class and its usefulness in social changes, responds to the same mechanisms of white supremacist patriarchy as any other.
In Chicago, another useful data project was recently completed. Lavina Jadhwani, a freelance director, culled data from seventy-five theaters during the 2016-2017 season, marking how many playwrights and directors of color were employed by the large houses and the smaller storefronts that make Chicago such an iconic theatre town. The results were stark: of the plays produced, 75% were written by white people, while 80% were directed by whites, who make up approximately 32% of the city’s population. In one of this country’s most diverse cities, the citizenry is not being accurately or appropriately represented on its stages.
I worked in traditional theatre in Chicago for about a decade: from when I first began piecing together a storefront theater career as a young graduate new to the city, to when I left my post as the Casting Associate at Steppenwolf Theater Company. It was frustrating. What initially excited me about the city’s theatre ecology—-different kinds of stories told in different kinds of locations, from a bar to a Broadway-style house to an old retail space or above a convenience store—-I eventually came to see as endlessly repeating cycle of the same stories: stories written, directed, and for cis-hetero white people like me. Each time there was push-back from artists of color, who wanted to know why they were being shut out of opportunities afforded to their white counterparts, some theatre would host a panel or a symposium with various dignitaries from the various gate-keeping institutions that held the purse strings. I was most aggravated by the small storefront theaters, many whose missions talked about creating an equitable and socially conscious world, but nearly always programmed plays written by and directed by and for white people. A friend of mine, Khanisha Foster, a mixed-race actor, writer, director, and Evanston-native, told me: “When I was a young artist, Chicago didn’t care for young artists who were great and needed a place where we could put on a bunch of different plays and fail and do great work or bad work… We just weren’t given those opportunities, where white actors were.” These small theaters, whether they wanted the task or not, served as the minor leagues for young artists before ascending into big-league theatre. The larger theatre houses seemed to only program one opportunity a season for actors of color, and rarely cast them in non-racial-specific roles. If there’s no opportunity for younger actors of color at the smaller level, and there’s little work for them at the larger level, maybe that is why they start looking around to other markets, like Los Angeles, and realize that more opportunities exist there and leave Chicago. “Most of us who are people of color leave,” Foster said, “I think we have to.” And that’s what happened. Good actors left, and the art in Chicago suffered. And the city suffered too.
However, now a groundswell movement is forming here, led by artists of color who are staying and continuing to invest in the city’s theatre community. The Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition was formed last summer to combat entrenched racism in the city’s theatre critics, while The Chicago Inclusion Project has been working the past few seasons to encourage inclusive theatre productions across casting, production, and audience. Full-scale change remains slow, like the small theaters that have diversified their casts, but haven’t once hired a director of color; or the large suburban house that seemingly ignored a playwright’s wish for a diverse ensemble.
Across the country, anxieties around the continued lack of diversity in the American theatre persist. Rebecca Novick, a theatre artist based in Berkeley, California, began a data project that took note of an unprecedented amount of turnover within the Artistic Director and Executive Director field and the repeated announcements that seemed like jobs were being filled by white men. “I feel like the tracking of this is a really important part of the change that we’re hoping will happen in this moment,” she said. The initial findings have been dispiriting. Of those jobs tracked, 86% of all new Artistic and Executive Director jobs went to white people, with men receiving 65% of all new Artistic Director jobs. Especially deflating was the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Novak told me, which is a major hub of new play development and had named Nataki Garrett, a black woman, its Associate Artistic Director last year, but who also elected to hire Chris Coleman, a white man, as its Artistic Director this Fall. It’s possible, of course, that Coleman and others will be inspired by a movement to create a more just and equitable theatrical landscape; it’s equally possible white men will fall back into their own biases and continue the same lineage.
It’s crucial to note how this hiring process works, with the board of directors typically employing a search firm. “It’s weirdly difficult to find out about these openings,” Novak said. “It’s not publicized anywhere. Unless you’re contacted by the search firm, it’s often very difficult to figure out how to become a part of these searches.” That process sounds like it belongs to old boys’ club industries, like banking and the law, not a self-styled liberal and progressive industry like the American Theatre. A Women’s Leadership Conference last year, convened by American Conservatory Theater, and the Wellesley Centers for Women found that “board search committees are less frequently willing to trust that women have what it takes to run arts organizations,” and that “theaters with large budgets trust the potential of men. . .to oversee a larger budget than they have done before.” And yet, in 1995, Steppenwolf Theatre Company installed an inexperienced artistic leader into the post of Artistic Director. An actor by trade, Martha Lavey transformed Steppenwolf from its own heady boys-club days into a world class theatre that encourages and supports younger artists, and that has produced a long string of hits that captivated Broadway audiences. It’s unclear why the success of such a “non-traditional” hire haven’t been replicated by other leaders of the field.
Where will the spark come from that will change this industry for good? Most likely, it will be a series of tiny fires that may not even be perceptible. Solnit councils that we cannot possibly know how our work will affect others, and that we must put faith in the value of our work to light those sparks around the world.
“Change is going to be as slow as you want it to be. Sometimes you just have to make different choices,” suggests Jacob Padron, Artistic Director of The Sol Project, a company designed to lift up Latinx voices and writers by partnering with different off-Broadway theatres in New York through a twelve-play cycle. In their partnerships, The Sol Project asks each producer to commit to a main stage production of a play by a Latinx writer, to commission a Latinx writer for a future production, and to meet with as many artists of color as possible, especially designers, to try to round out future creative teams with as many artists of color as possible. “We’re trying to promote real transformation,” Padron explains. “We’re trying to create that spark to promote real systemic change.” Padron cites El Teatro Campesino, the five decade-old company founded in concert with Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union, as inspiration that theatre can catalyze social change and fight for social justice. He also mentioned, as one mentor, Oskar Eustis at The Public Theatre, the original producer of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
Since Hamilton opened in August of 2015, there have been 98 new productions opened on Broadway. By my count, five of those productions were written by a person of color. Of those, one of them is Motown the Musical , which closed after just 24 performances; two of them–Ayad Akhtar’s Junk and John Leguizamo’s one person show, Latin History for Morons–found support from La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California. The other two, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, which was six years old, and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, were produced by the Public Theatre. The process of getting a production to Broadway is complicated and fraught, and does not express the full worth of a play. Nevertheless, there need to be more than two pipelines for POC theatre artists. Everyone, from Broadway to the regional houses to the little storefronts in the back of the bar, needs to decide what kind of world they want to live in and what kind of world they want to create. A few people can’t do it all by themselves.
Nicholas Ward’s writing has appeared on HowlRound, The Billfold, Bird’s Thumb, Catapult, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He is a company member with 2nd Story, a Chicago-based storytelling collective, and the founder of NCW Booking, a boutique entertainment booking agency. He lives in Chicago with Amadeus the cat.