The Human Experience in the Theatre

Patricia Allison (Rebecca Gibbs) and Patrick Elue (George Gibbs) in Our Town © Stephen King

Patricia Allison (Rebecca Gibbs) and Patrick Elue (George Gibbs) in Our Town © Stephen King

  • Izabella Mirza

In an age so defined by labels, the crises of the world, and when someone’s identity can be a box or a ballroom, it’s easy to get lost in how the world sees you. It’s harder to lose yourself to a character, a script, a show. In the current climate in America, identity is everything. Who you are in other’s eyes predetermines how you move through this world, the barriers you have to break, and the doors that swing open when they sense your arrival. We’re in a revolution, a time where dues are being paid, and people are actively fighting for their rights with deserved recognition. We’re seeing people of color successfully, with support, take the stage in shows like Hamilton, and queer characters find a happy ending in The Prom, and the box office is reflecting their success. Sadly, these shows are the exception and not the rule. Theatre is unique because it’s vulnerable, expelling emotion in such a raw form compared to other mediums. Theatre captures the human experience- or so it claims.

We are fortunate to have had some wonderfully diverse shows onstage that are real, honest, and humane, there are still some running today, even if in community theatres. Box office numbers have proven that shows with diversity do well: Hamilton has become a global phenomenon, The Color Purple has seen a number of successful runs on or off broadway and in touring, and shows with queer themes, like The Prom, have also knocked it out of the park when given the chance to do so. So, why is it that Pretty Woman happened again? Is the Music Man really at all relevant to today? Do we need another show telling us about the white, straight, able bodied human experience?  Why is it that a green woman can find love and acceptance onstage before a brown woman can, a black man can, a man in love with another man who once was a woman can? Because, as far as I can tell, women, people of color, queer people, and disabled people are the ones experiencing the most, living, and fighting the most. 

When it comes to shows with LGBTQ+ representation, they are few and far between. The theatre is often thought of as a haven for queer individuals, and it certainly can be if you’re white. Angels in America was recently revived with seemingly great success, though it only represented the white experience, and Rent is a musical theatre staple that has become so overdone because no one will bring anything else like it to broadway, not to mention how gratuitously the show has been straight-washed in recent years. Of course, these shows are all pushed aside at the end of the day by white, straight love anyway. There’s also the fact that they only made it so far in the first place because of money, celebrity, or the fact that white producers love to revive a subpar or “unique” show and call it iconic. These shows wouldn’t be so unique, however, if marginalized groups were given opportunity and support to create in the first place. Cats and phantoms are continuously welcomed in, while the human experiences of queer people are pushed out of the place they so diligently built up in the first place.

The Fiddler on the Roof presented in Yiddish is another stunning show, running while attacks from anti-Semitic people become even more common, heightened, and deadly under this presidency. The show has broken box office records at Stage 42, the run was even extended. Why isn’t this proof enough that we need more shows representing more people in bigger theatres with more accessibility? Miss Saigon made a return to the stage this year. Why? Created by the white Schonberg and Boublil, the lead role is still that of a white man. The show has been

riddled with controversy, from yellowface, to inaccuracies, to the fact that it tells a Vietnamese story from a white saviour perspective. Instead of bringing the show back in 2017, why couldn’t the effort have been made to put forth a new show representing Asian people? Asian history is deep, beautiful, and complex with a number of very different countries each brimming with opportunity to tell stories from the past or the present in an honest way that would have provided so much more opportunity and representation than Miss Saigon ever has. Even a quick search into only Vietnam’s history proves there are many stories that are far more empowering than Miss Saigon’s to share.

There are shows written faster than they can be produced. Take a look at the colleges and high schools which are home to the future playwrights who will be dictating what we see on Broadway in this next generation, and many of them do not identify as straight or white. So, why are we still seeing revivals of shows and movies that came and went, and maybe shouldn’t have come in the first place? We know what straight, white love looks like. It’s still beautiful in it’s own right, but we’ve captured that experience and then milked it for all it’s worth until it’s gone sour. It’s time to talk about the future, the experiences people are living now. The experiences people have had to get us to where we are now. We can celebrate a man in a dress in Kinky Boots, so why can’t we talk about the drag queens who paved the way for a show like this, risking not only their reputations and relationships, but their safety and their lives. Queens, by the way, who were most often people of color.

The theatre on Broadway now is what’s setting the bar for up and coming theatre makers, and they deserve better examples than they’re getting. People with disabilities have also been fighting for so long for any kind of representation. Ali Stroker in Oklahoma is a big win, and helps in normalizing disabilities for those who still don’t see disabilities as normal. Update: They’re super normal! Putting Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair in a role typically played by abled women is the first step in making progress, progress that is still being made too slowly. However, this is still a win in that it’s the complete opposite of what we usually see from theatre: which is abled people portraying disabled characters, and it’s about time that changes! Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening was powerful and moving, but only given a limited run. Many shows featuring stories from differently abled people are also told in very similar ways which is problematic. The shows often focus on the pain of the disability, when there is so much more than pain in a disabled person’s human experience.

People of the world look to the theatre for comfort, hope, escape, and opportunity; now it’s time for theatre to represent these people before it’s too late. White people have controlled the theatres, the box office, and audience access for far too long, and it’s wearing on future and current theatre makers. Log in to Twitter, search a show that has any kind of representation from any marginalized community, and you’ll see a massive amount of tweets celebrating the diversity and representation we do get to see. People sharing their excitement is beautiful, the fact that they have to share in order to keep shows like The Prom or The Color Purple running, is ridiculous. When will theatres truly capture the human experience, a diverse human experience, where people on Twitter can celebrate a performance well done, and not just the fact that they’re finally seeing themselves up on stage? Our current theatrical climate is not truly capturing the human experience, it’s simply regurgitating the narratives created at the expense of marginalized communities, and that needs to change.