To say that the past 18 months have been hard for nonprofit theatres is like saying there’s a chance of rain when it’s pouring outside. Artists, administrators, and audiences know all too well the hardships of the COVID-19 shutdown, which have ranged from layoffs and budget cuts to lockdowns and personal health struggles. Most of our readers have lived these experiences firsthand.
In looking at how the field has fared since the pandemic began, we wondered how theatres run by and historically serving people of color have weathered the past year-and-a-half, which also saw a nationwide racial reckoning. How was their experience different from that of predominantly white theatres? We can’t speak for (and could not speak to) every such theatre, we surveyed several theatres of color and interviewed leaders from a few to take the temperature of the current moment.
“I think the biggest excitement is the younger generation of administrators,” said Nicole Hodges Persley (she/her), a director and professor who also serves as artistic director of KC Melting Pot Theatre, an African American company in Kansas City, Mo. “I feel like there is a renewed spirt and larger critical fluency.” Indeed, an influx of artists and administrators who are calling out bias, injustice, and unequal opportunities in theatre can be invigorating. But is it sustainable?
In the time since in-person theatre ceased and anti-racism protests gripped the country, Persley has witnessed fraught conversations around the actual meaning and implementation of equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. What is meaningful action, and what is simply pandering to patrons? Inauthentic actions on the part of predominantly white theatres look too clearly like they’re “trying to find people that hit the mark, that make you look like you’re doing what you say you’re doing,” Persley said. Some of those actions may garner exposure for artists, productions, or programs that deserve that increased exposure. But a lack of genuine interest in the topic—the sense that a discussion is only happening because a larger institution wants to show they’re working with a token person or institution of color—is easily discernible.
“As much as there was this unification from ‘We’re all not able to do theatre the way we want to’ and ‘We need to support out-of-work artists,’ the infrastructure has not shifted,” Persley said. “Meanwhile, the agents, the managers, the development execs, everybody who wants to find the next Hamilton still goes to Joe’s Pub and waits for it.” In other words, rather than seeking out or supporting the work of smaller regional companies, let alone theatres run by and for people of color, she said the industry remains hyper-focused on large markets like New York’s, even amid conversations about who gets to succeed in the big city and why. “There are Black artists that are developing work, but they have to wait to be discovered by the predominantly white regional theatre that’s suffering post-COVID.”
Some theatres tied their COVID-period fundraising initiatives to anti-racist work or movements in their area. But others said they believed this would harm rather than help their efforts; one theatre I reached out to said that because their city is ranked among the lowest in the nation for economic inclusion, they weren’t sure a “DEI fundraising campaign would be successful here.” Other theatres chose to uplift the work of Black-led organizations in partnership with virtual theatre programming, or simply to amplify the voices of anti-racist leaders on social media. Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Dallas formed a BIPOC Arts Coalition with activists and other Black and Latinx-led theatre companies in the area to solidify local anti-racist work in the arts.
In Missouri, KC Melting Pot has invested in an “incubator program” for Black actors, directors, stage managers, and critics. “We just take it like an old apprentice model, step by step, and use whatever resources we have to create opportunities for folks to train and work,” Persley said. “We’ve been able to really increase representation in Kansas City.”
Resources are historically scarce at theatres of color in comparison to predominantly white theatres, and the pivot to digital theatre for many companies that had not experimented with the form much before COVID further exposed this gap.
“I think if you had more resources, you could do a much better job than even a mid-size company did,” says José E. González (he/him), executive artistic director of Teatro Milagro in Portland, Ore. The company’s digital theatre work has been an experiment in innovation, but it has also been their sole offering for longer than González would have preferred; their upcoming Día de Muertos festival, which marks the 25th year of the holiday production, will be a “hybrid” model for digital patrons and vaccinated in-person audiences. “I think all of us were doing a guessing game. You don’t know until you try it. “
Like Persley, González believes the conversation on what the industry has learned—and how it has or hasn’t changed—since mid-2020 must go beyond what committees were formed and what shows were staged.
“It would be really good, I think, for the industry to do a real, honest self-analysis,” González said. “Get beyond just, ‘Hey, we were brave, we did it through COVID,’ to: Did it really make a difference? Would we go back and do it again?” These aren’t questions with easy answers, or ones that everyone is prepared to confront. “Nobody wants to admit failure or disappointment, but ultimately that’s how we learn how to be better, and what really counts.”
Some factors have remained constant since since the beginning of the pandemic: COVID is still infecting people around the world, and systemic racism still has a hold on many institutions across the country. Acknowledging the discrepancies in how predominantly white theatres and theatres of color are funded and patronized, and how they operate on an everyday basis, doesn’t change either of these realities, but such an acknowledgment is an important step in paving the way for a more equitable future. When at last COVID safety protocols are a thing of the past, what will remain—both which theatres and which disparities among theatres—will tell us a lot about how much we’ve learned or not from this moment.
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is a contributing editor at American Theatre. @ameliamerr_
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