Over the years, the plays and theatre festivals I have produced have always attracted predominately Black crowds, by nature of the content. This is my ‘normal’ but it is often considered abnormal to those outside of my community, as I have been told several times, with certainty, that “Black people don’t attend theatre.” The conception of theatre itself is often what is misconstrued. Back when I attended an arts high school, majoring in drama, I was exclusively taught a Eurocentric curriculum. Because I personally did not connect to the commedia dell’arte and exetra, a friend and I created a sketch comedy show for our peers that touched on our lived experiences and created a means to sharpen our skills – writing, acting, and producing.
The 60-minute showcases were so popular that friends began inviting other friends, alumni and students from other schools showed up. We were creating a demand and started producing several shows during the school year up until graduation. This natural progression of events, birthed out of a desire to share what we felt was being institutionally repressed, influenced the work I proudly do today.
As the founder and executive director of PIECE OF MINE Arts, a company that presents original plays created by African Canadians, I make space for artists to share their authentic stories and it has reached Black audiences and beyond. Likewise, as a playwright, I have also had my ‘blackity black’ work produced in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Hence, in this article I will highlight the engaging, and sometimes controversial ways, culturally specific theatre can be produced, while also addressing the pitfalls of tokenizing and undervaluing ‘diverse’ theatre.
Prioritize Your Intended Audience
- An interesting shift is taking place to create safe and celebratory spaces for culturally specific work. In early 2019, my play, The Negroes Are Congregating, was presented by Théâtre de l’Usine in Geneva, Switzerland. The curatorial team asked if I would be open to having two thirds of the talkbacks exclusive to POC audiences. The proposition caught me off guard because my immediate thought was “what will others who are not invited think?” (This is a common mentality of those who are systemically oppressed to consider the feelings of the oppressor over their own). As the title of my play suggests, I accepted the invitation and the world did not crumble. On the contrary, the discussions, that were intended to last 30-minutes, lasted for hours with folks who craved such opportunities to speak their truth candidly.
- A month or so later, I was invited to a closed performance in Toronto by a New York based artist who had requested a Black audience. The night of the show was not publicly posted among the other performances by this artist, and the email welcomed the invitee to share with other Black artists to RSVP as well. Attending the show was refreshing, especially because the participatory content of the performance would not have been comfortable to engage with if it had been a mixed audience.
- My last example points to a two-week run of The Negroes Are Congregating in Toronto, in which the associate producer suggested designating a Black Out night, inspired by a similar initiative with Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play on Broadway. I was all in favour, because, as mentioned at the top of this article, the proposition didn’t stray from my ‘normal.’ The over-sold-out night exceeded my expectations and may have been one of my most memorable performances to date. The audience was explosive, catching every joke and silence in play, and the performers were electric, feeding off of the room like never before. Regardless of the confusion or negativity leading up to this Black Out night, questions from white patrons about why this one performance out of thirteen others was exclusively Black, it served its purpose and was a complete success. I encourage others to consider segmenting audiences or talkbacks, particularly if the play deals with sensitive content. It doesn’t have to be race based, it could serve infinate segments of groups such as self-identifing Queer, Indigenous, South Asian, or even single parents.
Recently, I sat on a grant jury and a colleague made numerous mentions about proposals that prioritized a culturally specific audience in their outreach plan. This well-intended person was put off with the notion that the general public would be excluded from these productions but I made a point that BIPOC voices have historically been limited or non-existent. In making more space for diverse stories, we are improving the ecology of theatre not replacing one audience for another.
Make it accessible
- Let’s be clear, BIPOC audiences do not need to have discounted admission by default but when you’re building an audience, incentivized deals certainly increase numbers. The Black Out night was a pay-what-you-can performance to ensure that it was accessible and well attended. Black folk also showed up every other night, paying general admission, proving that special initiatives did not disrupt revenue goals.
- I have also been intentional about my team, from the producer to the stage manager, ASL interpreter to the arts administrator, I want to provide more opportunities for BIPOC workers. Throughout my career, it has been perseverance that has produced work, toured shows, and provided a stage for over 200 artists. The arts is already a tough industry but I am fortunate to have worked on my own terms when conventional theatres decided to go in a different direction. I
Be VERY clear about your WHY
- Far too often we are seeing white-led theatre companies/organizations program culturally specific work that has not undergone thoughtful research and preparation. The only diverse team members might very well be the cast, and all leadership roles are made up of white decision makers. Simply having colourful people on stage does not equate to a diverse show. As a result, there has been warranted conflict or silencing in the rehearsal halls, majority white audiences watching culturally sensitive work to the discomfort of performers, and public backlash to the mishandling of stories or overt cultural appropriation. Needless to say, true collaboration is required to earn allie brownie points. It doesn’t start and stop with casting.
- Let’s say a Korean woman is selected to play the lead in Romeo and Juliet. To make a big hoopla that you were so ahead of your time in casting an ‘Asian’ woman but, at the same time, strip the actor of their cultural identity is counter productive. Allow diverse artists to bring their full selves to a character or stick to what you know.
- Further on that note, not all plays written by people of colour are culturally specific. A Sri Lankan playwright could write a dystopian comedy that has no direct correlation to their ethnic roots. Or a West Indian actor will have no desire to play Tituba in The Crucible simply because that’s the only role YOU can see them in. And thus, it doesn’t have to be a ‘colour thing’ just because the artist is not white.
Here’s to genuine diversity on stage becoming the new ‘normal.’