We’re listening. Black theatre artists tell us what needs to change.

Introduction by Marci J. Duncan |

Marci J. Duncan,
Director, BFA Acting Program,
University of West Florida;
Actor; Director; Professor

With the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, everyone is listening. Listening to the cries that have now turned into full-on screams of lamenting for Black lives to matter. Can you imagine, as a human being, asking another human being to simply treat you as though you matter? As theatre artists, we should know better. But, unfortunately, we are guilty. Guilty of closing our eyes and ears and looking the other way. It’s time to take inventory of your role in creating space for Black stories and artists. You are either a part of the problem or a part of the solution. Change happens with people. We are the people, we are the theatre, we are the change.

Are you prepared to be part of the change? I hope you will read on to learn what eight Black theatre artists shared when Southern Theatre asked the following question:

From your perspective, what needs to change in the theatre industry?

Michael J. Bobbitt

Artistic Director,
New Repertory Theatre,
Watertown, MA

My simple answer to the prompt is EVERYTHING. Returning to the old way of doing theatre (post-COVID-19) would be a failure of the American theatre industry and, frankly, I would be ashamed to be a part of it.

Equity, diversity, inclusion, access, anti-racism, dismantling white supremacy, anti-oppression or … whatever you want to call it, is an ACT OF LOVE. Showing love to groups of people who have NEVER been loved by this country. Never! Our industry claims to be loving, but is complicit in its exclusion. We, the American theatre, are a racist construct. If we don’t like this, we MUST become activists of change. Being an ally is not enough. Ally-ship is a way to absolve yourself from action.

While the number of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists getting work has grown, our business practices continue to perpetuate white supremacy in our operations, HR, finance, marketing, governance and boards (especially boards). We have not been creative (which is our job) in dismantling these parts of our business. It is not enough to make changes in programs and engagement initiatives but still perpetuate white supremacy business models. It is the very reason why we have barely diversified our base of patronage, donors, loyalty programs, etc.

If you accept that racism is a system, structure and institution, then you have to dismantle every system, structure, practice, policy and trend in our theatres with an anti-racist lens. Policies that are not anti-racist – are racist. Period.

This is a big job. The people who made the rules and created racism have the power to change the rules and eradicate racism. Humans have put people on the moon, so I have hope. It is white American theatre’s job to eradicate racism in our spaces. Use your creativity. I have hope. For the moment.

Bernita Robinson

Actors’ Equity Association
Stage Manager;
Member of AEA Governing Board

The one change I believe needs to happen is an increase in Black directors and producers in all theatre venues. This will in turn, hopefully, increase the hiring of Black stage managers. Too often, Black stage managers are hired to fill a quota, to keep the community quiet, or to keep a balance backstage if there is a large Black cast. When we are not hired, it is either because they “aren’t doing a black show, “ or “don’t know any stage managers of color,” or we do not have “enough experience.”

As a Black stage manager, at times, I have had to be better than my white counterparts to be considered “better than nothing.” We are asked to have a better work ethic and do so without ruffling too many feathers for fear of not being hired again, or risk being fired on the spot.

My hope is that with an increase in Black producers, there will be an increase in Black directors who hire Black stage managers. This would also mean Black directors would need to trust that Black stage managers are just as good as white stage managers.

Christina Ham

TV Writer

As a playwright, what needs to change, in my opinion, is that Black theatre needs to be funded better.

August Wilson delivered this call to action in his 1996 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) address, “The Ground on Which I Stand.” In this address, he iterated that “Black theatre in America is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital … it just isn’t funded.”
Sadly, since Mr. Wilson made this statement, things have not changed very much regarding their support. During the years from 1961 to 1982, 600 new African American theatres were established across the nation. A big part of this was a byproduct of President Johnson’s War on Poverty programming. Today, there are only a handful of these theatres left.

As the Black Lives Matter movement is permeating our streets and also some of the institutions inside our communities, it becomes important that if indeed Black Lives do matter – then so must our stories. We need a platform where those stories can be presented and thereby provide a training ground for a new generation of Black theatre artists.

As W.E.B. Du Bois affirmed, “theatre by us, for us, near us, about us” is even more important now than ever before as African Americans look for ways to heal during this seismic time along with their other theatre peers. As we come out of this period, renewed monetary support for Black theatre spaces is critical for American theatre to be its fullest.

General McArthur Hambrick

Associate Professor,
School of Theatre and Dance,
West Virginia University

In this time of protests and rhetoric, I have become more aware of hidden biases in race relations and their complexities. An article I read recently noted that the number of African American Pulitzer Prize-winning authors is not represented in the amount of productions on Broadway or in theatres around the country. I often wonder about the process in which new literary projects, including plays and musicals, are considered for production and how that process possibly evokes an unintentional racial bias.

Several years ago, appearing as a guest artist with New Ballet Ensemble and the Memphis Symphony, I engaged in an enlightening conversation with a violinist. I had always been curious about their audition process. She explained that musicians are selected blindly, meaning they play behind a screen or some other opaque divider so there is no chance of being unfairly judged by their physical appearance. That is what I would hope for in the theatre and the dance world. Certainly, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to shield a person in a dance or theatrical audition because the visual is such a huge part of our world. However, if those persons in authority – or, as I like to say, “behind the table” – measured their biases when making their decisions, it might curb the propensity to worry about taking chances financially on something new or out of the ordinary and challenge what is safe. In this period of great uncertainty and confusion, it is the time for everyone in the arts, especially those in power, to take a step forward and rethink what has been the norm in order to establish a new normal.

Charence Higgins

MFA Candidate in Acting,
University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign

“The hypothesis that the needs of Black female characters would be ignored more than that of white female characters is upheld.” This is one of the findings of Dr. Sherna Ann Phillips, who conducted a study examining how often requests made by Black women were acknowledged and acted upon in plays. If art reflects life, what does this say about our voices beyond the script?

By producing one Black show per season (if that), theatres are presenting a monolith of the Black experience, thus tokenizing us and limiting their ability to impact their audiences. Tell our stories in totality. This Black actor is exhausted from repeatedly telling Black stories steeped in trauma. Produce shows that bask in Black joy. Don’t know these shows? Commission work from Black playwrights.

The quest for anti-racism in the theatre is personal. My intentionally unusual name (pronounced Shuh-rans, rhymes with dance) embodies the sacrifice and beauty of those before me. Yet, on too many stages, my name has been pronounced incorrectly. Honor our families. Honor our work. Honor our ancestors. Honor our names by saying them as intended. If you are unsure, ask. Don’t guess. I have been blessed to win awards from brilliant organizations, yet have been carelessly insulted while accepting them. Don’t wait to #SayTheirNames when we’re killed unjustly, say the names of the living now, on your stages, correctly.

Acknowledge these requests. Create and execute a plan of action. Statements of support are the bare minimum.

Herb Parker

Department of Theatre and Dance,
East Tennessee State University

We have come a long way since Actors’ Equity Association’s initiation of the Non-Traditional Casting Project in the 1970s. A welcome example of this is African American actress S. Epatha Merkerson’s portrayal of Lola in an otherwise all-white production of Come Back, Little Sheba on Broadway in 2008.

As we applaud this breakthrough, I ask that our casting be ever mindful not only of the color of the actor, but of the implicit culture that actor’s color brings to a production. I don’t mean accommodation by rewriting the script or changing words – I simply ask that we celebrate every aspect of what is brought to the stage when a role not previously thought of as Black is actually played by a person who is Black.

For instance, Shakespeare has rightly been the easiest and most seamless example of this casting. While speaking the text no matter what one’s race is vital in Shakespeare, let us take care that the casting search does not result in “Black Anglo-Saxons.” Hamilton has demonstrated wonderfully how an evening of theatre can be enriched by the celebration of performers of color, fully themselves in song, sound, movement, pace and rhythm, as well as 18th century costume.

Our new day of casting opportunities has presented us with the chance, finally, to truly be ourselves, which enriches every production in which we appear. This is why, for directors willing to take a chance and for actors of color ready to tell the world who they are, instead of the term “color-blind casting,” I like to say, “color-INCLUSIVE casting.”

Elizabeth Watkins

Theatre Arts Teacher,
Richland One School District (SC); Playwright; Director

As a Black K-12 teacher and theatre practitioner, I have watched and maneuvered through the world of the theatre industry and found little to no support for BIPOC children in the arts world. There is already a socioeconomic disadvantage that isolates the children’s dream of achievement in America and an even larger one in the theatre industry.

The three points that can change the narrative are:

  1. To hire more BIPOC playwrights, directors and actors in major roles and within the organization’s season.
  2. For colleges and universities to reach out to local schools that do not have a program (preferably in a rural or a low-income area) to engage them with workshops and free summer programming and provide them with performances and scholarships that will give them the same experience as schools they otherwise could not afford to attend for productions and training.
  3. Have a better play selection that represents BIPOC.

Providing the above allows BIPOC students a chance to develop their love for theatre. Theatre is life. Keep the connections open with low-income schools. Keep their hopes and dreams alive. Feed that fire for creativity within their souls so that they know that, even though the world is not welcoming, they always have a place to breathe, and to be creative and free. Reinforce that they are just as magical and creative as their non-BIPOC counterparts.

Theatre is the mother of creativity; it is time you embrace ALL of your children.

Steven H. Butler

Executive Director,
Florida Theatre Conference, Inc.;
Artistic Director, Actors’ Warehouse

We are feeling a social tectonic plate shift. It is time to decolonize and diversify the performing arts. Most people in the performing arts are shackled and dominated by a colonized psyche and that is part of the reason we are feeling this shift.

History 101: The United States of America was colonized by England. One day the disenchanted subjects awoke to
the realization they were void of a symbiotic relationship. America has been liberated from the Western world but remains to be colonized in mind. It remains enamored with the Eurocentric views and practices by which various institutions operate. These views and practices are not sympathetic towards nor created for BIPOC.

A Call to Action: Decolonize and diversify our performing arts, our classrooms and our dance studios. The artists at Momentum Stage want us to realize: “Decolonizing does not simply mean adding in a text by a person of color. Decolonizing your classroom is a systematic approach to not only WHAT and WHO you teach, but also HOW you teach AND assess. It means acknowledging the systems of oppression and dominance that exist in our societies, organizations and classrooms, and working to dismantle them in order to make our world more just and equitable.”

BIPOC artists desire to see themselves represented, and to know there are opportunities. Therefore, instructors and directors should be encouraged and challenged to assess their programs with a mission towards equity.

This article originally appeared in Southern Theatre, The Magazine of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, Volume LXI Number 3, Summer 2020


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