Racism On The Stage
“Dear White American Theatre”, a beautifully written statement that forced me to open up my mind and recognize the impact racism (in the theatre industry) has on not only the theatre makers, but the audience as well. What most people don't know is that it wasn't just a letter bashing the theatre industry, but it was also a list of very well constructed demands for BIPOC. The link to these demands will be linked down below, and it is the perfect way to start off our topic of the week. Today, we will be talking about the racism that corrodes the theatre world. This social contract that hundreds of BIPOC theatre professionals put together is brilliant. The lack of diversity in theaters leads to a lack of opportunities, a limitation of audience perspective, and the exploitation of stereotypes. This is keeping us from succeeding in our mission to educate, inspire, and connect with our audiences. The issue of racism in the theatre industry is very complicated, but today we are going to focus on racism that takes place on the stage.
The theatre circle is one that I have been proudly involved in since I was about nine years old. Throughout the years, I have come to realize that I was a bystander to many racist and problematic actions. I was reminded recently that when I was very young, my youth theatre put on a production of Hairspray. Reminder: this is a show that tells the story of two races coming together in a beautiful way. Fully knowing that we did not have the black ensemble that we needed, the director decided to cast all white actors and actresses as the lead black roles and put our (very few and very talented) black actors in the ensemble. The director used clothing choice to help the audience differentiate between who was what race…... they used clothing choice. Now… you might be thinking that this has no real impact because it is just some dumb youth theatre production. You would be wrong. Every young participant in that show was negatively impacted and that followed them through the rest of their theatre journey, even if they didn't know it. These kinds of artistic choices have been normalized in the theatre community, and this is because actors learn from a young age that it is okay. White directors telling black stories… do we see the issue? Good. Black actors are taught that they will be treated like props because of their race. This is only one example of how racism is holding the theatre community hostage. We can no longer let white theatre have this attitude that they are immune to the consequences of racism just because they are a part of an artist industry.
The Ugly Truth
Racism doesn't just take place on the stage. There are racist policies hidden everywhere in the theatre industry. This includes audience policing, working conditions, compensation policies, and more. This caters to a majority white cast, crew, and audience. On-stage racism is harder to hold people accountable for because its easy to hide behind the "art" of it all. It is in bad taste and it is time for our generation of theatre makers to no longer let that slide.
Many of the productions that POC are casted in contain racial trauma. This can be emotionally and physically draining for actors to have this kind of content to portray. An industry run primary by white producers can't understand the toll that can take on a person, especially when having to work with a team that has had no anti-racism training. We have to band together and demand for anti-racist policies to be implemented, and protect BIPOC.
Stereotypes have an enormous impact. Research shows that prolonged television exposure predicts an outcome of decreased self esteem among young girls and black boys, but an increase in self esteem for white boys. I understand that pretty much everyone watches television and not everyone is actively involved in theatre. That might be true but live theatre has 10 times the emotional impact on just one audience member. Watching real people portray real emotions... it does not get more impactful than that.
We need to fight for social inequality in the theatre community.
Steps Toward On Stage Anti - Racism
AS AN ACTOR, take the following steps:
Educate yourself about the problems at hand and how it affects your industry. Education is protection.
If you are a white actor, do not accept roles meant for BIPOC. Those stories are not yours to tell.
Be honest about what you are comfortable with. Directors and creative teams do not have the right to put you in situations that you find morally wrong. Don't wear those clothes, don't portray that stereotype, don't use that accent, etc. If you are in a position where you are uncomfortable and do not know what to do, tell an adult.
Stand up for the talent, the stories, the art, and the voices of other cultures. Do not diminish these things just so that you can play a role. It is much bigger than you.
Push yourself to use your art for good. You have the ability to not just entertain, but connect with audience members. Make those connections count.
Know your purpose.
AS A DIRECTOR, take the following steps:
Do research on the power that you have to make an extraordinary difference.
Research race-based casting.
Educate other casting directors.
Do research on the story you are telling, the people and life experiences you are portraying, and understand the social impact of your artistic choices.
Be on the right side of history by standing up for black actors.
Push yourself to be more aware and interactive in what goes on in YOUR theatre community.
Ask yourself or your friends these debatable questions to start healthy conversations:
Is racism in the theatre industry more emotionally draining for BIPOC than other industries because of the content and stereotypes and the form of production?
If so, do you think therapists should be in the theatre during rehearsals for productions that contain racial trauma?
How can actors use their talents to help their communities?
Is artistic activism something we should normalize in the theatre industry?
Does racial-based casting legalize racism or is it necessary?
We will be starting an online forum soon where we hope to create a safe place for meaningful conversation.
We will be announcing a GIVE AWAY. Follow our Instagram for updates on that.
Our BLM Memorial Art Exhibit is coming up later in the year and I encourage you to submit your art of any medium or even photography. Again, all info is on our Instagram.