Confronting the Undiverse Stage Poorly

NOTE: I wrote this last fall but wanted to wait until the play discussed had long since ended its run.

I love the theatre but often am at odds with the fact that, for the most part, Chicago theatre is predominantly stories of white people portrayed by more white people to audiences comprised of yet more white people. I don't have a problem with white people (I being one of that type) but it becomes a bit like eating the same food over and over again. I mean, I'm no foodie, but the idea of eating the same turkey sandwich on white bread with mayo every time I go out to get some eats is just kind of dull.

If you want to know how we're doing over here in the Windy City, check out this article from Time Out Chicago:

Gavino experienced “being the only one in the room” in her two years as the only nonwhite ensemble member at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, with which she parted ways in 2016. “When a company adds a person from one of these communities, they must ask themselves why they are doing it. Intention is so important,” she says. “Is it out of guilt? Is it for grant money? And when members of these companies don’t actually know the answer, that’s a problem, especially for the minorities ushered into their situation.”

But if it is tokenism, some suggest, it might just be a necessary step on the way to changing the cultures of these companies. “Tokenism was a first step of progress,” says Bellinger. “People of color joined these companies on the vanguard of progress and are used as tokens while attempting to do the insider work we need to move forward.”

There are certainly some roadblocks ahead as the community of Chicago theatre artists navigate through making the stage a place for more voices and more actors of color. One of those roadblocks is both access and the practice of color blind casting.

A recent theatrical experience was disheartening on two levels: the first is pretty easy to discuss, the second is stickier.

First, it as an agitprop play written in the 1930's in verse. Nothing wrong with that in the description. The difficulty is that many agitprop plays written at that time period were written for a far more vocal audience than audiences of today. (An odd note considering that recent developments over at Second City are insisting on a less vocal audience altogether.) As a result, the plays tend to be endlessly repetitive with the same message of anti-capitalist screed. Most characters are points of view rather than human figures, and the conflict is almost always the same. For a modern audience, nearly three hours of this is hard to swallow. In fact, during the second act of three, one of the mostly white and older crowd started snoring so loudly that even the actors could hear this guy sawing logs during their performance.

The question is how to update the play without, you know, undoing the reason you decided it was relevant in the first place? Which brings us to the director's solution.

This second point of contention is harder to discuss in light of the above preamble: color blind casting. The play was written with no actors or characters of color in mind but the director chose to cast four white actors and four black actors. This is a solid instinct and can often deepen the meaning of a piece only relevant to a 1930's audience by making it a bit more in tune with the politics of today. While the idea of color blind casting has good intentions, plays by and about people of color are the stronger choice when looking to diversify the stage. In this case, however, the first option was utilized and poorly.

The problem (in this specific production of this specific play) was that the four white actors were successful at interpreting the dense prose presented and the four black actors were not. This is not to say that the four black actors were bad actors. These were top talents with Steppenwolf credentials. Unfortunately, these actors seemed to merely recite the lines that they memorized and, given that the romantic sub-plot centered around two of them who had little to no chemistry, the result was like watching bad community theatre for a good portion of the time.  The third act was eye-clawingly bad as most of it centered around this couple.

It was rough to watch and even rougher as the conclusion was that these actors simply weren't directed well enough or weren't experienced enough to handle the material in spite of my belief in the increased diversity of ethnicities onstage (and behind the scenes.)

But, as so many in the wake of the Trump Presidency have thrown out, impact is greater than intent. Although I'm not entirely certain that that is the case. The intent is to open things up to a less white cast but the impact (in this specific case) was that the performance suffered for that decision.  

The question I'm struggling with is this: is diversity of ethnicity always the best course of action? I firmly believe that more color is better but I also firmly believe that the choice negatively affected the production. Perhaps the answer lies with selecting plays written by and for people of color. Perhaps it isn't the actors but the plays.