The Great (and Very, Very) White Way: BIPOC Theatre Artists are Demanding Equity

The Great (and Very, Very) White Way: Why BIPOC Theatre Artists are Demanding Equity

Story | Margaret Baughman

Courtesy | We See You, W. A. T.

“We See You, White American Theatre,” started as a call for reckoning of racism embedded into local theaters. Now it is a movement spreading across New York City calling out injustices with a list of demands from BIPOC artists.

“In reaction to civil unrest in our country, we — Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) theatremakers — formed a collective of multi-generational, multi-disciplinary, early career, emerging and established artists, theater managers, executives, students, administrators, dramaturges and producers, to address the scope and pervasiveness of anti-Blackness and racism in the American theater,” a letter posted on the movement’s website said. 

When the protests for George Floyd and racial justice began this past summer, there was yet another opening to move the conversation about racism.

The We See You conglomerate to put together a letter of intent and list of demands for producers and other theatre gatekeepers. The open letter was signed by hundreds of theater workers including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Viola Davis, Sandra Oh, Uzo Aduba, Leslie Odom Jr. and Katori Hall to name a few.

For a sense of the disparities in the industry, reviews of the 2017-2018 Asian American Performers Action Coalition Visibility Report show work from white playwrights are produced four times as often as their BIPOC peers. White actors took 61.5% of the NYC roles – which is almost double their respective population size. 

The demands set out in a 30-page document call for cultural competency, changes to working conditions, hiring practices and transparency regarding compensation to name a few.

“We demand acknowledgement of the exclusion, exploitation, and misrepresentation of Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern and all People of color,” the demands read. “Though, we hold distinct histories of struggle and vast differences within our communities, we name ourselves present and stand together to demand respect.”

Producers and Artistic/Executive Directors hold all of the power of deciding what writers to produce and how the shows will be cast. If it wasn’t already obvious, these people are almost all cisgender white men. This includes the Nederlander Organization, (owners of nine Broadway theatres), who donated $160,000 to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. 

For many people, this information will come as a surprise. On the outside, the theatre industry is seen as leaning far to the left, and that is true for many of those working for people like the Nederlanders. Decision makers and gatekeepers, on the other hand, are not. 

Smaller companies, like No Exit Theatre Collective, embraced the demands immediately as a guidebook of ways they could work towards actively being anti-racist. No Exit’s Co-Artistic Director, who wished to remain anonymous, is a queer, immigrant director, producer and teaching artist.

“We established roles for those already doing work with us to form a staff that would meet and create policies in response to the We See You WAT demands,” they said.

She said major theatres have not announced significant shifts to their programming, staffing or institutional plans since the demands were brought forward this summer. 

Until then, artists wait for companies to acknowledge the following quote from the demands: “You can’t be anti-racist if your leadership is predominately white.”

Rather than opening up more seats on executive teams or boards, it seems extraordinarily clear that the way for this to be accomplished is for white people that have been in power in this industry to give up their leadership positions. 

“I was thankful and excited to have a call so clear to Predominantly White Institutions [PWIs] that I thought they couldn’t ignore,” she said. “We now know this to not be the case, and many PWIs’ silence has felt very loud.”

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