Last month, Howlround published a piece by Elena Muslar entitled “Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Arts Management: An Exposé and Guide.” The article focused on Muslar’s research as part of her MFA thesis, which contained interviews that demonstrated common challenges and hang-ups the success and promotion of people of color. In her “Expose and Guide,” Muslar includes questions, suggestions, and pathways to creating opportunity and access into arts management positions.
Muslar noted four common responses in her interviews to current arts managers, about why there were not more people of color in leadership positions in their organizations:
“My organization does try to reach out to people of color but they don’t apply.”
“I’m not really sure why we haven’t had people of color in leadership positions.”
“I fear my own voice in this conversation.”
“I’m not sure how to get young people of color interested in this field.”
These answers are not surprising, and by now near commonplace. However, they are important to hear, and identify, so we can move past these fears and misconceptions. Without recognizing the hesitations, we are unable to challenge them, and consequently, leave them behind.
In all four responses, uncertainty is a common link. Responders are not sure why there is a lack of diversity in leadership, where their place is in the conversation, or how to resolve the issue. Uncertainty, here, is defeating. Rather than asking questions about how to perceive and create change, they are resolved in their inability and their unknowing.
Muslar does more than just raise these questions though, she provides answers.
Lisa Kron’s acceptance speech for winning Best Book (Fun Home), which was frustratingly not aired on the live telecast, spoke to the variety in this year’s Broadway season. Her fantastic speech is below and well worth watching:
Campaigns by civil rights groups like the NAACP to integrate public pools often turned very, very ugly. “Groups for and against segregation threw rocks and tomatoes at one another, swung bats and fists, and even stabbed and shot at each other,” Wiltse wrote. Even after Brown v. Board of Education ostensibly desegregated America’s schools in 1955, a federal judge sided with Baltimore’s pro-segregation argument that pools “were more sensitive than schools.” (That decision was later overturned.)
When the group of white and black integrationists refused to leave the motel’s pool, this man dived in and cleared them out. All were arrested. Horace Cort/AP
The photo series, called “Queer Icons,” evokes the colorful, religious artwork that Roman grew up with. “Because I grew up Catholic in a Mexican community in Chicago, my first introduction to art was religious art,” he says…And because Roman’s subjects are activists and artists who do good for the community, “I wanted to represent them as saints,” he says. He also wanted to capture their pride and their strength. “I wanted them to be warriors — that’s why a lot of them are looking straight at the camera, saying ‘Here I am, and I’m not going to hide.'”
This Guardian article asks an important question: how would you explain theatre to somebody who’s never been?
There’s been lots of talk recently around the idea that theatre sometimes feels too much like an exclusive club for those who are in the know. Questions are being asked about why so many people think that it’s not for them – something I touched upon in a blog earlier this year. Figures from the Warwick Commission make worrying reading: the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of society make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatregoers and gallery visitors…Perhaps what we don’t talk about enough is the pleasure of theatre, how it makes us feel, and why those of us who go frequently love it so much.
Is it time to kick programs like Promise Zones and Choice Neighborhoods to the curb? Are these place-based initiatives, which funnel streams of resources to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and racial segregation, futile in the face of rapidly expanding wealth gaps? Yes and yes, says Occidental College urban studies scholar Peter Dreier. In “The Revitalization Trap,” a column for the National Housing Institute’s Shelterforce blog that Dreier wrote earlier this month, he argues that organizations focused on community development have “fallen into the trap of focusing on revitalizing low-income neighborhoods, without challenging the corporate and political forces that create economic inequality and widespread poverty.”
Everybody is influenced by who they are and unfortunately how other people perceive them to be. And race is a perception. It’s not even a true thing. It is truly a mental construct but because it is this idea that is made very real due to other people’s actions and reactions toward you it’s obviously going to inspire your work. It’s going to make you mad enough to write. And sometimes it makes you mad enough to not write. (laughs) And to go out and march. It’s just part of living as a female artist of color.
Boston Creates, or #BostonCreates, is the umbrella title for a 10-year plan to provide resources for the creative community, while engaging — and challenging — artists and audiences to articulate priorities for how those resources should be spent.
The cast of How to Get Away With Murder. Photo by ABC Studios.
There’s also the question of what diversity actually means to casting directors. Wise characterizes the goal as “digestible diversity,” or a certain type of non-white look: Asian actors with typically American or European features (like freckles, she suggests); black women with a lighter skin complexion. You’ll go into an “all ethnicities” casting call, she tells me, and “without fail, you’ll wonder who got that [part], and it’ll be someone German (whose father is kind of half-black).” This perspective seems to have borne itself out in at least one particularly notable—and racist—casting call for the upcoming N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, which made headlines last year. In it, sought-after women were, whether intentionally or not, ranked in groups from “A” to “D” by race, class, and skin tone. (Group B, for instance, consisted of “fine girls,” who “should be light-skinned.” Group D, on the other hand, was listed as “African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone.”)
In the current crop of anti-realist plays are Eno’s The Open House and Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, both mounted last season at New York City’s Signature Theater, and Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, a recent critical success at the Public Theater. Next season, Taylor Mac’s Hirwill have its East Coast debut at Playwrights Horizons. All these plays simultaneously deploy and subvert various tropes of the genre: difficult fathers, family secrets, eccentric mothers, a compressed time scheme, money worries—and, well, white people.
They’re also all set in and around living rooms, the most common and persistent setting in contemporary American theatre.
While it can be frustrating to walk into a theatre and see yet another couch in front of yet another television three feet away from yet another cluttered bookshelf, the ubiquity of this setting isn’t hard to understand. After all, the living room’s history and linguistic roots intersect with American theatre’s primary concerns. “Living room” is simply the American term for the parlor, whose name derives from the French parler, to talk. It is figuratively, then, a space for talking. Parlors are also a middle-class (or, if you must, bourgeois) invention, much like the theatres that regularly reproduce them onstage.
The top 3% of arts organizations by budget size ($10M and above) received 60% of all arts and culture funding. Conversely, the bottom half of organizations by budget size ($100k and below) received only 5% of that funding.
Not only is this deeply problematic from a purely class perspective, Holly also notes that this wealth gap disproportionately effects racial and ethnic minority communities, as well as other oppressed groups. This phenomenon is also not limited to the U.S. In fact, a similar report out of Britain cautioned that drastic changes to arts funding need to occur in order to avoid a “cultural apartheid.”
If we’re going to have productive discussions about diversity, even coded as “audience engagement,” we first need to stop pretending that there’s one discrete “theatre community” that’s all failing in the same way. We need to stop pretending that a lack of diversity in big budget theatre is a lack of diversity in “theatre,” as if people of color cannot create theatre unless a big, white theatre bends down to help them. We need to stop pretending that a lack of diversity in big budget theatre audiences is a lack of diversity in “theatre audiences,” as if young people of color have no theatre unless a big, white theatre creates a space for them. You can’t stop young people of color from making art. It’s happening everywhere, all the time. You can’t stop young people of color from consuming art. It’s happening everywhere, all the time.
The economic hardship and systemic racism suffered by African Americans were hardly the only subjects Wilson tackled. Seven Guitars deals with black manhood. In King Hedley II, set in the 1990s, actors, such as future Oscar nominee Viola Davis, powerfully brought women’s reproductive choice into an African American arena. Wilson also delved into the paranormal in The Piano Lesson and Gem of the Ocean. In that way, the playwright perhaps helped us see aspects of our lives even we tried to erase.
A vital question was raised at the event: what might the theatre landscape look like if it were more relaxed, not occasionally, but all the time? Last summer, a Theatre Charter was proposed, detailing expected behaviour for the benefit of occasional theatregoers: no rustling sweet wrappers, no mobile phones, definitely no eating McDonald’s. How much more inviting might theatres feel if they didn’t just reject the snobbery embedded in such a charter, but offered a different manifesto, in which it was clear that all people – whatever their backgrounds, ages, physical or mental abilities – were welcome to see any performance, any day they wanted, together?
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Playwright Chisa Hutchinson, who recently received a Dramatist Guild award for early career playwriting, has an interview on The Interval about the development of her work and the representation of women and non-white writing in the theatre:
Q: How do you think theater can better address race?
A: To give room to everyone. It’s hard for me to listen to people who literally cannot imagine the experiences of other people and therefore dismiss those experiences like, “No, of course that doesn’t happen. This is post-racial America.” Can we just make room for other experiences? Or just acknowledge that there are experiences different than yours?
Do white playwrights ever think about this? Do they worry about losing jobs for white actors? Do they question if they are writing about enough white issues? Are they expected to be the voice of all white people even when they are just speaking for themselves? Do they fear their play about a girl who wants to be a ballet dancer is responsible for the genocide of their race?
Personally, I know that my visibility has to be more than just about my own pursuits. When I walk into a space, I am cognizant of the fact that I am bringing communities of people with me, communities that have historically been exiled and silenced. The weight of that responsibility never lightens, even as I navigate uncharted terrain as a TV host. My show So POPular! explores the intersection of popular culture, representation, politics, identity and community. Though it doesn’t explicitly cover trans issues, it’s a space created and fronted by a trans woman of color, so the lens to which I explore topics on my show is that of a trans person, a black person, a woman of color. My goal is to take the focus away from myself as a subject, and instead be the person asking the questions, shaping the conversation.
I’ve seen folks juxtapose the recent media visibility of trans women of color and these recent murders. I’ve read sentences to the effect of: “At a time when trans women of color have visibility, we still see trans women murdered.” I find this logic to be quite basic.
Yes, trans women are being murdered. Yes, trans women of color have gained mainstream visibility. But trans women, particularly those of color, have always been targeted with violence. The differences now? There are some systems in place that better report violence and there is finally visibility of a select few that helps challenge the media’s framing of these women’s lives.
As for the role Oscars play in our lives? Aside from giving us an excuse to drink wine on a Sunday night and joke with our friends? I definitely agree with it seeping into our everyday lives, even if we don’t realize. We are aware of what movies/actors/directors win even if we don’t watch the ceremony. It’s impossible to ignore. But more importantly: Yes, representation is vital. You may not care about the Oscars or think it matters but when you’re a minority and someone who looks like you wins? That means something. That means everything — especially to this film nerd who was often surrounded by way too many white dudes in film classes. I’m reminded of the pilot episode of Black-ish when Andre is up for a promotion and narrates that, because there are so few black people at his company, when he wins and moves up the ladder, it’s like every black person at the company wins. When a woman or a person of color wins an Oscar, I feel like I’ve won, too.