Monday, 2 May 2016

A Token Of Our Depreciation


I have four minutes to get to the stop for a bus due in four minutes. 'Tis one of those races against time with which I have become familiar. As I feel around my coat pocket, I utter under my breath “Damn... I have no tokens!” The thought that follows immediately after is “Not even one. Sadder than some theatre companies.” I laugh and sigh, and hear the bus lumber past my window towards the stop. Yay, I missed it. Next bus in 20 minutes. I walk to Shoppers and stock up on bus fare. As I sit in the bus shelter, I hear it again replaying in my mind. “... I have no tokens. Not even one. Sadder than some theatre companies.”

I guess you could say that this piece begins there.

Actually, that's wrong. Today is May 1st, and it begins just over a month ago. I am asked what it is like to be a “diverse” artist. The next morning, my iPod dies on the bus. To pass the time, I reflect on the question and in a flurry of frustration, scribble a piece called Knots in response. I thought I had written all I had to write about this topic, but maybe I'm wrong. Then, during a chat, the topic of cultural representation in theatre comes up – it often does when two non-white artists chat about theatre – and the person I'm speaking with asks “And when did Hedda Gabler become black?”

I am taken aback by the comment. Confused. Agitated. Artists of colour have fought so hard and so long for the opportunity to play the iconic characters, to have a shot at mainstays of the classical canon other than Othello. As we continue chatting, I realize that the question is not intended as a criticism of that casting choice.  The black actors cast in that seminal role are incredibly gifted and deserving. No, the statement is about flipping our idea of what “diversity” (a word I no longer use in this context) means on its head, and looking at it in ways that the conversation as currently framed has not invited us to.

I go home, and ponder the last two years of conversations. We as an artistic community have so many conversations. Forums and surveys and workshops and Facebook threads and heart-to-hearts. Years later, the same conversations. In some corners, notable progress and true integration -- people putting their money where their mouths are -- and change manifesting in surprising places. Then there is a wasteland of those “discussing”, which is essentially endless postponing of the inevitable choice to change nothing much while appearing interested. Then there are those not trying. They have settled into a perspective that works for them and don't even feign otherwise. The resentment I felt towards them has waned, almost completely. I eventually saw it like spending your time trying to change the right-wing when one is a leftist. I would much sooner expend my energy making the left as strong, as equitable, and as conscious as possible. 

As much as the theatre community would like to believe that it is left-leaning by default, there exists within it a spectrum of conservativism to progressivism as evident as any in the political sphere.  

But no artist wants to own the fact that he or she avoids the mud.

That is the antithesis of what we try to do. We confront. We dive. We face the hard, the heavy and the hurtful in order to tell tough truths and explore new ground. We crave uncharted territory and live to turn ourselves inside out. We love the difficult discussions except the ones about how we view race, not diversity but race, in our industry. We don't love those quite so much, because who knows how awkward and unnerving they might get. And because we don't love those feelings, we have a singular discussion, over and over and over again. It is safe, it is predictable, it is often reductive. It is everything we say we don't want theatre to be.

As I eat dinner that evening, tasting nothing amidst the throes of distraction, I consider what inclusion has often meant – the casting of non-white actors in other than peripheral roles. I think of Blair Underwood as Stanley Kowolski, and the black actors who've donned Hedda and Hamlet, and the steps forward move me. But when some are called bold for hiring artists of colour to play roles usually occupied by white actors, it is forgotten that if that is the extent of it, it succeeds only in making sure that we continue spinning our wheels. It is repeated ad nauseam that while crucially important to have actors on our stages reflect the reality of our population, having plays be directed and written by artists of colour is even more so. Yet each year, we continue to see decisions made that would suggest that a significant portion of our industry has their speakers turned all the way down. Criticism is met either with posturing, or dispassionate and delayed acknowledgment. It has become almost impossible to continue participating in conversations laden with earnestness, in which I can anticipate the buzzwords and talking points in advance.

I pledge for the next few days to attempt to consider this issue anew. It is a task that I welcome.

The first thought to crystallize is that when people stick with the tried and true, that choice is usually based in either conscious or subconscious fear.

I believe that part of the reason why some avoid telling the stories of people of colour is because they would have to admit a lack of knowledge, and there is vulnerability in that. For those used to formulating artistic visions rooted in a white North American or European perspective, plays outside of that may mean not being the expert in the room. It can be difficult to summon the modesty needed to admit that. It can be harder still to find the self-awareness required to say "No matter how intelligent I am, no matter how skilled I am, there is a cultural backdrop to this that I cannot truly understand."  That does not mean that a white director should never direct a non-white play.  Not at all.  It means that a white director should possess the clarity to know when what is required crosses the line from artistic and technical intuition to racial and cultural intuition, and the lack of ego to know when outside input is required.

It does not work quite the same way in reverse. 

Some folks' knee-jerk reaction will be to disagree, but it really doesn't.  I am not suggesting that non-white directors have all the answers or will be suited to every script.  What I am saying is that the entry point is usually further in the door, because knowledge of and immersion in whiteness is a huge part of the daily life of people of colour.  It begins long before we choose our careers.  It is the dominant culture, the one into which all people of colour are expected to assimilate.  Canadian kids who are black, Asian, South Asian, Latino and First Nations are taught History, Geography, Art, Social Studies and Literature all of which rotate around Europe and its white emigrants to North America. I have a long list of Caucasian acquaintances who grew up in communities in which almost everyone shared their race, but almost no friends of colour who can say the same.  In fact, I have many friends of colour who grew up as the "only" or one of the scant few.  So yes, all other things being equal, I was able to direct a play set in Nazi Germany with more embedded understanding of that reality than most Caucasian directors could bring to a play set in the colonial Caribbean. This is not because I am any more intelligent or creative than they are. It is because ours is a society that has intentionally crafted the education system and the media in such a way that all but ensures that I walk into the process having more knowledge of their history and culture than they do mine.

It is about so much more than theatre. Any discussion of racial inclusion in any field is always about so much more than the ongoing conversation would suggest. It is about who we are, what we have been taught, what we have come to expect. This next thought may get a lot of people's backs up. That's okay. Their backs have to relax sometime, and maybe when they do, they will think about it.

I believe the unwillingness by many to embrace and program plays by artists of colour is due in part to the fact that it would necessitate the end of tokenism. 


I say "in part" because I also think it is due to a selective commitment to believability.  

As makers of theatre we extole believability.  We want writing that feels believable. We want performances that feel believable. We want sets and costumes and hairstyles that feel believable. We want casting that feels believable too.  And that means that even when many claim to be open to non-traditional casting -- and may think themselves to be -- the subconscious need for "believability" means that when push comes to shove, they are not.

Many years ago, an acquaintance suggested that I audition for a play with a community theatre company she spoke highly of. I began checking their audition calls. They always included the line about welcoming diverse applicants, yet nearly every show took place in Ireland, or Scotland, or Northern Quebec... somewhere where hiring someone "believable" meant hiring someone who did not look like me.  (I have it on good authority that there is at least one Asian in Cork and a black man wandering through Glasgow.)  Surprise surprise, their casts always ended up one colour.

This desire for believability is part of who we are as storytellers. If a play in set in a particular time and place, we want everything we see on the stage to feel "true" to that setting. If we are in Nigeria, we expect to see black actors. If we are in Vietnam, we expect Asians. If we are on a First Nations reserve, we expect Indigenous actors. We pride ourselves on being not only truth tellers, but creators of worlds. We want the experience of the production to feel real.

If we know this to be the truth – and we do -- then what happens when the vast majority of the plays programmed on our stages have settings which, in time or place or both, are overwhelmingly white?

This brings me back to the “When did Hedda Gabler become black?” comment.

The play is set in Christiana, Norway (now Oslo). As Norwegian culture is not central to the plot, some directors have cast powerful black actors in the role. Fantastic. But what are the chances that a second non-white actor would be cast in a significant role in the same production?  I would wager almost nil. Because while putting a dark-skinned woman in the lead may be considered inspired, to also cast an Asian as George would likely be seen as either too daring or too unrealistic. Keeping everyone else in the cast white not-so-tacitly implies (a) that the play is actually supposed to be white and the non-white actor is a deviation, and (b) that to hire a brilliant actor with more pigment than expected is a "brave" decision. 

In a play in which the setting (and often the actual character descriptions) make it clear that they were written as white, the difference between casting one person of colour and two takes the director's approach from “inspired” to "a reconceiving of the play".

Hence my comment about tokenism.

Could more non-white directors change this approach?  Yes they could and probably would.  YES to more non-white directors.  As I mentioned before, many of them have been by osmosis steeped in Eurocentric culture, while also having the vastly different perspective of their own. That is an incredibly valuable combination in mainstream theatre. Give insightful and courageous directors of all races great plays to direct. That alone, however, will not heal the wound. While it will result in more representative casting, it will still be (for the most part) directors of colour casting actors of colour in parts that were conceived and written with white actors in mind. And so even if black actors were to play Lear until the end of time, and every Lady MacBeth was Latina, and Shakespeare was being directed by one incredible Asian director after another, and Salt Water Moon was never performed by white actors again -- we would still be using and showcasing our gifts primarily in service of narratives that are not our own.

Actors of colour deserve the right to bask in and forage characters that were intended for them too -- as white actors have had the opportunity to do for decades -- rather than waiting to be cast in things in which we will always be seen as a stretch and a longshot.

And so, my days of looking at inclusion and how we can change things ultimately leads to the same place, albeit with a more thoughtful hunch as to why things remain the way they remain.

The only way – the only way – for us to get past where we are now is for us to put the stories of people of colour, stories that are populated by brown and black and yellow and red skin, on our stages. And this is what some people simply do not want, because it upsets the apple cart that feeds them. They do not wish to fix what for them is not broken. They want to continue hiring the same people, people like themselves, people with whom they are innately at ease. They do not wish to delve into that which may cause their areas of ignorance to be made visible. Plays written by white writers set in lily white towns depicting slices of those lives allow uncommitted artistic directors and directors to make minimalist, symbolic gestures when it comes to inclusion.  

"Wasn't it edgy of me to cast one?  There were none in the script!"

Every time we land upon a telling moment in which non-white artists are rendered all but invisible, every time criticism of these moments is met with either defensiveness or silence, every time artists of colour are asked to be patient while others contemplate our perceived value -- it is like being offered a token of our depreciation. 

I believe the unwillingness by many to embrace and program plays by artists of colour is due in part to the fact that it would necessitate the end of tokenism. 

Playwrights of colour. 
That is the only way. 
It is everything. 
It changes everything.

It means that we start telling the stories of our city, of our world, of our lives.  It means that we immediately see more directors of colour, with an innate understanding of these literary landscapes, hired to forage the cultural depths of these plays. It means that we see more plays with mixed casts or predominantly non-white casts. We might even see plays with entire casts of colour.  What a concept.  Try to remember the last time you saw that outside out of culturally-specific or tiny indie company. Artists of colour would be given the chance to play rich, vivid, brilliant characters lovingly created for us. Hiring us wouldn't be seen as an inspired move for any reason OTHER than our artistic gifts.  Imagine.

When you tell stories that shine light on the voices of artists of colour, they feel seen and heard as opposed to merely utilized.

The artistic directors I respect deeply, of all colours, are those whose understanding of that is apparent. They are walking the walk.  But I no longer depend on artistic directors of reputable or large companies to turn the tide. Now, I am counting on artists. I am counting on artists to write their stories and cast their stories and produce their stories and direct their stories. It is hard. There is little money and often only each other for support. But we are mighty, and tireless, and every radiant colour under the sun.  We understand that to continuing wishing is to continuing waiting, and to continuing waiting is to continuing wanting. Wanting their wanting. Wanting their will.  Wanting the awakening of people who are very, very much at peace asleep.

Gifted playwrights of colour, and friends of every race within the creative community who lift them up, are going to be the sea change. These writers will be the ones to create for non-white actors the dream roles of tomorrow. We must seek their voices, supporting and amplifying them, until we remember their names. Until we know their stories.  It is only through such nurturance that the plays they write will become known and loved.  It is only through such nurturance that they plays they write will in time become so revered that THEY too can become part of the canon. It will always be glorious to see black women as Hedda.  Always.  But notwithstanding this, I look toward to the day in which many, many characters initially conceived as people of colour appear on every list of most coveted and prized roles – not solely in black theatre or Latino theatre or Asian theatre or Indigenous theatre... but in THEATRE.

Peace, passion, and progress,


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