The other week I was in a room full of white people. Granted, I go to the theatre multiple times a week, so that’s par for the course. In this case it was a room full of theatre critics. The American Theatre Critics Association was having its annual gathering in New York City, and I, a lapsed member, was invited to attend one of their daytime events: a conversation with Mia Yoo, the artistic director of La MaMa, which was the 2018 recipient of the regional Tony Award.
Yoo is one of the rare Asian-American artistic directors running an Off-Broadway company. During the conversation, Yoo discussed the importance of programming a variety of voices in a season. Then a middle-age white male critic whose name I did not catch raised his hand to ask, “Do you find yourself having to sacrifice quality in order to be diverse?”
I hope he heard me audibly groaning. Yoo, nonplussed, responded with a frank “no.”
I didn’t get to talk to that laughably confused white man. If I had I would have told him to walk around New York and look at all the women of color being produced Off-Broadway right now.
The current list, as I write this column, is:
- Fabulation, Or The Re-Education Of Undine by Lynn Nottage at the Signature Theatre
- Wild Goose Dreams by Hansol Jung, at the Public Theater
- Eve’s Song by Patricia Ione Lloyd, at the Public Theater
- Usual Girls by Ming Peiffer, at the Roundabout Theatre
- The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa Fasthorse, at Playwrights Horizons
- School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh, at MCC Theater
- What to Send Up When It Goes Down by Aleshea Harris, a Movement Theatre Company production at ART/New York
Not to mention the works that closed last week:
- Good Grief by Ngozi Anyanwu, at the Vineyard Theatre
- Catch as Catch Can by Mia Chung, at Page 73
- India Pale Ale by Jaclyn Backhaus, at Manhattan Theatre Club
According to the League of Professional Theatre Women, last season Off-Broadway, women writers made up 41 percent of the work produced. So for women of color, having 10 productions, at large theatres, in New York, at one time is momentous.
These are not tiny storefront theatres. Most are theatres with multi-million dollar budgets, and some even own houses on Broadway (though none of these productions are in their Broadway houses, which should be the next step imo). I would challenge that misguided white male critic to see all of these plays and tell me, and those playwrights, that their work isn’t of sufficient “quality.” Theatre leaders and more importantly audiences seem to think so, as most of the works I mentioned above have been extended. There is clearly a hunger and demand for these stories.
Not being good enough is a common assumption made about any person of color granted entry to a white-dominated space—the idea being that they’re only there because of their race or gender. Michelle Obama, in her memoir Becoming, writes, of her years as an undergrad at Princeton, “It was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly white school and not feel the shadow of affirmative action. You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even some professors, as if they wanted to say, ‘I know why you’re here.’ These moments could be demoralizing.”
She notes that while people of color do indeed benefit from affirmative action, rich white kids also benefit from legacy admissions and athletes from their physical prowess, “It was hardly a straight meritocracy,” Obama writes. Neither is theatre producing; if it were, big-budget Broadway shows would never get resoundingly panned.
“Do you have to sacrifice quality for diversity?” The racist assumption in that question is: if a marginalized body is on a stage, they did not earn their way there. They obviously aren’t as talented as the white artists in that same season.
Quality aside, it also assumes that these artists of color don’t have stories that are worth telling. I would like that white critic to see all of the shows that I mentioned above and ask himself if he’s ever seen a play about Koreans navigating love and loneliness? About teenage girls in Ghana competing in a beauty pageant and having to contend with colorism? About a black girl going through grief? Or about a group of white people realizing that Thanksgiving stories about pilgrims and Native Americans are all just myths?
Last week playwright Jaclyn Backhaus wrote a Twitter thread about her play India Pale Ale, which just closed at Manhattan Theatre Club:
“I feel a lot of love and pride in this show. We present to you: A show with a young female protagonist. A show with 8/9 actors who are South Asian. A show with 8/9 South Asian actors serving no discernible ‘South Asian accent.’ Show with 8/9 South Asian actors portraying pirates. A show with 2/4 designers of South Asian descent. A show with 2 cis white men in the whole creative team and company. A show that allows characters of Punjabi heritage to unapologetically take centerstage.”
She closed her 18-tweet thread saying that India Pale Ale “allowed me to explore my ancestry not from a place of loss or pain, but of power. I now come from a long line of pirates, and I’m surrounded by them. They are my family, we sail the seas and look out for each other.”
There is beauty in specificity.
This past summer, I wrote a piece about Crazy Rich Asians and how it was getting criticism for representing only a small sliver of the Asian diaspora, the ultra-rich of Singapore. Because it was the first Hollywood film since Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) to feature an all-Asian cast, the film bore the undue burden of representing a population that spans 48 countries, plus its diaspora. And its success meant that more works about Asians were now going to be green-lit. If it failed, it would have meant a closed door for Asians in Hollywood. Luckily it did not fail. It got an A-plus.
That’s what white supremacy culture does to people of color and other marginalized folks. While it allows white people to speak only for themselves, the rest of us bear the burden of representing our “people,” even though our cultures are too multifaceted, too complex, to be summed up in one story. White supremacy means only one culture is given the benefit of nuance and the benefit of failure. If a play by a white playwright fails, no problem; there’s another white play lined up after. If a play by an Asian artist fails, that means “Asian plays” don’t sell. It’s not one person’s failure, it’s a collective failure.
Larissa FastHorse is the rare Native American artist to have a full-length production Off-Broadway (from my research, the number of Native American playwrights that have been produced in New York are still in the single digits). Her Thanksgiving Play is currently playing at Playwrights Horizons. She tells me that because she is the only Native American artist with whom many theatres have worked with, she has to make sure that her play is not only successful but that the theatre knows how to interact with indigenous populations.
“It would be lovely to just show up to work on the play,” she says. “I have to be responsible for a whole institution and then those seven generations behind me that are coming, that need to be able to walk through those doors.” People of color carry the weight of their community on their shoulders.
That is why not only the quality but the sheer quantity of women of color being produced right now is so heartening to me, as a woman who wanted so badly to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed when I was young, like the girls in the movies. Because when there are a variety of stories on our stages, no single person or work must bear the burden of representation. This critical mass allows each playwright to be specific with their narratives. They can write plays about people, who just happen to be Black or brown or white. But the character’s humanity comes first.
And for some of us who have never been seen, these stories allow us to see ourselves, and to feel like we exist and our stories matter.
And for some of us, these plays broaden our worldview, exposing us to different communities and challenging our assumptions about them, while also reminding us of our shared humanity. The characters in India Pale Ale eat roti and samosas, they leave their shoes at the door, they draw strength from family and community, and they have dreams bigger than the borders of their hometown. The night I went to India Pale Ale, the actors in the show were passing out samosas to the audience. The woman next to me was lucky enough to be handed one. She opened the parcel, then leaned over to her husband whispering, “What is this?” I hope she took a bite and found something a little bit new, but a little bit familiar too.
Of course there’s more work to be done. Larissa FastHorse may be a first for her community, but we need to go beyond firsts. Thanksgiving is approaching, so give me seconds and thirds.
When there are more playwrights of different backgrounds being produced, they can write just A story, not THE story. That’s an A that every theatre company in America should be striving for.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!