The first time I heard the phrase ED&I, I was sitting in a session at the 2016 Theatre Communications Group National Conference in Washington, D.C. I didn’t know what it meant and was grateful when another attendee asked for the acronym to be defined. “Equity, diversity, and inclusion,” responded the facilitator.
I was taken aback to see theatremakers of all ethnicities openly engaging in issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion to dismantle white supremacy culture and discriminatory practices. I bought in, believing the adoption of ED&I in the field meant ubiquitous liberation from harmful practices. What I didn’t realize then was that the term ED&I fused three very complex ideas into an almost singular, unequally yoked campaign for racial, gender, and disability parity that would ultimately sabotage the movement.
Although ED&I initiatives have ushered in awareness around misgendering, ableism, consent, and calling out white dominance, it has largely been a superficial movement. As Viviana Vargas, of Advancing Arts Forward, shares in their blog, Why I’ve Changed My Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Philosophy, ED&I is a surface approach that glosses over systemic oppression to appease “various funders,” including “government entities, foundations, single ticket buyers who are demanding movement on the social justice front.” Vargas says that such “superficial initiatives make it easy for folks to accept the appearance of inclusion.”
As such, ED&I is an ineffective tool for forwarding social justice because it’s outward-focused. The idea of ED&I is valued more than the practice of ED&I, and success is measured by how well the values are displayed. The effect is to create transactional policies and practices that support the ED&I construct while deprioritizing human needs. In short, ED&I as it’s practiced in our field is the epitome of performative wokeness.*
Catalyst for Change
Over the last three years I’ve had hundreds of conversations with theatremakers of color who are still navigating daily racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and more. Early-career playwright and actor Vaibu Mohan feels that “to pursue inclusion and diversity, specificity has been overlooked.” Mohan, a South Asian woman, shares that as an actor she’s still “often asked to be another brown face onstage,” and asked to play a caricature or a sidekick instead of a multifaceted character.
On the front of gender parity, which perhaps holds the simplest solution to implement (i.e., hire more people who identify as female), the data reveal reluctance to change. Porsche McGovern’s nationwide study, published through HowlRound, Who Directs and Designs in LORT, highlights how disinclined people are to prioritize gender parity; between the 2012-2013 through 2016-2017 seasons, out of 82 artistic directors, 80 percent identified as male. Similarly, 68 percent of directors were also men.
Unable to ignore the failure of ED&I to address these disparities, I began to ask myself what more could be done. Having advocated for less Euro-centric theatre training, I knew that decentering whiteness was one way. But that in and of itself isn’t enough. I became aware of my silence around publicly calling out racism. Not for fear of retaliation—I have survived that—but because I’d been conditioned to just accept it as part of my day.
But oppression isn’t normal or even a necessary part of creating theatre. With no model for the type of theatre I knew was possible, I folded the knowledge I acquired across disciplines, evolving my methods, and created a practice known as anti-racist theatre (ART). ART is defined as practices and policies that actively acknowledge and interrogate racism, anti-Blackness, and other discriminatory practice, while promoting anti-racist ideas, values, and policies that counter the oppression of any people during the education or production of theatre. Instead of being mission- and intentions-based, ART is based in action and transformation. You’re not practicing ART properly unless change is felt, and you experience an intuitive understanding that the plurality of your humanity is welcome.
My work now openly acknowledges racism. But anti-racist theatre is not just about racism; it’s about eliminating all forms of oppression and creating authentic belonging.
It’s been exciting to bear witness to a growing number of theatremakers who are turning to anti-racist training. Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra attended an anti-racist training facilitated by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Ybarra notes that an obstacle to change in the theatre is a “collective fragility that prevents us from actually looking at the places where we unintentionally hold up the systems we purport to disavow.” In her analysis of Center Stage’s work culture, she found that money falls into one of those unintentional areas. For instance, production budgets hold a wealth of information about where an organization’s values lie. Valuing “humans first”—i.e., compensating theatremakers with a living wage—Ybarra reviewed Center Stage’s production budget and noted areas for improvement in increasing pay for designers, directors, and actors. The budget is now oriented to support people first, though Ybarra notes that the total implementation of this value will take several seasons.
Anti-racist theatre is not about doing all the things to end oppression at once; it’s about doing what you can. Small changes in behavior and thinking can have profound impacts on you and your organizational culture. For me, when directing, those small changes have manifested in changing my adherence to the myth that there wasn’t enough time to do the work, which resulted in pleasantries before rehearsal but no time set aside during rehearsal for people to acknowledge one another. Now every rehearsal I lead begins with a check-in to acknowledge what we’re bringing into the room; access needs are shared, and we honor the indigeneity of the land. Through session agreements we collectively define how we want to do the work. I find people appreciate having the space to bring the fullness of themselves to their art making.
It would be a tragedy if in a decade people are still writing about how theatre upholds racism and oppression. Especially because we have so many tools to become fully inclusive, anti-racist, and multicultural—such as How to Be an AntiRacist, the Seeing White podcast, or Race Forward workshops. In a recent essay I wrote for HowlRound, I shared that it’s not enough to expose inequity, champion diversity, and educate people around issues of white supremacy. Instead we must gather the strength and courage to put volume to our complaints, abandon the failed promise of ED&I, and launch a new season of anti-racist theatre practice.
Nicole Brewer is busy making her ancestors proud as an anti-racist theatre consultant, director, actor, and educator. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and three imperfectly perfect children.
*Cosmetic behavior that lacks an invested commitment to dismantling oppressive practice. This term was shared by a student during the Q & A portion of the TCG panel Color Blind vs Color Conscious Casting, moderated by Elena Chang, director of ED&I Initiatives, with panelists Víctor Élan Vázquez, Zoë Kim, Kayla Kim Votapek, and myself.