In 1980, Ralph Pena and his friends were young activists, doing political theater on the streets of Manila to protest the corruption and violence of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Pena’s university theater troupe, Bodabil (“vaudeville,” later renamed Peryante, or “carnival worker”), created props and costumes out of whatever objects they could find, and from police hid their faces with masks they could throw away. With song, mime, and imagery that ranged from the nightmarish to the mythological, they created vivid dystopian satire that gave audiences new tools to understand the country’s increasingly hellish martial law landscape of poverty and censorship.
The war won’t be won until the cycle of playing mostly White stories to mostly wealthy, White audiences is broken.
“The stakes were high,” Pena said. “Artists were getting arrested, and some friends were killed. I saw firsthand how theater can move people to action and provide critical frameworks for a community grappling with its oppressions.”
Fast-forward almost 40 years, and Pena is founder and leader of the award-winning Ma-Yi Theater Company and writers’ lab, bringing Filipino and other Asian and Asian American stories to New York audiences. Working with Filipino cultural institutions and traveling back and forth to Manila, Pena and his collaborators aim for a global standard of storytelling that is fresh, raw, and well-suited to the chaotic political climate here and now.
In the wake of the multicultural, layered storytelling and the huge popularity of the recent Tony Award-winning Hamilton, waves of conversation about race are engulfing the theater community. From directors’ “color-conscious” casting in canonical works to researchers counting the performers and playwrights of color, both on and off Broadway, institutions and professionals across the industry are grappling with the long-neglected fact that even in the most diverse capitals of the theater world, most of the stories being told onstage are still about an imaginary America that is blindingly, uncomfortably White.
Activists like Pena are among the vanguard of people who know that representation onstage—or in the velvet seats facing it—is far from a new conversation. For decades, culturally specific companies like his have met audiences and critics more than halfway.
Pena has been around long enough to celebrate numerous spikes of diversity on Broadway, but he and other advocates for stories of color caution against declaring victory too soon: The war won’t be won until the cycle of playing mostly White stories to mostly wealthy, White audiences is broken.
“A necessary first step is to acknowledge the bias itself, something anathema to any arts organization, since by default our field wears its liberal bona fides with pride,” Pena said. “But it’s there.”
When dancer and choreographer Karla Garcia joined Hamilton as its first Filipina cast member this spring, it was a dream come true for many reasons; unlike so many discouraging audition sessions she had been to before, this one actually had numerous roles for people of color at the end of it.
Garcia remembers another crest in the diversity wave that coincided with her Broadway debut a decade ago, in the multicultural ensemble of Hot Feet. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s earlier musical In the Heights and West Side Story, which often features a large, multiethnic cast, were both on Broadway around that time. “‘Ethnic’ was in,” she said. “As a young Asian American, I was rather spoiled, landing spots in productions that actually had a lot of diversity in them.”
Young people and people of color feel unwelcome.
Both onstage and behind the scenes, the recent visibility of people of color may be a slowly increasing trend, but it is also a recurring statistical anomaly. According to “The Count,” an annual Dramatists Guild and Lilly Awards survey of regional theaters in the United States, from 2011 to 2014, out of 1,486 authors, only 10.2 percent were people of color.
A report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition for 2014-2015 said 78 percent of performers on Broadway and at the nation’s 16 largest nonprofit regional theaters were White; African American actors made up the next largest share, at 14 percent.
A third of roles on New York City stages were filled by non-Caucasian actors, and Asian Americans saw the largest boost, to 9 percent—but those numbers often jump because of one or two specific shows. This time, it was Lincoln Center’s production of The King and I that made up half of the statistical spike by itself, using 62 Asian actors (including understudies and replacements)—a little more than half of all Asian actors employed there that season.
Mike Lew, one of Ma-Yi’s writers in residence, calls those shows “fantastical outliers,” and is quick to point out that they can tell a very deceptive story.
Many also perpetuate outdated, myopic White views of what people of color experience, he said.
Lew’s new play, Tiger Style!, is his first work in 10 years that deals with his Chinese heritage, but as a student writer, he was frequently nudged in veiled, awkward terms to write about his family, immigration stories from two generations back that he didn’t have access to, physically or emotionally.
“There’s this really wide range artistically of what [playwrights of color] are trying to achieve with our work, whether it’s culturally specific or not, but when you get into the larger theaters that don’t have a very diverse group of people picking projects, there’s a sort of narrative winnowing—they’re looking for stories that fit their preconceptions about a culture,” Lew said.
Ultimately, that lack of representation cements the artificially sanitized and formal experience of going to the theater, and compounds the art form’s hospitality problem, Lew said: Young people and people of color feel unwelcome. That’s what’s causing regional theater audiences to remain a sea of steadily graying hair and White skin—not administrators’ widespread but erroneous assumption that audiences of color don’t have money to spend on tickets, he said.
Meanwhile, re-interpreting “the classics” comes with hazards of its own.
For older works with impossible-to-avoid racial overtones, the heavily trod ground of dependable workhorses and cash-cow audience favorites is fast becoming a dangerous cultural minefield. One such show, The Mikado, a heavily stereotyped Gilbert and Sullivan operetta set in imperial Japan, has stirred growing controversy over the past few decades, which has now come to a head, forcing companies that want to stage the duo’s most frequently mounted show to reconsider its complex racial implications.
“White people find it difficult to hear about race and racism from people of color.”
In July 2014, the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of The Mikado opened at the Seattle Repertory Theater with an almost all-Caucasian cast (with two Latino performers), and within 48 hours, a national controversy had begun. Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang praised the show’s “biting satire,” calling it “quite possibly Gilbert & Sullivan’s greatest work,” but concluded that staging it with an all-White cast who wore their Asian characters like outlandish costumes (as it had traditionally been staged for over a century) was offensive.
In 2015, New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players experienced its own rude awakening. The company had drawn 30 percent of its gross revenue from The Mikado for 42 years, so even after watching other productions draw ire, leaders added it to the season as usual, thinking it would continue to play—the show was then pulled before opening and replaced with The Pirates of Penzance. But critical feedback from the community had already started to flood in, reframing the issue for the company completely, Executive Director David Wannen said.
“This was the first real indication to us that this had grown to the extent it had—and that the Asian American community had started to speak with a voice saying that this was not OK,” Wannen said.
Collaborating with advisors from the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University and other Asian American cultural groups in the city, the company began an intensive dialogue that would lead to a new unpacking of the work’s cultural and satirical themes.
According to various scholars, the author’s original intent was to use exotic whimsy to reflect Victorian British culture back to itself, holding a heavily skewed Japanese mirror up to the audience, so as to avoid directly threatening what scholars now call “White fragility.”
That vulnerable phrase, coined in 2011 by critical theoretician and cultural competency consultant Robin DiAngelo, has since made its way from the academic world into the limelight.
Culturally, theater is stuck in a White (cisgendered, heteronormative, able-bodied) framework because that default perspective—one of Whiteness being neutral and the baseline for all our shared stories— is pervasive across all aspects of our culture, DiAngelo said.
“So often, when we think of race or racial education, [my clients] think, We’re going to learn about ‘Them,’ learn about other groups,” DiAngelo said. “What’s left unexamined is Whiteness—who is viewing ‘Them’—that we need to actually look at ourselves.”
“White people find it difficult to hear about race and racism from people of color,” DiAngelo said. “At the same time, we think, Only bad people could be racist. We’re taught that racism occurs only rarely, and consists of individual acts of meanness perpetrated by people who are aware that they’re doing so—people who hold conscious dislike for people of color—which then excludes virtually every well-meaning, progressive White person from the conversation.”
As a result, teaching artists and administrators to detect and dissect institutional racism can sometimes get interesting—especially since DiAngelo is White.
“Do you ask that same question of the middle-aged white man that you’ve been hiring for years and years and years?”
When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sought DiAngelo’s help about a year ago, staff had been working with a consultant of color—cultural awareness activist and Yale School of Drama lecturer Carmen Morgan—for eight years.
Morgan lauds the festival’s proactive approach, and likens the comparative ease of doing diversity work in the arts sector to coasting down a hill—but said that in general regional theaters are reluctant to use phrases like “predominantly White.”
Meanwhile, culturally specific theaters of every ethnicity (like Ma-Yi) have been doing theater as activism for decades, and receive little of the recognition they deserve for having brought the dialogue to its current point—while large, Whiter companies are congratulated for addressing the problem at all, Morgan said.
“For some folks, this is a new conversation, but other folks have been waiting for decades—even for crayons to be the right color, for Band-Aids!” she said. “You think this is new for us? This is our lives.”
“Most theaters in America are where we were 10 years ago, if they’re there,” said Mica Cole, OSF repertory producer. “I have higher expectations when we’re talking about large regional theaters, especially ones in an urban setting. Part of the reason those theaters should take up the mantle is, they have the resources—the visibility, the prestige to attract top talent. They should really model the movement.”
One of OSF’s recent young collaborators, Lavina Jadhwani, a Chicago-based director, founded the Diverse Directors Database this year. It’s an online resource that producers and artistic directors can use to find and hire directors of color who could provide authentic and specific cultural perspective—instead of continuing the charade that there aren’t any to be found, she said.
Jadhwani is also among the growing number of artists who advocate “color-conscious” casting—casting roles in ways that work the actors’ physical differences into their characters’ onstage relationships—rather than clinging to notions of “color-blindness,” which she considers outdated.
She believes in reinterpreting canonical works to tell more culturally nuanced stories, but recommends editing them to make more sense to the ears of postmodern audiences. She found herself changing the word “niggardly” to “miserly,” to avoid tripping emotional switches in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, and though The Merchant of Venice was written as a comedy, she said, in a post-Holocaust society, it shouldn’t be staged as funny anymore.
Major theater companies should make middle-aged White directors go find culturally relevant work, not ask culturally specific directors to shoehorn their way into the token diversity spot in an otherwise predominantly White season, Jadhwani said.
She is sick of talking to artistic directors who are “waiting for me to bring them that perfect project that speaks to an underrepresented community, that sweet spot of accessibility and inexpensive to produce,” she said. “Do you ask that same question of the middle-aged White man that you’ve been hiring for years and years?”
When administrators make the effort to root out nepotism and skip their old favorites, the result is new growth where only stagnation existed before, she said.
At one Chicago company where Jadhwani has worked, Silk Road Rising, one-fourth of its audiences have never been to a theater before, she said.
“With that money, the same people might go to a concert, or other entertainment,” she said “If this is the first time you’ve done a South Asian play in 10 years, I might come once, but I’m not going to subscribe, because I’m not going to wait another 10 years until you speak to me again. It’s signaling that we value your attendance. Once we make the value of that clear, I think that makes a huge difference.”