It was announced last week that Actors’ Equity Association had hired Nicole S. Smart as their first ever Director of Diversity. The positions' goal is described as someone "who will be responsible for furthering the union’s mission for greater inclusion and diversity both within the organization and the broader theatre community."
Ms. Smart brings with her an impressive career in advocating diversity. She previously served as the associate director of leadership development for the NCAA, prior to working as the legal coordinator for the NFL’s Management Council. Throughout her 15-year professional career, she has also served in leadership roles to facilitate diversity and inclusion objectives for numerous non-profit associations.
While I have my doubts about how much this position and Ms. Smart will have in this industry since AEA can't mandate how shows are cast, this step is much needed in 2017. Because the diversity on Equity stages in the past few years has been (using their word) embarrassing.
According to a report released by AEA, between 2013-15 70% of Equity Musical contracts went to Caucasian performers, 65% for Equity Play contracts. The highest amount of employment for non-White performers were African-Americans at 7.56% and 8.63% respectively. Neither Asians or Latinos rose above 2.5%
That's disheartening. But when you consider all the roles out there that are "open ethnicity", it's infuriating.
Casting a diverse company with performers of color in lead roles doesn't require "outside the box" thinking. It just requires common sense.
What would certainly solve AEA's diversity issues would be if they had more diverse numbers among their population, but that's an additional issue as well. Right now AEA is 68% Caucasian with African-Americans leading non-White membership at 7.5%.
Not exactly encouraging numbers. So the problem that exists is that not enough AEA performers of color are getting work because there aren't enough performers of color in AEA because not enough performers of color are being cast in AEA productions allowing them to get points to become members. Did you follow all of that?
So the problem can be solved, obviously, through casting a more diverse company of performers.
Blogs like mine and a number of others both within AEA and outside have urged casting and creative teams to understand this, so I certainly hope Ms. Smart can get in their ears.
While I feel this position might be more symbolic window dressing right now, I hope that AEA allows Ms. Smart to truly make the impact that is needed.