The straw that broke the camel’s back was Shakespeare.
In 2011 in Washington, D.C., Shakespeare Theatre Company produced a version of Much Ado About Nothing set in Cuba, where the minor characters Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal were renamed Juan Huevos and Jose Frijoles, after the Spanish words for “eggs” and “beans.” Despite the ostensible locale, only three of the actors in the cast were Latino. “It was derogatory,” asserts D.C.-based playwright-with-an-activist-bent Karen Zacarías. “You’d never write ‘Jonathan Watermelon’! Why does no one realize that this is not acceptable?”
The dustup following Much Ado’s opening resulted in a dialogue, online and in a town hall hosted by STC. An apology was issued by artistic director Michael Kahn for the theatre’s insensitivity and the characters’ names reverted back to Hugh and George. That might have been the end of this particular discussion about the roles (or lack thereof) that Latino artists play within the American theatre—but this had come after a similar controversy a few weeks before. A production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker with the Hat at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Conn., had cast white actors in the lead roles, which were originally written to be Puerto Ricans.
In response to that decision, the unhappy playwright wrote on Facebook, “Latino actors were willfully denied the opportunity to audition and play the roles that were explicitly written for them in my play. This was not an ‘artistic choice’ to go white and younger with these roles—and if it was, it was a terrible, exclusionary choice that goes directly against the logic of the script.”
Inspired by these two events—and because “I haven’t been in a room with other Latino artists for 15 years”— Zacarías called together a group of seven fellow artists to meet at Arena Stage, where she was a resident playwright at the time. That 2012 meeting was the birth of the Latino/a Theatre Commons, or LTC. The initial get-together spawned an online journal called Cafe Onda, a follow-up convening of 78 in Boston in 2013, and the establishment of a national network of artists and scholars. Building on the momentum, a theatre festival and conference in Los Angeles, titled the “2014 LATC Encuentro” (Spanish for “encounter”), is expected to attract 100 attendees and 100 presenting artists to the Los Angeles Theatre Center this Oct. 12–Nov. 10.
The LTC is not the only national artists-of-color coalition currently in operation. Also this month, from Oct. 8-12, the Consortium of Asian American Theatres and Artists (CAATA) will present its fourth annual conference and festival, colloquially known as ConFest, in Philadelphia. And there were discussions this past summer, at the Black Theatre Network’s annual conference, about forming an LTC-like group in support of black and Native American artists.
According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (an advocacy group in New York City), between 2006 and 2013, on Broadway and at the 16 largest not-for-profit theatres in New York City, the racial breakdown for actors were as followed: 14 percent of all available roles went to black actors, 3 percent to Latino actors, 3 percent to Asian actors, 1 percent to other minorities, and 79 percent to Caucasian actors. (By comparison, the population breakdown for New York City is 33 percent non-Hispanic white, 25.5 percent black, 28.6 percent Hispanic/Latino and 12.7 percent Asian.)
Another bit of regional data, provided by D.C. playwright Gwydion Suilebhan, contains a demographic breakdown of productions at 62 area theatres in the 2013–14 season. Out of 221 shows, 85 percent were written by white playwrights, 5 percent by African American, 6 percent by Latino, 3 percent by Asian American, .5 percent by Arab American, and .5 percent by multi-ethnic writers.
In American Theatre’s Top 10 Most-Produced Playwrights List, only four playwrights of color were represented over a six-year period. They were Tarell Alvin McCraney, Katori Hall, Lynn Nottage and August Wilson (who is a recurring presence on the list).
A common refrain in today’s arts community is that the representation in theatres across lines of race, gender and generations is woefully inadequate. The 2010 U.S. Census projected that by 2042, minority groups will outnumber non-Hispanic whites, making up 54 percent of the population. Minorities will make up the majority of those under the age of 18 by 2023, and adult Americans by 2039. To prepare for this new reality, artists are banding together to demand visibility in a field that still skews toward one particular demographic.
“We’ve been doing this for 50 years!” laments Jose Luis Valenzuela, artistic director of the Latino Theater Company at LATC, which he founded in 1985. “It’s such an important role that we play in our community—but it still feels like we’re on the side, we’re not really part of the American theatre. That has to be altered. We are the American theatre.”
In 2006, early-career actor Randy Reyes attended the very first Asian American Theater Conference. “It was the first time I could see diverse works from around the country,” he recalls. “I felt like I was part of a movement for the first time.” As an Asian-American artist working out of Minneapolis, which has no substantial population of Asian artists, “You can be siloed in this kind of work—you feel like you’re all alone.”
This desire to connect is what led to the formation of CAATA, the first national network of Asian-American artists, born out of a 2003 Theatre Communications Group gathering in White Oak, Fla. Reyes is now the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts in Minneapolis and serves on CAATA’s board.
Mia Katigbak, president of CAATA and the founder and artistic director of the National Asian American Theatre Company in New York, was one of six Asian-American artists at the White Oak convening. “Yes, I was there, in the beginning. I’m tired,” says Katigbak with a laugh. “We wanted to centralize, we wanted to have a way of synthesizing our history here in this country. Also, we wanted to be able to talk to each other across the country and to be supportive and make room for each other’s work.”
After the first Asian American Theater Conference in 2006, dubbed “The Big Bang,” came the first CAATA-hosted Asian American Theater Festival, with 30 productions over two weeks. The conference and festival were combined in 2011, and 2014 will be the fourth iteration of the paired events. This year’s ConFest anticipates 200–300 attendees (including speakers), and there will be four showcase performances and four new-play readings. The line-up includes Soomi Kim’s Chang(e) and a site-specific work in a hotel room from the Toronto-based fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company called Sex Tape Project. “The greatest successes from past conferences and festivals have been the collaborations among individuals who got a chance to meet and get to know each other,” says Gayle Isa, executive director of Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia and a CAATA board member who has been spearheading 2014 ConFest planning.
LTC is also interested in building new connections and forging potential new collaborations. That organization’s four areas of focus are advocacy, networking/convening, scholarship and art-making, and the upcoming Encuentro will zero in on the latter: In addition to 15 productions that will be presented (such as Juarez: a Documentary Mythology from Theater Mitu, and La Esquinita, U.S.A. from El Teatro Campesino), artists will come together in an ad-hoc collaboration to create new works, presented at the end of the festival.
“We are working on redefining the American narrative. In order to change the narrative, you have to recognize what your narrative is,” says Kinan Valdez, producing artistic director of El Teatro Campesino and a member of the 40-member LTC steering committee. “Because we’d been isolated, every group and region has a way of defining what Latino theatre is. This movement is about celebrating the diversity of that experience.”
The LTC also focuses on providing resources for Latino theatre artists, so no one finds himself or herself waiting in vain for a large nonprofit to come knocking. For Zacarías, the LTC is not about trying to get the attention of more mainstream theatres—it’s about fostering artistic development. Next year, a major LTC undertaking will be Carnavál, a new-works festival at DePaul University. “We’re going to give ourselves the opportunities,” Zacarías says forcefully. “We’re going to make our table so great so that everyone will want to come sit there.”
One of the oldest national artists-of-color coalitions is the Black Theatre Network. Founded in 1986, BTN has grown from being a gathering of scholars interested in preserving the history of black theatre to a wider coalition of academics, individual theatre artists and organizations with a vested interest in black arts. BTN holds an annual conference, publishes a yearly journal called Continuum, provides scholarships for students and hosts a job bulletin.
Yet, despite the fact that African-Americans have occupied the theatrical landscape for more than 200 years, professionals of color still suffer from under-representation and undercapitalization. “On one hand, there’s been progress,” says Michael D. Dinwiddie, the president of BTN (who is stepping down this month). “But we’re still grappling with nontraditional casting and people of color playing secondary roles instead of lead roles.”
This past August, following its annual conference, BTN teamed up with the National Black Theatre in New York City to host Catalyst, a three-day convening of 20 black theatres to discuss business strategies for ensuring the long-term health of black theatre organizations. “We wanted to create a safe space for black theatre to address the hemorrhage in our community, where our institutions are closing at a rapid rate, and to and share business practices,” says Jonathan McCrory, who serves as director of theatre arts programs at the National Black Theatre and was on the task force for Catalyst. He says the convening is on track to becoming a biennial event.
A number of other coalitions are currently in their infancy. One is the Black Theatre Commons, whose steering committee is currently working on a mission statement and engaging in weekly phone calls. A convening is planned for 2015. Another is the Native American Theatre Network (the working title of the group at press time), which aims to bring together a population whose history is distinct from other minority groups.
“A huge challenge with our population is geography—many of our artists are working in rural areas, far from any theatre activity at all,” says playwright Larissa FastHorse, a member of the initial group bringing the network together. “We are also dealing with many languages and distinct cultures. We want to build a network that serves all of us. I think the time is ripe.”
Why is this the right moment for such coalitions? One answer is modern technology. Social media and the prevalence of the Internet (and free wifi) have made large-scale communication across vast distances infinitely easier than it was in the ’60s, when most of the original theatres of color were born.
Such new technology has enabled CAATA to stay in touch via mass e-mails and Yahoo groups, and to organize quarterly meetings. It has given the LTC a space to record and document every gathering, and disseminate that information worldwide. And it has given every organization a Facebook page, a virtual office and a website to showcase their events and their missions. Case in point: Videos and documentation from the previous LTC gatherings and the Catalyst convening can be found on the online theatre journal HowlRound; there are also plans to live-stream the Encuentro and the ConFest.
“The technology allows for a democratization of viewpoints. It’s not just carrying my voice, it’s carrying all of our voices,” remarks Valdez. “The technology allows us to remain connected and to come to a process of consensus that wasn’t possible before.”
For those with some knowledge of history, it seems that the fight for equality is never-ending. After all, BTN has been alive for 28 years and CAATA for 10 years. To some artists, such as Reyes, there has been little “ongoing progress.” He points to a recent Seattle production of The Mikado at the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, where no Asian actors were in the cast and the faux-Japanese names such as Titipu, Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush were kept intact. (In 2013, Reyes appeared in a Mikado at Mu in which the setting and several of the text’s references were amended.) The ensuing discussion around yellowface and stereotypes felt oddly familiar to Reyes, for whom it recalled the controversy over the casting of the white British actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer in the Broadway musical Miss Saigon in 1990.
“The fact that we’re talking about Mikado in Seattle, and people are in yellowface, and they don’t know what yellowface is—it’s like, ‘Wow, are we back to Miss Saigon?’” exclaims Reyes. “It’s the same conversation!”
Though Miss Saigon and The King and I are coming back to Broadway (and with them, more roles for Asian-American actors), Reyes does not see that as progress. For him, progress is defined as “visibility. That means for writers of color, designers of color, actors of color, directors, leaders, all of that.” he says. “And please, no more bad representations of Asians.”
The demand for more writers of color is seconded by Malcolm Darrell, founder and CEO of MKD Arts Management; he’s on the steering committee of the BTC. There is a wealth of contemporary black stories that are currently not being told, Darrell believes, including that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. “August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry are being produced far more than new playwrights,” he says. “Today, we have to deal with a covert fear of black men so prevalent that a white officer can shoot them unarmed! You cannot tell that story through the lens of 1950s Chicago. It’s unfair to the black experience that those two voices are the primary voices in black theatre.”
So how do artists create real, long-lasting, progressive change? One solution may be to start at the training level and incorporate theatres and artists of color into the curriculum. Scholars are represented in the LTC, CAATA, BTN and BTC. “We have young people of color going into conservatories and schools where professors and instructors don’t show them the contributions of people of color. They’ll learn about Shaw, Shakespeare and Sophocles, but won’t learn about the tradition they come from,” says BTN’s Dinwiddie. He recalls how when he was a student at Wayne State University, “They had to set up a separate black theatre programs because the director in some of the courses wouldn’t allow black students in their plays, saying black people ‘weren’t in that period.’”
Perhaps as demographics shift and artists of color raise their voices louder, the problem will solve itself, out of basic necessity and survival. But what is clear is that creating change, and a more diverse narrative to fit the changing national landscape, does not have to be a singular effort. “You don’t have to do it alone—theatre itself is a collaborative art form,” Reyes points out. “We’re actually stronger as a unit. It’s not us against them—it’s about us supporting us.”