(from The New York Times, 6/10; Interviews by Laura Collins-Hughes, Michael Paulson and Photos: Credit…Clockwise from top left: Lawrence Agyei for The New York Times; Idris Solomon for The New York Times; Lynsey Weatherspoon for The New York Times; Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune, via Getty Images; via Pam Green.)
What has been the impact of race, and racism, on African-Americans working in the theater world? How should that world change? Those questions have taken on renewed, impassioned life since the killing of George Floyd, the shooting deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the nationwide protests over racial injustice that have followed.
On Monday night, 300 artists challenged “White American Theater” in a blistering statement. This week the Broadway Advocacy Coalition is holding a forum on racism in the industry. We asked four African-American theater figures — based in different parts of the country and in different corners of the business — to share their first-person accounts. Here are their edited responses.
THE PLAYWRIGHT: Lydia r. diamond
‘Until you show me institutional change, I don’t want to hear it.’
My experiences of the theater are no different from my experiences of the world at large, which is that it’s very difficult to navigate in a racist and sexist world. Sometimes I think that theater thinks it’s somehow immune to being complicit in the intrinsic racism of our world. What I’ve seen over the course of my career is institutional racism and sexism at every level of the American theater. And that saddens me.
I hear so often from white men in the theater, “Oh, we don’t know what to do because all of the black people get the opportunities.” But you have only to look at the numbers. And it’s shocking.
Every second of every moment of my career is touched by some degree of a kind of racism that is just pervasive in the landscape of America. This moment, where the world is blowing up, comes out of a pent-up frustration about the way we as people of color have been navigating the world. It is frustrating to me and, I will presumptuously say, most other African-Americans or people of color in my industry.
I could list off some anecdotal “this thing happened and that thing happened.” I will say that I feel it around marketing. I feel it around reviews. I feel it around opportunities. For years — it’s a little bit less, because I’ve asked my agent to address this — but for years, it was a given that if I was produced, it would be in the [company’s] smaller theater.
It’s every production at every institution — with an acknowledgment that even within those institutions, I have been supported and nurtured and given an artistic home. Because that’s the [expletive] of racism in our country. The people that you’re working with love you, often. And you love them, often. And the country is entrenched in institutional, societal racism.
Oh my God, I’ll say this and then never have another Broadway production. But I think this is the time to speak truth. Everywhere there’s this racism and a lack of opportunity, and we know that the Great White Way is even more so. It’s a world that has been run by white men, and it’s a world that has high, high stakes. The higher the economic opportunities in our country, the more black people are denied access. Period.
You look at our Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who are African-American, and you look at our genius-grant-winning playwrights who are African-American, and then you measure how many people who have those kinds of accolades have access to venues on Broadway who are white versus who are black. You look at the people with those credentials and how many regional theater shows they have had, main-stage shows, next to their peers. And it’s tangible.
On the first day of a rehearsal, the whole theater company comes into the room and you do the meet-and-greet, and then you read the play. Always those rooms are at least 98 percent white people. The institutions aren’t diverse in any way.
The theater world is made up of really smart people. You figured out how to make people buy seats at between $150 to $500. You can figure out how to not be racist.