This Sunday, the American Theatre Wing will honor Broadway’s best and brightest—or, to quote Neil Patrick Harris’ Oscars monologue, “best and whitest.” It is undeniable that the Great White Way is largely that: white. Before I continue, let me just say that I do not in any way intend to deny the incredible talents of this year’s nominees. Rather, I am interested in starting an important conversation about the role of diversity in the theatre. Particularly in a country as increasingly diverse as the United States, there is something to be said about the value of racial representation.
My discussion of representation in the theatre will be broken down into three parts: creation, casting, and content. It is my hope that these “three Cs” together address most, if not all, aspects of a theatrical production. In each of these areas, the implications of representation (or lack thereof) differ, but are all extremely significant and must be addressed. Over the next three weeks, I will elaborate on the role of representation in these three areas, with the hope of raising awareness of the need for diversity in all aspects of the theatre.
The First C: Creation
Creation is the process of crafting and telling the story. Anyone involved in shaping the play as a whole, be it the playwright, composer, or director, falls under this category. I would also consider musicians theatre technicians as creators, since their work can also hugely influence the way in which the audience experiences the story. Additionally, producers, though they may not always have a significant say in the artistic aspects of a production, are heavily involved with marketing, and thus create an expectation for the story before audience members even get to see it. This is arguably just as important as the story itself, and I would therefore be inclined to say that they, too, fall under the category of creators.
The most obvious reason why representation is necessary within this field is that it will empower young, budding thespians of minority backgrounds to create their own theatre. This is especially true when there is diversity in highly visible positions, namely playwrights, composers, and directors, since these are often the individuals who become most widely recognized for their work. If a twelve-year old African American girl watching the Tony Awards sees that there are black women who write plays and win awards for them, she will no doubt be comforted to know that there is a space for her words on Broadway.
The second reason why representation is important among creators is perhaps a bit more uncomfortable to acknowledge. While there are plays that everyone can connect to, there are some stories that are intimately linked to a particular race. These stories are often based on common experiences shared by people of that race. Though we like to believe that theatre is always universal, on some level we must concede that certain experiences cannot be felt by others, cannot be understood by others, and most importantly, cannot be told by others.
Regardless of our race, we all have something unique to say. The best creators are those who can recognize this fact and turn their own experiences into art. In other words, they do not try to tell anyone else’s story. This authenticity is theatre at its best.
“Anything you do, let it come from you.”
--Stephen Sondheim (my favorite creator)