January 31, 2010

diversity and theatre: I'M RIGHT HERE!!!

In response to a post on Tony's blog that asks about what counts as Black theatre, I wrote:

Who is the "we" you're talking about? Certainly not my Black self.

From how I look at it, you're approaching it from the wrong angle. Like a lot of White people, you seem to think diversity is something White people do for people of color rather than simply the reality we live in. This article gives additional reasons why that perspective is problematic.

It's easy to shift the blame to audiences - "those uptight old White folks" - instead of looking at what you (as in your group or organization and your network) have to offer us that we can't get on our own (I touched on this over on my blog). If your website talks about encouraging diversity, producing innovative new works and supporting emerging artists but only show White faces, are you really surprised that Black theatre artists aren't banging on your door? If you talk about how much wanting more Black plays, and you're not looking for us, are you really surprised that you don't find us? When the only time you're interested in who we are and what we say is when you feel bad about being so White, are you surprised when we take a pass?

Really, do y'all think Black people are stupid?

Seriously, none of this is new. Know how I can tell? Because the same fucking questions crop up in every other industry experiencing Caucasian overload, every other lily-white neighborhood, every other White-dominated area that struggles with diversity. The White people involved in the discussion are bringing the same assumptions and making the same mistakes. Here are some right off the top of my head:

  1. Treating diversity as a service White people do for people of color
  2. Focusing more on changing programming than distributing resources
  3. Working from the assumption that White people should lead the process
  4. Keeping real power concentrated in the hands of White people
  5. Trying to create new strategies (generally devised by White people) and methods whole-cloth instead of looking at methods and strategies already in place by people of color
To put it succinctly, I can feel this conversation soon becoming an attempt by White theatre artists and administrators to seem more inclusive instead of changing the way things are done so that they are more inclusive. Said bluntly, it's more about not looking racist than not being racist. Frankly, I have better things to do with my time and brain cells than think of up ways to coddle that nonsense.

You want to change things? It's pretty simple. Put up or shut up. Seek us out. Figure out what we're doing. Help us do it. It's not like we're not out here. I've lived in Brooklyn for a year and a half. You tired of monochromatic theatre? You looking for new voices from people of color? I'M RIGHT HERE! Where the fuck you at?


  1. "Said bluntly, it's more about not looking racist than not being racist."

    You just summed it up right there.

  2. Very much agreed.

    What I would put forward, however: I think your solution - which I'm reading as to seek you and other minority artists out and give you resources and decision-making power - is inviting the same kind of non-starter racist response to the problem that we have now.

    What we need, I'd argue, is for minority artists to build their own infrastructures and actively seek to control and program existing infrastructures, and actively and specifically (not generally, as we do to no effect) question processes that favor the perspectives of power-holders: rampant nepotism in hiring processes, the selection process of board members, artistic directors and general managers. Change JUST THOSE TWO THINGS even a little bit, and suddenly the perspectives that get funding improve across the board.

    You're right: You don't need anyone to say "hey, you're black. Will you legitimize my diversity policy by doing a play at my theatre?" You need someone to say "Oh. You're qualified. Why don't you take this wheel and make your own decisions."

    If you really want to talk about put up or shut up, we're talking about the business and cash flow of theaters, and you as the artist or artistic administrator must be and prove your qualifications as a first step: your ability to generate an audience, capitalize on that audience, and keep that audience coming back because of your artistic integrity. That's the sticking point. I have seen a greater majority of minority-led companies having bologna, dysfunctional business practices because the business sides of their operations get propped up by these disingenuous Daddy Warbucks-type relationships with large white theaters that try to connect them with the white guilt of primarily white audiences. What seems to work MUCH better is when minority-led organizations (or any organization, for that matter) just connects with an audience of its own design and tries to lead, serve, and challenge that audience.

    That's one argument FOR mostly white organizations to bring in minority artists - it challenges what we know to be nascent racism within our mostly white wealthy audiences, which we're measuring from the wild comments in our audience feedback forms ('no more politically correct plays, please' for one example is a line I've heard).

    However, that's a need for white wealthy audiences. It doesn't address the needs of other audiences, and that's the whole problem - NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE ARE DOING THAT FOR THEM.

    So I think there's room for more organizations that really serve different audiences and connect them with theater / performance / art in general. And you get to build what that organization looks like, and I'd suggest you find a group of collaborators that get what you're trying to do and share your dreams, and will build it with you. EVERY ARTIST, no matter what color, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation could be working towards the same goals in that case:

    1) Build an audience
    2) Do great work for that audience
    3) Challenge and listen to your audience's responses.
    4) Rinse and repeat to make your audience and your work better.

    Don't fall into the trap of waiting for other people to do those four steps for you, and continue to call bullshit if others offer you to offer you a shortcut.

    That, I think, is what put up or shut up means.