Part 4: Making Sure Diversity is Equitable

By: Feb. 21, 2020

Part 4: Making Sure Diversity is Equitable

Michelle Aguillon has been working as an actor and director in Boston for over 25 years. Her work has spanned from Company One to the Nora Theatre to the Umbrella Theatre Company in Concord. How does she think the past decade treated Boston theatre? She says, "I am excited to see more diversity in Boston theatre - not only in casting but behind the scenes as well, with writers, directors, and designers. We are going to see more stories about 'the other' - those who have endured being mostly shut out or ignored, stories rarely told from their point of view."

While she may not have the same 25 year career under her belt just yet, Krystal Hernandez has had a great year as a young actor, beginning in Company One/ ART's coproduction of Miss You Like Hell and ending in the premiere of Quixote Nuevo which played Hartford Stage, The Alley Theatre, and the Huntington. She agrees, "I have noticed that more theaters are doing work for people of color and queer folks and that is refreshing and vital. I think there is more work to be done, but it's evident and exciting that people are hungry for these stories. And there are theaters who are always putting in that kind of work. Theaters like Company One, who have, since their inception, made it their mission to hold space for stories for people who don't fit the stereotype that traditional theater goers may be used to."

Enter Dev Blair, a local performer, poet, and playwright. On their recently released album, 'Femmetasy' they begin a track with a subtly distorted, spoken word introduction.

"When the revolution come, I'm burning Shakespeare.

I will learn the livin' poet whose street-polished words are more giving

Than a dead poet whose 'proper' words preceded violence unforgiven."

Stream the album on Spotify to hear what else they will burn.

Needless to say, a rabble-rouser to the core, Blair certainly raises concerns with the improved optics of the diversity in Boston theatres. With all of the space being forfeited to a widening range of artists, why are the financial resources of the theatre industry not being equally distributed? "Representation is not enough, reparations are a start. I wonder if there was a play done about this recently-oh right there was, and I was in it! Greater Good by Kirsten Greenidge. During that process I was working part-time at a catering company (sometimes double and triple shifts before coming to do a three-hour show), taking on small gigs when I had time between rehearsal and work, and then waiting forever to be paid for any of it while paying rent so expensive that what I received in total for the show in terms of compensation was equivalent to barely more than a month. I was literally experiencing the exact same poverty and hunger as my character, and Company One and my castmates were truly like family for how they held me down during such a difficult time-but that makes it sound like my experience has changed much since then. It hasn't. I've just been luckier in terms of timing. Sometimes. My experience is a sobering reminder that Greater Good was penned as an examination of the systems at play in the city around its playwright. And I'd take that a step further and say the systems at play in the world around its playwright because I really don't know that there is a city that's better or worse at paying trans, non-binary, and genderqueer artists. All my gurls got GoFundMes for hormones and Tinder bans for Venmo handles in their bios, coz that's only called solicitation if you're perceived as Black or brown-area code be damned."

Taking this perspective into account, I am reminded of a suggestion from Zora Neale Hurston to Kossola, the last American alive who had survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade. After Langston Hughes aptly pointed out that, once the Great Depression hit the United States, for white people, "the Black man was out of vogue", Hurston advised that Kossola not share his oral history with any white reporters, sociologists, or ethnographers. She and her benefactors warned Kossola to be wary of "those whites who, having no more interesting things to investigate among themselves are grabbing in every direction material that by right belongs to an entirely different race." (Hurston's full narrative, Barracoon was finally edited and published last year. I've already quoted Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road for this series and urge all involved in storytelling to read both volumes in full.)

When majority-white institutions put stories about people of color on stage without paying them a living wage, one cannot help but picture the gluttonous whites of whom Hurston forewarned. Would Langston Hughes look at our theatre this decade and note that Blackness was back in vogue? What about his famous Note on Commercial Theatre? Would he feel he was finally being presented on our stages, or would the first stanza more aptly apply?

"You've taken my blues and gone -

You sing 'em on Broadway

And you sing 'em in Hollywood Bowl,

And you mixed 'em up with symphonies

And you fixed 'em

So they don't sound like me.

Yep, you done taken my blues and gone."

One hotly debated and hugely divisive idea for how Boston can start diversifying its spaces more equitably and authentically is in engaging with a diversified body of critics. Hernandez notes, "I think the biggest change that needs to be made in the Boston theatre scene is we need younger and more diverse critics and reviewers. I think it's important because we are only getting one perspective when a group of the same people, who look alike and share similar experiences are the majority reviewing and critiquing. That one perspective is a disservice to the shows. That one perspective is a disservice to the theater companies that are bringing different kinds of stories to our community."

Blair piggybacks off of this idea, expounding upon their desire for reform not only to who is reviewing, but how those reviewers are working. "My interest in theatre criticism comes from a place of understanding arts criticism, ideally, as a way of maintaining and fostering an artistic ecosystem. Reviews further the artistic conversation, ask critical questions, and illuminate how a point of view outside of a process consumes the product. They create context. I believe that Boston critics haven't been living up to this idea very well because a lack of self-awareness has allowed bias to rule not only what the largely white body of critics in Boston decides is deserving of being seen, but also what is attempted to be understood, and what is deemed worthy of awards. And it wasn't sustainable."

They mention the IRNE Awards, which disbanded this past year after concerns were raised about their representation of Boston's diverse population. "I think that if the community makes the right decisions it can address of a lot of the things members within it have been pointing out as issues for a while. I'm interested in contributing to that kind of conversation, and that's what I think is drawing me to criticism in this particular moment more than it has in the past. As a poor Black queer/trans femme, I have never seen a pathway to being a theatre critic that made sense for me. That is only recently changing with the development of opportunities like Front Porch's Young Critics program (Blair themself a member of the program's 2020 cohort) to foster and hone new critical voices. My critical voice is interested in total production interpretation fed by dramaturgical investigation and the show as a live experience. To do the work that I think an ideal critic does, we have to de-center the actor, and focus on the total production in relation to the community it is being presented in-- after all celebrity is a trap when it enforces an arbitrary hierarchy that decides who in our field should make exorbitant amounts of money off their work and who in our field should go homeless waiting on paychecks from freelancing."

In contrast to each other, these three artists lay out a concrete response to how Boston has scratched the surface of its deeply-rooted race problems. It will be interesting to see how our institutions respond to these concerns in the 2020s. I asked Blair what advice they had for young artists of color trying to establish themselves in Boston. I do not have a better ending to this series than their response:

"With a town that has the history that Boston does, my biggest advice is to move in the ways your ancestors taught you and don't hope for things that are ahistorical. This is a very white, very racist town with a serious rent control issue and hella gentrification (by the academy and by the theatre). There is not that much money in the theatre, especially not here. Your very survival (not success, we're not even there yet in terms of hierarchy of needs) as an artist of color in this town is determined by your ability to either make money off the primarily white audiences that are generally consuming your work or spend white people's money (often in the form of institutional grants and residencies and such) to support your work. Don't expect this to be easy, don't expect bias to never factor into things because it always does, and don't plan to stay here long unless you're interested in having a relationship to a city that I hope you avoid with your men, i.e. constantly working to improve him while constantly considering leaving. Many people say that Boston's art scene changes slowly because people train here and then leave or start here and then leave, and generally it's encouraged that artists who want to see this scene change remain here to help enact that change-but a lot of the artists that I know who have stayed here long term didn't end up staying here on purpose, and this includes professors teaching at training institutions for artists. The apparent lack of enthusiasm for, or in truth, pride in how things are done here specifically doesn't exactly inspire feelings of wanting to lay down roots. With a stronger critical culture helping us to better identify our achievements and strengths as a community, defining and refining what is unique about this specific scene here in Boston, perhaps this could change. But a lot of the artists who've left Boston have done so because they didn't feel like they were fully part of the community to begin with and that has to do with what kind of person is allowed to feel welcome in Boston as a city more than anything else, I promise you."

Hitting on many of the same points and reflecting on the difficulties of making a living as an artist in Boston, Hernandez says,

"When I became a professional actor, Boston theaters were starting to produce shows that challenged what it meant to be a Latina. These recent opportunities, my hard work and a little bit of luck are all a part of my success. Company One has catapulted my success with Wig Out and Miss You Like Hell as it had provided me with opportunities that fit my mission just as I was diving into the theatre scene. But, I was non-equity at the time, so the pool as a light-skinned Latina for challenging work was slightly bigger than it is now. It wasn't easy getting into the audition room. I didn't come from an inner city theatre program that is widely known, so proving myself was at the utmost importance. Something many other Boston actors never had to worry about. Now that I'm equity, the Boston theatre pool has shrunk. I'm very fortunate to have worked with the Huntington Theatre Company on Quixote Nuevo, a piece so dear to my heart, and a wonderful representation of the different stories the Boston theatre scene is craving. I hope to see, and be a part, of more productions like this in the future.

Now, I acknowledge that I have a lot of privilege as a light-skinned Latina with a strong support system. But I am no token for your diversity quota. It is my mission to challenge the narrative of what it means to be a Latina and the stereotypes that come with that. It's frustrating to have to explain and express my Latina heritage to many people who's response to me being Latina is almost always, 'What?!? Noooo, you're lying. You don't look Latina at all.' This creates a lot of insecurity for me at times as an actress of color, because I wonder if I'm then hindering the stories I strive to tell. I realized that is not the case and I will use my voice, my body and my skills to fight that insecurity through my work. I fear having to relocate to another city to find more opportunities for Equity contracts. I cannot control the shows the Equity theaters choose to produce each season. I cannot make a living working on the few Equity shows I fit into. While I'm thankful for my support system, living at home has been a sacrifice I have made to be able to work as a full-time actor and even then, I still have a part-time (non-theatre) job to make ends meet. I would love to stay in this theatre community, but with the chances of getting a larger Equity contract slimming down to every other year, makes Boston a pit-stop theatre community that isn't sustainable. This leads to more frustration from Boston local actors because we then must leave and become 'outside actors' based in LA, NYC, or Chicago to appear elusive. This has happened to many local artists, and is unfortunately my reality."

To engage with other artists in Boston approaching this work, check out a great piece David Valdez wrote for Howlround here.

Check out helpful links for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion curated by StageSource here.


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