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There is perhaps no other field than the arts that tries so incredibly hard to be socially justice minded, forward thinking, and inclusive, and within that field the theatrical profession is a stalwart of progressive politics. Yet the dramatic and performing art, is so tied in knots over its own inherent and systemic racism that theatre as we know it may not weather the storm of its own self-hatred. At all levels of theatre, an identitarian purity test rages on. The American theatre industry is eating itself.
The artists at the Flea Theatre in downtown Manhattan are trying to fire the artistic administration and lead fundraiser over claims of poor treatment of specifically black artists. While those initiating this action are sure it’s a noble cause, it is also likely to shutter the theatre. The white woman they are trying to remove is the one with the bulk of the fundraising connections, and The Flea is a not-for-profit theatre. The charges of racism were made in a google doc that was widely shared.
In a Medium story called “That Tall Blonde at the Callback — White Actors, We Need to Start Declining Roles”, Susan Tonkin, who I can only assume is a tall, blonde, white actress, advises: “White people, we have to start declining roles.”
Acting is not an easy profession in which to find success. It is gruelling to attend auditions only to get turned down for roles. It is exhausting to work survival jobs while pursuing an all consuming artistic passion. But for Tonkin, any white actor who thinks that a BIPOC (black, indigenous, person of colour) would be better suited to the role, should turn down the gig.
Recently a letter surfaced on social media addressed to the White American Theatre. It is signed by the most notable names in American theatre today, from Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Lynn Nottage (Ruined), David Henry Hwuang (M. Butterfly), Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), and so many others.
The letter says that “We have watched you un-challenge your white privilege, inviting us to traffic in the very racism and patriarchy that festers in our bodies, while we protest against it on your stages. We see you.”
This is happening at the highest levels, in our Broadway houses, on our grandest stages. It’s happening in our little downtown black box spaces, where artists get paid in comp tickets, costumes are often sourced from an actor’s own closet and the script is so new the ink is barely dry.
These letters and missives to the existing white theatre artistic staff and administrators posits that American theatre is built on white supremacy and injustice. It states that in its efforts to be anti-racist, the theatre has been even more racist. It claims that in its intention to be inclusive and diverse it has tokenized BIPOC and used them to gain funding, and to appear as though they were tackling racism and injustice seriously while actually not doing enough for those very people they are trying to help.
When these theatres were trying to tell stories that were in the realm of BIPOC experience, the artists relay, they were telling the wrong stories, providing the wrong narrative, and in doing so exploiting the actors they employed to play these roles. In trying to meet the expectations of social justice in theatre, theatres were so blind to their own inadequacies that they ended up being racist anyway.
Literally everyone, on every level of the theatrical arts is basically a leftist progressive who would rather crawl under a bed and rot there like Gregor Samsa than do something even a tiny bit racist. In theatre, there’s nothing worse than being racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or any other kind of prejudiced.
Everyone in theatre basically agrees that theatre is an industry that needs to do better, be better, do more, make more change, strive farther, work harder, and be the social justice warrior it wants to see in the world.
Even so, it can’t do it. And it really wants to do it. If theatre cannot achieve the standards demanded by the social justice mob, there is literally no industry that can. If theatre can’t do it, then publishing, journalism, fashion and all the rest have absolutely no hope of appeasement. There are two options, do not apologize, or fold.
Writing in Spectator US, Amber Athey talks about a few of those retail and media companies headed by the lately iconic “girlboss” that have shuttered their doors rather than address the systemic racism and white privilege accusations levied at them by employees.
This is basically what we could be looking at in theatre if those companies that have been actively trying to be anti-racist for a decade or more realize they can never be anti-racist enough and close down rather than do the work of confronting their whiteness.
According to the most well-known dramatists in the country and their counterparts across the smaller stages, the white people who had the resources due to systemic racism in the first place did a poor job of sharing those ill-gotten gains with their artistic brethren of colour despite various attempts to change.
What I’m saying is, if the theatre arts can’t be inclusive enough to satisfy the continued ask for greater and greater ideological purity, nothing can. Many of the trends we see in society now originated on campuses and in the arts, and moved into mainstream culture from there. Perhaps that is why it’s just so terrifying to see our American theatre fold in on itself like a dying star.