Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Casting, Inclusion and All The Rest

Like Michael Corleone, every time I think I've said all I can about diversity and multi-culturalism, you pull me back in. I hadn't actually wanted to wade in too deeply, since, well, I've been there, a lot. I mean, a lot. A whole lot. And I've dropped some comments in various places on this stuff, but hadn't really had the gumption to do a post on it. But...well, now I do.

Before, please make sure to click on the links and read RVCBard on these issues. I do not link to her work enough and it's really good, really vital and reading it helped push me to saying what I'm about to say. So go and read it. Sorry I missed it earlier, RVC.

Here's a key graf:
In contrast, my experiences with White people have been confusing, uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausting in this regard. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I always feel a kind of pressure to perform around White people. It's like I have to prove I'm worthy of their presence. It's proven very difficult to get a White person's attention, especially a White man's. It's even harder to maintain it for more than about 15 minutes. And if you're White, and you met me in person, I'm probably talking about you.
I've felt similar...weirdness in my travels. I've found some, hell, many white folks to be extremely helpful, giving of their time, talents, love and appreciation. I've met many who were, I felt, very nearly color-blind, but not color-ignorant. They treated me like an equal and a full person. Nothing here should be construed as anything against them and others like them. But we have a problem in our theatres and we kind of dance around it. That's what's been frustrating about this last flowering of discussion and some other similar things lately. There's an invisible elephant in the room and no one wants to call it what it is. We each grab a part of it, like the old fable goes, and think we have have a tree, a snake, a wall, but we don't put it together and call it what it is.

What we have in this country is a segregated theatre system. There is a theatre that is almost exclusively by and for whites and a theatre that is almost exclusively by and for blacks (as well as one by and for Latinos, East Asians, and many other minority groups). The two theatres sometimes touch, sometimes overlap, but rarely mingle. The two theatre communities, outside of a few, rare outliers, almost never interact, especially not professionally (except in very special circumstances). One is, for all intents and purposes, treated as the National Theatre of America, given prominence, press, funding and support. The other is relegated to the shadows. You can guess which is which.

The system we have resembles nothing more than that baseball system of the early part of the 20th Century. Different stars, different circuits, different audiences and communities, overlapping and shadowing. And with many of the same mechanisms in place to sustain it. Probably even more.

Before the usual tongues get to wagging, I'm not saying that it's apartheid, or Jim Crow, or some great racist plot to keep a brotha down. What we have is largely a web of overlapping biases, traditions, networks and history that ends up where we are. I don't think that most theatres are actively racist. Nor are their artistic directors. But we are all part of a system and that system behaves in this manner. The end result is discrimination.

In the comments thread here, I noted:
Leonard, I think there can and should be a distinction between bias and discrimination. I’m of the opinion that discrimination involves intent; the actual thought “I don’t want women’s plays produced here” is a feature of discrimination. Bias is, in my experience, subtler. One of the things that the Glassberg study shows very well is bias. The women readers in the study indicated that they thought the women’s plays would be judged more harshly than a man’s plays and therefore passed on them. That’s an instance of bias. It’s a slippery thing.
Leonard pushed back at that, saying it was "facile." And I backed down. I shouldn't have. That distinction is actually pretty key in all of this, and is the key thing to understanding what our system actually does. I've grown up discussing these issues around my dinner table, so I didn't have the force of research on my side, but Isaac hipped me to this:
As a result of the 1976 Supreme Court decision, Washington v. Davis, U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence requires plaintiffs to prove a perpetrator’s discriminatory “intent” in order to prove an anti-discrimination claim. However, because contemporary discrimination is frequently structural in nature, unconscious, and/or hidden behind pretexts (despite the fact that a tangible harm has resulted from their actions), the showing of “intent” becomes a near impossible burden for plaintiff’s to prove.
I recommend you go and check it out more. When we get bogged down into intent and the idea that it is all some concerted plan, that gets us nowhere. Bias is, indeed, a different thing than discrimination and it's biases that keep this system working the way that it does. Bias, traditions and networks.

In the comments here, Don Hall shares this story:
EX: a couple of years ago, we did an adaptation of the John Huston documentary "Let There Be Light!" about WWII vets with PTSD. None of the characters were written as white or black or Latino. Anyone could've been cast. We had one black actor show up for auditions and he wasn't any good. If he had been (and had been the best actor for a role) there's no question he would have been cast and Jen (who directed) would have found moments to heighten the racial tension without changing a word of the script.

Just because I like to paint with lots of colors doesn't mean I get to. WNEP isn't a diversity outreach program and it isn't going to be. The door is open. Buy a ticket, take the ride.

I've had that same basic experience. I write a play where no races are described, but want a multicultural cast. However, outside of the people that I know or can reach, the theatre has no access to multicultural actors. So white actors are cast. Having worked most of my life in white theatres (I was just about to write "mainstream," but that compounds the problem.), I've dealt with this time and again.

During the Black Playwrights Convening, as I noted here, one of the points we discussed was the fact that, although a number of the writers had experience with culturally-specific theatres, and wanted to have more, there was great concern that work that happened there would have no future life, that the play was pegged as a "black" play and overlooked by white theatres. This happens in more than plays. Black directors are rarely hired to direct anything other than a play by a black writer, featuring a majority (if not all) black cast. The upside is that it has become a pretty tight-knit community, people working together, getting to know each other's work, but the downside is the segregation. Blacks by and large only work with blacks. Whites only work with whites. As a career develops, it's hard to pull people out of those comfort zones.

And that's what dooms most multicultural casting. Even Thomas Garvey can see it:
I don't think I've seen the sparkling Kortney Adams since she had to scream at the bare boobies in Voyeurs; and why the hell is that? She's got Shakespeare's Rosalind, or maybe Shaw's Candida, written all over her.
Outside of the classics, it's just not happening. And it's not for lack of talent. I'm sure that there is more than one, bad, black actor in Chicago. Why couldn't Don Hall find him? He's in the wrong circuit.

Sometimes you get a connector to the other circuit, but it's usually a very helpful actor. Because the directors don't flow through. Playwrights too easily get cut off. You work with your people, and just your people. The whole freeze-dried actor aspect that Mike Daisey talks about adds to it. I know a young black actor, one of the finest young actors I've ever worked with. He's just now starting to get some buzz, get some recognition for his talents, but from the institutional theatre world. Right now, he's just a New York actor, but he's worked on the stages at MTC, the Signature and Playwrights Horizons (natch, in a play by a black playwright at MTC and Playwrights and by a famously multicultural one at Signature). I'm predicting that next year, the regionals will start calling and he'll get freeze-dried and shipped out to Minneapolis, San Francisco, Houston, again to be a play by a black playwright, probably directed by a black director at a white institution. That circuit will be his home. And his talents will be unavailable to young black writers in New York.

There is always a lot of talk about the Chitlin Circuit that gave us Tyler Perry. But there's another circuit: the Serious Black Play Circuit, which travels around the country and, frankly, plays to a lot of the same audience. Not at the Beacon, but at "serious" theatres. But the SBP Circuit might as well be at a different theatre. The audiences aren't courted any other time of the year, nothing is done to bring them in, they're actually out of mind entirely. And those actors and directors just move to the next city, doing the same play or some other one. In the old days, they called it "barnstorming."

I think all the discussion about casting and what's controversial and what's not and what it does to the story to cast a black actor in a part written for a white one and so on and so forth is very interesting and important and takes us along the path. But until we actually confront what our system is, what it does and what it's made of, we won't make real progress. It'll always be a trick to generate press or a sop to soothe angry artists or a gimmick to satisfy the funders. We need something more sustained than that.

But first, we need to be honest with ourselves.


Tony Adams said...

I concur.

RVCBard said...

I respond over on my blog. I wish I knew how to do trackbacks on Blogspot, since it would help me find who's saying what.

Scott Walters said...

Beverly Tatum, in "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?," draws a distinction between "racism" and "prejudice." Racism is systemic, prejudice is individual. It is completely possible to be lacking in prejudice and still benefit from a racist system. This relates to the "intent" argument, and also to the "no good black actors showed up" argument.

You make a good parallel between theatres and early baseball (and also basketball -- see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's excellent "On the Shoulders of Giants" and his story of the Harlem Rens basketball team). What is ironic is that if you look at, say, the Negro League in baseball, the fact is that those players were better than those in the white league. When integration occurred, it occurred through the integration of the less talented members of the Negro League -- August Wilson writes about this in "Fences." Which brings us to the issue of money and fame, the twin towers of American society.

This is a discussion that has been occuring at least since W E B DuBois and Marcus Garvey squared off in the early part of the 20th century. DuBois wanted integration, Garvey wanted a separate economy (and nation). Both visions were powerful, and both were successful. In fact, Garvey was by far the most powerful African-American leader of that era -- although you wouldn't know it by reading the history books.

So here's my question: what is best for the art? Integration or separation? Wilson, who was a Garvey-ite, thought separation -- "The Ground on Which I Stand" calls for more funding for African-American theatres. Others -- you, it seems -- are for integration. So: if black theatres were funded at the same level as the major white theatres, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? Or is this a both thing: we want well-funded African-American theatres AND we want to work in well-funded White theatres. Right now, it seems like an ethnic version of "Whack a Mole"...