My last two blog posts have examined the role of racial representation in creation and casting. This week, I will address the last of the “three Cs”: content. I consider this to be the area of theatre in which representation is most needed, especially in light of last night’s shooting at an African American church in Charleston, SC.
I should begin by first explaining what exactly I mean by content. In have already discussed those who create the story and those who perform the story. Content, simply put, is the story itself.
What, then, is the place of representation in content? Some might say that it is enough to just write plays that include characters of various races. But diversity for the sake of diversity can easily turn into tokenism, so this is only part of the answer. Representation in content requires accurately portraying the reality of life as experienced by people of different races, and thus involves a deep, thorough, and oftentimes uncomfortable investigation of inequality.
There are plays that accomplish this by drawing upon history. An example of this is Ragtime, a musical about whites, blacks, and immigrants living in New York City during the early 1900s. These kinds of stories force us to recognize our country’s dark past and further our understanding of race and racism, for there is no way of understanding where we are without knowing how we got here.
But historical plays have their flaws. Because audience members know the story takes place in the past, they are able to somewhat alienate themselves from the subject matter. They remain unaware of the fact that, to this day, our lives are impacted by our race. It is impossible to recognize this fact without an understanding of present-day racism as it operates on both institutional and interpersonal levels.
That is why we also need plays that address the reality of racial relations today. We need stories about 21st century issues, from police brutality to immigration. Of course, there are some problems that have existed throughout history, but placing them in a contemporary context makes them more accessible.
The ultimate goal of representation through content is to provide a complete picture of racial relations. It would be naïve to assume that we have reached a situation where all races have access to the same opportunities. The narrative of the struggle for equality is ongoing, and theatre should reflect that. We should not shy away from these issues, but rather bring them to light onstage.