Equal Representation and Equal Treatment in the Theatre:
How They are Different and Why Both are Essential for a Healthy Work Environment in the Audition Room, Rehearsal Room, Backstage, and Onstage.
The fight for the equal treatment of Black Americans has been ongoing for centuries, but it flared up in recent weeks with numerous protests over wrongful deaths and police brutality, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in solidarity with every Black citizen who has ever been racially profiled, discriminated against, and been dealt a certain hand they will never have control over because it was established systemically, years before any of us were born.
It is only right that we use this time to further reflect upon racism in the entertainment industry and educate ourselves on how we can work toward true equality, not the "equality" we've settled on.
To understand what I mean by this, I need to define two phrases. Equal Representation and Equal Treatment.
Please note, these definitions apply to all people of color, however for this post I will be solely discussing how they apply to people who are black and those who are black presenting.
Equal Representation in the performing arts means that an audience member can watch a performance and see approximately the same number of black performers on stage (or in the tv show, film, concert, etc.) as there are white performers. Equal representation also pertains to having an even ratio of black people in other industry positions (designers, technicians, musicians, producers, etc.).
Equal treatment in the performing arts means that black performers and personnel are treated with the same respect, rights, benefits, payment, etc., as white performers and personnel. This includes in the audition room, in the rehearsal room, backstage, onstage, in the press, and beyond.
Now, Equal Representation has been a prominent topic in the industry in recent years. We are seeing more and more material depicting characters of color, which is wonderful. HOWEVER, the unfortunate truth is the industry is far from true EQUAL representation.
When we really look at the demographics on stage, there is still a significantly larger number of white performers compared to black performers. Too often, black performers are cast to be a token, filling a quota of "diversity" for the producing and creative teams. A 2017 study released by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) showed that only 18.6% of roles on Broadway and in non-profit theaters were filled by Black performers in the 2016-2017 season. And this doesn't even begin to touch on other facets of the industry, like regional theater, cruise lines, and amusement parks. This may be just an inference, but think about it: if the demographics in the performing arts in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States are that uneven, imagine what the rest of the country's stats may look like. (Hint: Not. Good.)
We as an industry also need to learn that representation in theater goes beyond just striving for equal numbers. It includes the types of material and roles available to people of color. Black performers are too often pigeon-holed into stories about slavery, about the history of their oppression, and stories about typical stereotypes (i.e. thugs, maids, the sassy best friend, etc). While narratives centered around the black experience are important to tell, black performers are capable and worthy of playing roles of a different dynamic and they need to express these stories as well.
There is a plethora of material out there with roles that are not race or ethnicity specific. I'm talking shows like Next to Normal, or even Wicked, where race has zero significance to the characters' stories and the overall premise of the musical. And yet, a large majority of the time, the roles in material like this go to white actors. This chalks up to the limited and racially biased visions of the playwrights and creative teams that are made up mostly of white people. According to the same study discussed previously, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) found that in the 2016-2017 theatre season 86.8% of playwrights were white while just 7.8% were black, and 87.1% of directors were white while only 6.1% were black.
While the AAPAC's report does not include demographics for producers, choreographers, composers, music directors, casting agencies, talent agencies, and many other industry personnel that would ultimately influence what theater audiences are accustomed to seeing on stage, the statistics are all the same imbalanced, further contributing to the minimal representation of black Americans in entertainment. If you're curious to know how the financial forces behind Broadway actually subsidize the racial disparity onstage, check out this article from Forbes.
Evident from statistics, it is undeniable that representation onstage is not equal. What is more difficult to uncover through statistics is the unequal treatment that black performers, directors, choreographers, stage managers, tech crew members, and so on, experience on the daily. It seems that every black member of the entertainment industry has stories of injustice.
My friend and Broadway performer, Salisha Thomas (Beautiful the Carole King Musical, Once Upon a One More Time), recently wrote a blog post entitled "Being Black on the Great White Way." In this post she chronicles numerous occasions where she was forced to "code-switch" at work. What does it mean to "code-switch" you ask? The dictionary definition is to alternate between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation. However, to black Americans, code-switching means to make one's self sound (and even look) more white, so as to appeal to white people. Truthfully, its more complicated than that, and if you'd like to read about it, check out this Yes Magazine essay here.
"My entire career has been based on being as white as possible while simultaneously still being black so that the people hiring me can fit their quota while also not feel threatened or uncomfortable."
This is the courageous first line of Salisha's blog post. She trudges on, reflecting on the many occasions when in auditions or rehearsals she was asked to be "more black" and play black stereotypes, everyday forced to ask herself what box she needs to fit into in order to succeed. "You guys, I'm so tired," she says.
I can't blame her for being so. Here is a performer I admire, my former classmate, and my friend. I know this woman and I've been aloof to her experiences as a black performer. Her normal that is not my normal, and as I continued to read her story, I saw the pained reality of so many of my friends and colleagues unveiled before me.
In a recent facebook post entitled "I Never Colored My Shoes," professional dancer NaTonia Monét Harrison (Tina the Tina Turner Musical, West Side Story) uncovers the hardships of being a black dancer in the industry. She mentions how companies never make an effort to hire hair and makeup teams that understand how to work with her curls, and how to match her foundation color. NaTonia includes that she often hears comments like "Wow, I didn't know you could dance like that," as if being a black dancer automatically signifies she performs with less-than great technique.
The anecdotes she goes on to include about further mistreatment by castmates, company managers, production team members, and theater companies are plenty too many. After each story of injustice, NaTonia writes, "I NEVER COLORED MY SHOES," rightfully taking jabs at dance shoe companies for failing to design shoes in her dark brown skin tone. If you weren't aware, it is a common practice for black dancers to color their shoes brown with paint or makeup to make sure their shoes complete the graceful lines of their legs. Black dancers are constantly taking on this extra expense and effort that their white counterparts have never had to make in order to appease a typical request of white instructors, choreographers, and producers. Most are forced to comply, or fear the loss of their job. NaTonia has never complied--instead taking a powerful stand against the unequal treatment.
Last month, my friend Marcus John (Hamilton, Rent, Mamma Mia!) joined The Growing Studio and Playbill in an Instagram live discussion on the topic of being the "token black person" in the industry. With tokenism, very few black performers are cast to represent their race as whole, but what might this communicate to performers of color? Let me remind you that performers are self-conscious by nature, and therefore tokenism drives black performers to further second-guess their talents, leaving them with feelings of inadequacy and defeat.
In the interview, Marcus makes the jarring point that he and his fellow black performers are pitted against each other when auditioning for shows, knowing there will likely be room for just one black performer ("the token") in any given piece. This causes a tension between black performers in a business that is already stressful and competitive. Instead of rooting one another on and becoming excited at the prospect that they could perhaps work together on a project, Marcus is forced to view his black friends as his competition--his rivals.
The resulting tension is unequal treatment in disguise. In this case, one could argue that there is no active mistreatment of black performers, however, they are left with a disadvantage that white performers need not ever worry about experiencing. Pitting black performers against each other is emotionally taxing on them. If I wasn't clear before, this industry is DIFFICULT. It is beneficial for performing artists to have support systems of friends and colleagues who are on their side. If black performers don't have each other, well, that leaves their force field of support extremely thin and vulnerable. And at that point, what becomes of their likelihood for achieving success on the theatrical stage?
If I tried to make a list of the instances of discrimination, inequity, and injustice, onstage and off, that my black friends and colleagues have shared just this June, it would seem inexhaustible. Racism in theatre is often subtle, showing up in the form of micro aggressions and biases people don't recognize they possess. Lack of knowledge leads to ignorant remarks in audition rooms, rehearsal rooms, backstage and onstage. Imagine the negative effects this has had on the theatre industry work environment, and most of us have been blind to it the whole time.
In a sort of mini interview, friend to friend, Salisha told me, "For many years, when I've experienced subtle jabs due to race, I always thought to myself that maybe it was me. That I was too sensitive and that I was just making it up. And now with this [Black Lives Matter] movement, I realize that, no. So much has run so deep in the veins of people. I wasn't making it up. I wasn't being too sensitive."
When I asked a few of my friends how they believe racial discrimination affects the theatre work environment, Salisha noted, "I have found that when I 'act black' as some people might say, when there are no black people around, I am not taken seriously." She then cited her father: "[White people] have all the jobs. You're trying to be part of it. If you don't give them what they want, you will not be a part of it."
When asked the same question, Marcus John stated, "Black people are almost always faced with some sort of discrimination that forces them to either assimilate and remove parts of their blackness in order to make others comfortable." He revealed that it is discriminatory micro aggressions--acts resulting from racial bias (including omission)--that tell black members of the theatre community "they are black or 'other' and [reminds them] that the theatre is not a place that is their own, but rather a place they are allowed to visit."
And how heartbreaking is that? There are members of our community who have never felt like they belong--who have had to fight harder to get here, just to have their humanity tossed aside, placed on the back-burner--an issue that white theatre community members have been made aware of but have refused to take action upon.
I also asked my friends to define what they think a "healthy work environment" in the theatre is. Marcus defined it to be, "one where everyone can be exactly who they are without fear of judgement or ridicule," adding, "because we have to bear our souls in this job."
And that's a fact. Vulnerability in theatre and the performing arts is pertinent to our ability to tell stories of truth. In order to truly succeed, all members of the community need to feel safe and seen. All members of the community need to be accepted for who they are.
Salisha's definition is equally compelling. "A healthy work environment for me consists of walking into work, having all the tools I need to succeed at the job, and trusting my coworkers. We don't have to be bestfriends. We don't have to hang out after the show. But while we are in the building and onstage especially, I need to know you've got my back and that I've got yours."
The unequal representation and treatment of black performers in theatre are evident issues for which we as an industry are responsible for finding solutions. I say "we" as an all-inclusive term here--white industry folk, POC industry folk, and producers all the way through to theatre educators. We all have a duty to help fix this.
In his interview with Nicole Johnson of The Growing Studio via Playbill, Marcus John says he believes the solution starts with education. He proposes that professionals like himself should use their prowess to lift up black youth who show an interest in pursuing theatre arts, and give them the confidence to know that they are talented and worthy of a career on the stage. He believes this will create a new and forceful generation of young black performers that the industry won't be able to deny.
And I agree. I do believe we can find major solutions starting not just with the impressionable minds of black youth, but those of children of all races. When children of color watch a story in which the hero looks like them, they know that they, too, can be the hero. Additionally, when white children see heroes of other races, they then know that people who don't look like them can also be heroes. This cultivates minds that know inclusivity and acceptance from an early age, and children will carry this knowledge with them as they grow and begin to make further impacts upon the world.
Educating the youth of today is an important step, but one that will take time to show positive effect. So what can we do right now? Well for one, finding people of color in theatre is slightly easier to do on stage than behind the scenes. A move toward equality would be an increase in the hiring of black creatives, black technicians, black designers, writers, casting directors, and so on. Many of the "roadblocks" we face on the journey to equality are the result of black artists and creators "lacking experience in positions of power and authority". Or perhaps its the white powers-that-be who hold a racial bias, lacking the desire to hire them in the first place.
The legendary playwright, August Wilson, once said:
We've been told theatre is a mirror reflecting the reality of the world back at audiences, but unfortunately that mirror has always been in a state of distortion. It is important that we mend the mirror--smooth it out, if you will--so that what we put forth on our stages may act as forces to help influence and shape the rest of society for the better.
Black lives matter. In the theatre, and everywhere else.
Now go forth, be healthy, break a leg, and be an advocate for equality.
Resources and volunteer opportunities to help you
become a better advocate for equality in the theatre:
Special thanks to Salisha Thomas, NaTonia Monét Harrison, and Marcus John for sharing their hearts, minds, and voices, and for allowing me to share them with my audience.