Blackness in Nonprofit Theater: Where Representation Becomes Marginalization

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This inaugural piece is part of the ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project created to spotlight millennials’ voices and thoughts on diversity and justice. We urge you to read how this project came together in a collaboration between NPQ and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and the ideology behind this series. We intend to publish another 23 pieces in the upcoming months. Readers will be able to subscribe to an RSS feed to follow articles as they are published approximately every two weeks. NPQ and YNPN will also be using the hashtag #EDISeries, so post about the series along with us.

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As a black male growing up in the South, my very presence was a form of trespass; that is, I was never sure where I belonged and where I did not. At home, I was alone. At school, I was different. On the street, I was unsafe. Professional theater, I discovered, was no exception: looking at the administration, production teams, and show selections of theaters within visiting distance, I found no reflections of the black community. What I did find were three very troubling practices: slotting, tokenism, and dehumanization.

At the time, I was attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The mentors and professors there did what they could to prepare me for the professional world, but what they could not prepare me for were the challenges ahead as an aspiring stage manager trying to break into the whitewashed field that is professional theater. I managed to land a job in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre box office; but despite the position, it wasn’t until I witnessed the Rep’s extensive effort to reach out to a black audience with their production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun that I found a temporary sense of belonging. They did it all—a speaker series symposium, talkbacks, outreach to a number of local colleges and universities, including a historically black college and university (HBCU)—but why was the black patronage only temporary? Why was it still a challenge to get black bodies in seats until the next season’s production of The Wiz? Why was the effort visible but not sustainable? Because it continued to perpetuate a practice that is dangerously popular throughout the nonprofit theater sector: The single show in those two seasons that featured work by black bodies took place both around and in February.

Black History Month has become the slot of choice in the nonprofit theater world for “the black show.” I call this a dangerous practice because it suggests a finite time period during which black stories, voices, and bodies may exist onstage and in the audience. Do theaters do this on purpose? Perhaps not. It is more likely that this is one of the many “unthought” acts that continue to marginalize the black community.1 While this is a major issue, it is, however, merely one cog in the machine of tokenism that manufactures the disproportional reflection of blackness in theater. If we dig only a fraction of an inch deeper, we begin to uncover several issues in the execution of black productions as well as the casting of black bodies.

Tokenism is a term commonly used in the workplace. It describes a minimal effort to hire a single employee of an underrepresented minority to create a perception of inclusion. However, we also see it in our everyday lives among our circles of friends. You’ve all heard of it: the token black friend. This practice is not lost in the theater world. In fact, it is out in the open, onstage, for everyone to see. Have you ever gone to see a show by your local repertory theater and taken note of that one black actor onstage? That single performer is often the nonprofit theater’s idea of inclusion—and not just by show but also by season. More troubling is that the lone black cast member is usually male. Black women are often cast only when the script calls for them or to fill promiscuous and degenerate roles. Such casting supports the stereotype that black women are sexmongering, obedient objects, all while fulfilling the negrophilic appetite for black fetishism in concert with oversexualization—for example, auditioning a black actor who has the talent to play Rosalind, the witty, courageous leading lady of the court from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, whom the audience is made to feel deserves love, and casting her instead as Phebe, the entitled, arrogant, shepherdess who is criticized for having too many lovers. Rosalind stays white.

The excuses for these casting disparities tend to be along the lines of, “Well, no African Americans audition.” This rationalization is a diversion created by switching up cause and effect. It is every actor’s job to audition. To believe that black actors are arbitrarily not willing to audition is preposterous. The fact is that any time an audition rolls around, black performers are under the educated understanding that they are all vying for one single spot—that is, unless the theater is producing a show that features more than one black character.

When a theater company decides it is going to produce a show that features multiple black roles, we then fall into the issue of the previously mentioned slotting. Slotting is a simple concept. When a theater produces an annual, multishow season, certain date ranges become slots during which the same kind of production is presented in each cycle. There is, among others, the “holiday slot,” for Christmas or family shows; the “musical slot”; the “Shakespeare slot”; and the imprudently coined “ethnic slot.” The ethnic slot is where a theater’s production is placed when it is outside the norm—that is, nonwhite—and is therefore “unfamiliar.” This was the key issue that inspired me to dig deeper into the approaches taken toward black work specifically.

The League of Resident Theatres (LORT) website lists seventy-one member theaters.2 Of these seventy-one theaters, there have been so far only thirty-four producing plays or musicals during the 2015/2016 seasons that feature multiple black roles or that are black written. Of those thirty-four companies, twenty-four of them have slotted their black shows in or immediately following February/Black History Month.3 As I mention earlier, this is a harmful practice because of the limitations that are placed on the visibility of black work. When our work is given a platform only during this specific time of year in higher-level producing houses, it becomes discouraging to the artists who create it. Much like the black actors who are fighting to get the single token spot in the casts, the artists who create black theater are also confined to one slot.

So what about the growing trend of “colorblind” or “nontraditional” casting? These are comparable to tokenism—often with the same execution, and leading to the same results (but with more inclusive-sounding buzzwords thrown in). When I bring this up I’m usually met with an argument, such as, “But there are more black actors onstage now than there were in the ’50’s and ’60’s.” True statement or not, settling with where we are is not the end result we should be willing to accept. I’m not about to shake every white casting director’s hand simply for casting a black person in one of their shows. I’m not going to be satisfied that we have more black actors performing now than we did during the first Jim Crow era. Nor should anyone be willing to celebrate such truly inadequate results.

The terms themselves, colorblind and nontraditional, are inherently aggressive and inappropriate. To be colorblind is to willingly erase a person’s blackness. When black actors are cast in a selection process claiming to be colorblind, the directors have tacitly agreed that these performers’ life experience, blackness, and (lack of) identity are meaningless. Those directors have now cast a black person because they have convinced themselves that it’s less oppressive to pretend the black actor is not black. Really? To be colorblind is to strip away color and force a black person into a set of white ideals.

The issue of nontraditional casting is no less complex. Consider the meaning of nontraditional and try to define nontraditional casting for yourself. You may jump straight to the conclusion that the practice involves casting people in roles for which they would not otherwise be considered. Now think about the roles for which black actors are usually not considered, such as historical figures known to be white (though Hamilton tried), nonblack characters of color, and white characters from black-written shows like Appropriate, A Lesson Before Dying, and A Raisin in the Sun. Arguing that black actors should be cast in roles other than those that are specified to be black is not analogous to arguing that black actors should be cast in roles that are specified to be nonblack.

But other than those roles that are specifically identified as a certain race, there are many roles that traditionally are unnecessarily exclusively white, and just about any show, barring those that specifically reference the race of a character, can be inclusively cast. If a character is not textually referenced to be white, or is not historically so, what pieces of information remain that require us to determine him or her as white? Having a family? We can do that. Money? We can get that. British? We can live in England. Theater is meant to be a reflection of life, so why should we not allow it to reflect the many varying black lives as well? I’m a fan of just about any black experience play—Topdog/Underdog, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, In the Blood—and I’d be just as happy to sit down and watch a black-performed God of Carnage, Waiting for Godot, or Proof. Furthermore, when casting black actors in nonspecific roles, it is not at all necessary to reimagine or reconceptualize the production by placing it in the inner city or adding what a middle-aged white male thinks of as a “Hip-Hop influence,” in order to “excuse” the decision to have black bodies present onstage. We don’t all walk around with a bassline underscoring our every action; there is no reality to that, so do not try to insert it for us.

Another act of aggression that is intertwined with nontraditional/colorblind casting is that of dehumanization. We see this when black performers are cast in roles that depict them as objects of violence or servitude, and thus perpetuate the stereotypes prescribed to blacks as threatening or subservient. For example, it is problematic to cast black actors only to satisfy a show’s need for servants, service workers, or Jezebel characters. Some productions will do this and still have the audacity to call it colorblind casting. This is, of course, without acknowledging that these casting decisions were made as soon as black bodies walked into the audition room. For that matter, to cast black people only as slaves, animals, or beasts is equally problematic. The black community is dehumanized on a daily basis. Taking a member of a community that is already dehumanized—that is, rendered a nonbeing—and casting him or her as a nonbeing continues to reinforce negative stereotypes associated with the black body. We claim that slaves were “freed” in the 1860s, but there is continued ill use of this historical ambiguity that has encouraged the enslavement of blacks in the theater more than one hundred and fifty years later.

An example of dehumanization that we see often is the casting of black actors as Titania and Oberon in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Midsummer world is divided by that of the court and the pastoral; the court is the world of the humans/civilization and the pastoral is the world of the fairies/wilderness. The lovers we find in the court are often white actors with whom the audience is invited to sympathize as they frantically try to figure out whom to love after being tricked by a mysterious presence. Meanwhile, the black actors are playing the nonbeings that are causing mischief for the white beings. In addition, casting black people specifically in roles that equip them with magic and mysticism is yet another manifestation of problematic black perception similar to dehumanization: superhumanization. A study done at Northwestern University shows that blacks are commonly associated as being bigger, stronger, and even supernatural in comparison to whites.4 This is the same issue that has manifested in incidents such as the recent murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; the repeated exclusive casting of the “magic negro” reinforces the current societal view that blacks have a higher threshold for physical harm.5

Where, aside from LORT member theaters, are these problematic practices in effect? The truth is that just about any nonprofit theater that doesn’t focus solely on pursuing inclusion correctly can be found guilty of any of these tokenistic approaches. And a major concern should be the fact that these practices are being reflected in the university setting, in training for theater. Tokenism, dehumanization, and slotting are just as present in our educational training facilities as they are in the professional world. If we are going to teach young professionals that this is the way a theater season should be structured and managed, how can we expect there to be a shift in the culture moving forward? We need to make an effort in our training facilities to practice true inclusion and equity in the theater, so that when the next generation of young professionals moves into decision- and policy-making positions within the professional sector, we won’t continue to traditionalize marginalization. We have no reason in the educational setting to continue using race as a casting requirement. No theater professor will be granted a Tony nomination for a wonderful production of an all-white Once Upon a Mattress at the university level, and no theater professor is going to lose a Tony nomination for casting a multicultural one. Educational institutions should be used for education and allow any actor to play any role that isn’t specifically identified. If we start there, we could start to see a change in nonprofit theaters over the next twenty years.

But we want a shift now. So it is also up to today’s nonprofit theaters to start fighting for it. Stop slotting, and stop allowing inherent racial bias to limit the potential of your organizations. Don’t focus on the poisonous practices of colorblindness and nontraditional casting, and instead focus on inclusion. Don’t say that you are trying to open your doors to us while considering us “nontraditional.” If you want equity, diversity, and inclusion, make these available to your artists. And stop lying to yourself and saying that you won’t be able to cast more than one black person or more than one black show in your season because there aren’t enough black actors auditioning, or some other senseless rationale. That kind of language only deters the professionals in your area who could be a part of a statement that is in need of being made.

You have created a theatrical world that is self-prescribed as white dominated. We didn’t make that decision for you. Look through your administration. If you have no black administrators, you’ve set no example by putting a single black male onstage. Look through your past casts; if you’ve cast a disproportional amount of black males over black females, you haven’t achieved anything. If you want strides to be made, then start making them yourself, and stop waiting for another organization to set the example. Diagnose these shameful traditions now, and eliminate them from your practices. Seek feedback through an advisory council. Connect directly with your black community instead of pretending there isn’t one. Communicate casting to your actors ahead of time to ensure they are comfortable with the role for which you have selected them. But even these may not be the most effective solutions.

I know. You want me to outline an exact course of action and offer solutions that will make this all disappear. But the way in which institutional and systemic racism continues to inform us that black people are “less than” is complex. Like racism, solutions will not be simple. The devices are like the hangman’s knot of the noose. There is no clear view of the workings from beginning to end. There is, instead, only extermination. The way that black bodies are cast in the theater reflects only the roles black people are believed to play in society. This is a psychological lynching. To reinforce stereotypes, to synonymize us with violence, and to minimize us to nothingness is to eliminate our existence. At present, there is no belonging. There is no sanctuary in the theater, any more than in a South Carolina church—or, indeed, anywhere else on this Earth. To unravel this noose, we must first begin to untie the knot. Then we may see where we can go from there.

Notes

  1. For background on this idea, see Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, III, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003): 183–201.
  2. League of Resident Theatres (LORT) Member Theatres.
  3. This information was obtained by researching the productions of each LORT theater’s 2015/2016 season via websites and other promotional materials.
  4. Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter, “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” Social Psychological & Personality Science (2014).
  5. Marvin Jones, Race, sex, and suspicion: The myth of the black male (Connecticut: Praeger, 2005), 35.
  • Mary Woodward

    Thank you Ross for this powerful piece that confronts us boldly and ends with the best guidance:
    be inclusive in the dialog to learn what your theater is doing that’s
    slotting, tokenism, or dehumanizing and work backwards toward inclusion in
    every aspect of the theater. I get that to seek a formula, “an exact course of
    action,” is to name black bodies and black experience a problem to be solved.
    It reinforces rather than rips apart stereotypes. Here is one of many things I
    look forward to understanding in this inclusive dialog. If it is right to
    assume that many non-specific roles were written by white writers in the
    centuries that black writers have been underrepresented in theater, and if
    colorblind or nontraditional casting “is to strip away color and force a black
    person into a set of white ideals,” how then do we respect “these performers’
    life experience, blackness, and…identity” when casting into these white ideals?
    Is the mere fact of recognizing such unquestioned prejudices and assumptions are
    written into roles adequate to produce inclusion rather than the dangerous
    substitute of colorblind casting?

    • Ross Jackson

      Thank you so much for reading, Ms. Woodward. I appreciate that you find value and challenge in the piece simultaneously. To answer your question, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that casting black actors in non-specific roles is what strips the actors of their experience, blackness, and ()identity. I do, however, believe that the tactics we’ve chosen to use which give excuse to cast them in these roles (i.e., colorblind and non-traditional casting) do. Making the decision to cast a black person in a non-specific role for inclusive purposes is much different than casting a black actor in a non-specified role with the stipulation that their race is removed in the decision making process.

      In other words, it would be more acceptable cast the black actor in the role they’re perfectly capable of executing because they can do it, not because casting has removed who they are in order to substantiate their capability.

  • Anasuya Sengupta

    Ross, I’d like to thank you for your incredibly powerful piece – and what a way to kick off this set of conversations around equity, diversity, and inclusion! I’m wondering what you think the responsibility is of the *audience* is, in both accepting the status quo, and not being able to deal with difference. I’m thinking, in particular, of the kinds of conversations that do happen when – in the rare case, still – a predominantly black cast and/or playwright performs for a predominantly white audience. A recent example for me was in a powerful interpretation of August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean, in which an audience member at the end of the show said (possibly with all good intention) she hoped that young black kids see the show. Yes, they should. But the elision of responsibility also struck me – the play is really for those who do _not understand the politics and histories of being African-American, not necessarily for those who do. What can theatre-loving audiences do differently?

  • Anasuya Sengupta

    I’m smiling at that last remark, and nodding at everything else. Thanks for your wisdom and thoughtfulness, Ross. You’ve given us all a great deal to think about.