“A request for more diversity isn’t really a plea to embrace stimulating heterogeneity. It’s a plea to embrace minimal decency.”
Noah Berlatsky wrote those two sentences in the Los Angeles Times in 2017. The words tug at the heart. Who can argue against embracing minimal decency—being more mindful of others? Didn’t our own mothers drill as much into our little heads? But what is most striking in Mr. Berlatsky’s statement isn’t the altruism implied by the word “embrace,” it’s the power dynamic embedded in the word “plea.” It’s an accurate description of how the mandate of diversity has played out, with those on the outside pleading to be let in, hoping those on the inside has some reserve of minimal decency. Forget getting embraced.That’s messed up. It’s also at the core of why many diversity initiatives go wrong. When the disenfranchised have to make appeals to be let in, it only reinforces the prevailing power structures. It’s a concession by the gatekeepers that their current practice of homogeneity is no longer acceptable. And while that may be true, it inevitably discounts the value that diversity brings to the organization. It’s not only about making space for others who don’t look and think like you, it’s how everyone at the table recognizes the change as an opportunity to be better.
Put Diversity at the Heart of the Creative Process
Some theatres look at diversity as an imposition, or worse, something necessary in order to avoid attracting the attention of the liberal police. We’ve seen theatres make corrections mid-season, changing casts, or swapping out plays for more politically correct options. When it’s done after the fact, it comes off as reactive, a “concession.” It’s not fair to those who might be affected, especially for artists who lose jobs because of the decision. It also puts the replacements in an awkward position, knowing their opportunity comes at the cost of others losing theirs. Diversity shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. One way to avoid this is to begin every project from a place of inclusion.
Diversity should not be an imposition, an afterthought, or a means to raise your chances for getting a grant. It should be at the heart of your creative endeavors.
Some theatres around the country, like the Public Theater in New York, now make “radical inclusion” part of their mission statement. I first came across this term at the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. “Inclusion to the point of discomfort,” was how it was first explained to me. For a theatre company, what might that mean? In the years since Nairobi, I start every process by asking myself a question: who’s not in the room and why? This applies to both artists and audience. The answers are often uncomfortable but eye-opening.Many of you will recognize this scenario. A director has found the perfect cast, with a knockout creative team. Everyone is thrilled, except for one pesky uber-liberal staff member who points out that the whole of the enterprise is blindingly white, and almost entirely male. Whoops. After a moment of self-flagellation for the oversight, and to the relief of the theatre’s suddenly concerned leadership, the director agrees to recast one role and change one designer. A press release announces the theatre’s now diverse creative team, and a box of wine is passed around to celebrate. Meanwhile, back in the rehearsal room, everyone has their game face on quietly justifying in their minds the new Asian cast member’s role in the court of Louis XIV.Okay. That’s probably an extreme example. There are times when casting for diversity’s sake can be a liability.The point is, diversity should not be an imposition, an afterthought, or a means to raise your chances for getting a grant. It should be at the heart of your creative endeavors.“At the where of my what now?” you ask.Go back to how it all started. Who decided to put up a play about the court of Louis XIV? What led to the greenlighting of this project? Who were the decision-makers? Who chose the director? How was it cast? Who was allowed to audition? Was diversity an intrinsic part of the process, at every juncture? Was it a clearly stated goal that everyone heard and understood?
Many theatres think of themselves as diverse, and consider diversity a given in everything they do. That’s not always true. As an artistic director of color, for a theatre company dedicated to Asian American artists, I still have to step back and consider my own areas of improvement. Have I fostered an environment of inclusion? For example, what did we do to make sure we reached out to the disabled and transgender communities? What kinds of faces and bodies are represented on stage? Do they have agency in telling their stories?The answers will not always be ideal. There will be mistakes, and outright failures. What you do with those missteps, how you bring all the stakeholders in the room to address the challenges is what keeps diversity beating at the heart of your organization. Diversity is about and made up of people. It lives and breathes.
Diversity is Not Just an Ideal—It’s Also About Real People and Their Feelings
One of the most ignored aspects of diversity in the workplace is the psychological and emotional churn that comes with change, especially when it involves recalibrating the power levers.Let’s be clear. Diversity is not only about bringing in people of varying ethnicities, gender, or physical abilities. It’s about putting them in positions of power. And because we’re dealing with people, there are likely plenty of feelings involved. Allowing emotions to fester, unaddressed, leads to plenty of resentments and dysfunction.
It’s not enough to require your employees to attend a day-long seminar on bias identification. You have to make it part of your daily work life. Talk about it. That’s easier said than done. Ask yourself about what scares people when talking about diversity? Some worry that feelings will get hurt, or they want to avoid trouble so shutting up is the best course. You’ll get different answers. What’s important is making space for every individual to feel valued, and heard.
Studies suggest that pitching diversity as a “must-do, or-else” directive makes people defensive. No one wants to be told they are biased, so avoid negative messaging around diversity practice. Instead, invite people to participate. When they show up, it’s because they’re personally invested in the process, and they chose to be a part of it.
Diversity is not only about bringing in people of varying ethnicities, gender, or physical abilities. It’s about putting them in positions of power.
Break the Habit
How’s this for a mission statement? “We aim to provide a welcoming, non-confrontational place where audiences can relax and enjoy worlds that do not differ from their own.”I don’t know about you, but this is not how I want to experience art. In fact, there are probably zero theatres that have this for a mission statement. And yet, many practice this type of “safe” programming, unwilling to disturb the status quo, reluctant to alienate a steady subscriber base, or, unable to conceive of the court of Louis VI peopled by actors of color.
“But there are times when casting for diversity’s sake can be a liability.”
I don’t mean to pull a “gotcha,” moment, but if you agreed with my previous statement, then we need to talk. The court of Louis XIV can be diverse; it can have Asian, Latinx, and Native American actors in it. It’s theatre, and using the “authenticity” excuse to cast only white actors is a form of bias. That’s right, for the most part, authenticity is code for bias. It’s used to exclude people that don’t belong…and in most cases, it’s used against artists of color.
I can already hear a voice saying, “If authenticity is not a thing, then white actors should be able to do August Wilson plays.”
Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go.
We don’t live in a world where all things are equal. Artists of color, artists with disabilities, and transgender artists have far, far fewer opportunities to work. Diversity initiatives in the theatre are meant to increase those opportunities. One way to do that is to put them in all plays. That is what’s meant by break the habit. Make a conscious decision to put diversity on your stages, every time.
About the Author: Ralph B. Peña is a founding member and the current Producing Artistic Director of Ma-Yi Theatre Company, a leading professional Off-Broadway theater based in New York City focused on developing and producing new works by Asian American playwrights. Recent directing credits include: the world premieres of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady, Hansol Jung’s Among the Dead and A.Rey Pamatmat’s House Rules for Ma-Yi; a new translation of The Orphan of Zhao, for Fordham Theater; Nicolas Pichay’s Macho Dancer: A Musical for The Virgin Labfest 11; Lloyd Suh’s “The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go (Off Broadway Alliance Award), Joshua Conkel’s Curmudgeons in Love (EST Marathon), and Mike Lew’s microcrisis (Youngblood, Ma-Yi). Ralph is the recipient of an Obie Award for his work on The Romance of Magno Rubio, and is a member of The Ensemble Studio Theater, and The Ma-Yi Writers Lab.