BWW Blog: Our Duty to Confront Racism in the Theatre Industry
In light of the current Black Lives Matter protests, many Americans are becoming more aware of their white privilege, and beginning to see aspects of their life they may not have known was affected by/made easier by this privilege. Instances of normalized racism in everyday life have been given more attention as well. For those in the theatre, this is no different.
More and more accounts from BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) actors have been issued on the racially charged disrespect they've experienced while working in theatre. Actors like Mykal Kilgore and Aisha Jackson have come forward to share their experiences with racism in the industry. So many are left feeling degraded from racist comments made in the rehearsal process, so many self questioning if they were "just cast for diversity's sake". They should not have to wonder about this, we should all be angry that our system functions in a way where they don't feel welcome. Every single one of these stories show how we need to be better, how we're not doing enough to promote equality in this business. We need to empower their voices, not sweep them under the rug when it's better for us.
But even then it's not just actors. In the past few weeks, stories from POC stage managers/techs (like Cody Renard Richard) have been flooding broadway timelines, all addressing various kinds of casual racism and disrespect in the theatre industry. A stage manager is the foundation of a show, who deserves the utmost respect because they're the reason anyone is there at all, and yet a black stage manager has to hear "smile so I can see you in the dark" at almost every job they get? Even everyday show terms we use in the rehearsal room, like "cracking the whip" and "hang the blacks" (meaning black curtains, but still... come on) are offensively racially charged.
The reality is this: as tolerant and inclusive as we in the theatre world like to think we are, we're not exempt from our insensitivity. There is still hate, inequality, gaslighting, racial profiling, and injustice in this industry, just as there is in every other facet of the world.
There are all too many similar stories of black actors who haven't been cast because they were "too black", "not black enough", or have been put into roles that promote racial stereotypes. White theatre people like to make ourselves feel better by insisting that "everyone gets treated like this in casting", that all actors are reduced to stereotypes like this, that "that's just how casting is". However degrading casting can be, it's certainly not equal for all actors, this is a heinous excuse for normalizing racism, and there are far more instances of POC actors being denied a role on account of their race as opposed to white actors. Furthermore, just because "that's just how casting is", doesn't mean that's how casting should be, and why should we keep something the way it is if it's a flawed system that disproportionately affects actors of color? The institution needs to change, and us with it, because if you feel comfortable turning a blind eye to racism and disrespect, you shouldn't be working in the theatre.
Now I'd just like to clarify, I am white, I am privileged, and I have never experienced any prejudice in the theatre based on my race, but that doesn't mean it's not there. I'm not writing this piece to demonize the theatre industry or to make myself feel better, I'm writing this because it's my duty to spread awareness as someone with privilege and a platform that reaches other people in the theatre world. So for those of us in theatre with white privilege, we can't just be silent, even if it may be "inconvenient" for us to speak up in the rehearsal room. We need to use our privilege to stand with our fellow theatre POC, or else we are just as complicit in creating an unequal industry. Even if it's an offhand comment made by a director, an actor, or a colleague, we can't keep letting those slip by unchallenged, because the more we normalize casual racism in show business, the more we create a toxic racist environment, one where we can no longer say we are inclusive and welcome to all.
We have so much power in show business. We create art that provides meaning, we express feelings others can relate to, but most importantly of all, people listen to us. We need to use this power and influence to promote justice, equality, and love. Thankfully, organizations like Black Theatre United (of which Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell are just a few of the founding members), have been created to empower BIPOC creatives in the theatrical community, and to inspire industry-wide reform to combat systemic racism. Although the path to change won't be easy, this is a huge step in the right direction. And if you've been silent on this issue in the past, it doesn't make you a hypocrite to speak out now, it just means that you've grown as a person. Use your voice, help make theatre the loving and wonderful place we all know it can be. Stand with your BIPOC theatre colleagues, and with our influence we can work to change the theatre industry, as well as the entire world who is watching us. Black lives matter, black artists matter, black voices matter, let's elevate them.