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AAPAC Visibility Report Shows Gains for Black Actors But Persistent Funding Disparities

While the report shows some progress, it also calls into question the field’s funding disparities and the scarcity mindset.

NEW YORK CITY: The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has released its annual report, “The Visibility Report: Racial Representation on NYC Stages,” which looks at employment statistics by race during the 2018-19 season. The report covers all of Broadway, as well as the 18 largest nonprofit theatre companies in the city during the last full season before the pandemic.

A few takeaways: Roles for Black actors grew slightly, while the percentage of roles for all Indigenous folks and other people of color dropped. The hiring percentages for BIPOC workers, both onstage and backstage, at New York’s nonprofits were better than on Broadway. But also in the nonprofit realm, funding disparities between predominantly white institutions (PWIs) and theatres of color remain vast and pronounced.

This last bit of the report deserves more attention. AAPAC looked at 18 PWIs and 28 theatre companies included in the City Council’s Coalition of Theatres of Color, and found that an overwhelming 92.2 percent of the funding went to PWIs, resulting in nearly $150 million, with theatres of color receiving just $12.5 million. Of the $21 million in government funding given to these NYC theatres, PWIs received four times as much federal funding and two times as much state funding as their theatre of color counterparts.

As the report notes, even before the pandemic, the field was facing pressure to diversify, but struggling to do so without fundamentally altering the existing power structures. With 100 percent of artistic directors at the largest nonprofits being white, and 88 percent of board members also being white, the massive disparity in funding is hardly surprising, including at the private foundation and individual donor levels. Theatres of color, according to the report, received only $7.5 million in private funding, compared to $132.7 million for PWIs. The report also names the Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust and Shubert Foundation as two organizations that dedicate a majority of their giving to theatres where this kind of funding disparity exists. This harkens back to a question continually posed by many: As the field funds the efforts of PWIs to diversify, where is the commensurate support for theatres of color who are wholly dedicated to employing and serving under-invested communities?

Looking at Broadway, the report noted that 93.6 percent of producers and 100 percent of general managers during the season were white. Crucially, the report showcases that, though the percentage of inclusive casting reached a new high—growing to 28.4 percent of all roles from 12 percent—the actual net gain for actors who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) was only half of one percent. Most of those increases came through chorus roles. On the other side, white actors took almost two-thirds of all available roles (65.9 percent), 80 percent of lead roles in musicals, and 89.7 percent of lead roles in plays.

Meanwhile, only 11 percent of writers on Broadway were BIPOC, down 9 percent from the year before, with the only productions AAPAC classified as culturally-specific stories written by BIPOC writers being Ain’t Too Proud: The Live and Times of the Temptations and Manhattan Theatre Club’s Choir Boy. Both of those productions had white directors, though, explaining the stat that 93.8 percent of Broadway directors that season were white. Designers didn’t fare much better, with the percentage of them who were white standing at 92.6 percent.

The report contrasts these findings with those in the nonprofit sector of the city, which saw over 90 percent of shows with at least one BIPOC writer attached being culturally specific stories with majority BIPOC casts—a large jump from 32.4 percent last year that shows, the report states, that plays at nonprofits during the 2018-19 season more unabashedly centered BIPOC experiences. That said, the number of BIPOC writers in that sector only marginally increased, gaining 3 percent to sit at 23.9 percent of writers. Additionally, this focus by the nonprofit field on BIPOC stories also led to more opportunities for BIPOC designers (26.7 percent) and directors (21.3 percent, a six percent increase). Actors, on the other hand, saw BIPOC actors in close to 54.5 percent of the roles—a six percent increase—while white actors continued to be overrepresented based on their New York City population size.

While AAPAC credited companies like the Atlantic Theater, MCC, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theater, Signature Theater, and the Vineyard Theatre for a majority of their actor hires being BIPOC, the report also shows plenty of room for improvement across the board. Only one Latinx, one Middle Eastern/North African (MENA), and one Indigenous writer received productions at nonprofits. Even the Public, listed as the most diverse nonprofit theatre of the season, saw Asian American actors making up only 3.4 percent of all roles.

Overall, AAPAC’s report found that Black actors were the only group whose onstage representation increased, moving from 23.2 percent of roles to 29 percent.

“While it is a positive indication that the industry seems to be placing more value on Black representation this season than in years past,” the report states, alongside a questioning of the scarcity mindset in the field, “it is also alarming that all other BIPOC numbers tumbled. It’s as if the industry could not hold more than one aspect of diversity at a time, especially if doing so would threaten the perceived primacy of white stories and white bodies onstage.”

The entire 2018-19 visibility report is available online.

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