Counterweight finds artists of color, gets lost

A road paved with good intentions

At first it seemed so simple. I attended a number of events run by theater makers of color that were intended to push for more inclusivity in Philly theater. I heard people say again and again that they’d like to hire more people of color (POC), but just didn’t know where to find them. They said this to rooms full of theater people gathered for the purpose of saying, “Here we are!” 

What once looked like an answer now only raised more questions. (Illustration for BSR by Hannah Kaplan.)

So, perhaps giving decision makers the benefit of the doubt (maybe the POC really were that hard to find) or just out of pure frustration, I decided to compile a database showcasing the nonwhite talent ready, willing, and able to work in Philly theater. I reached out to others whom I knew felt the same way and we posted a simple website called Counterweight.

That is, the design of the website is simple. As I learn daily, nothing else about it is. 

Who's who?

The site’s cocreators, Cat Ramirez, LaNeshe Miller White, Shaun Leisher, and Hallie Martenson, and especially its POC cocreators, were generous in advising me while I built the application form and the page. They explained where my language wasn’t inclusive or was inappropriate, or where I missed things. However, I wanted to do the bulk of the administrative work — keeping up the spreadsheets and updating the profiles — myself, because that way, I could promote the people on the site while staying in the background. I forgot, somehow, that invisible is very different from neutral.

I suddenly found myself in the position of questioning who is and is not a person of color. As applications arrived, I made a hard rule: people can identify themselves. It’s not for me to arbitrate whether or not someone is a POC.

Then there were applications from people who wanted to be listed because they identified as Italian or Greek. The point of the site is to make underrepresented people more visible, so we stuck to featuring black, Latinx, Native, and Asian people, as well as trans people of any race, because those are the groups that have been historically underrepresented in Philly theaters and whose stories are more likely to be whitewashed (or ciswashed). I tried to be as thorough as possible in my responses to people we declined to feature. But it didn’t feel great.

There were also issues of gender and sexuality. At first, I listed female and femme directors on the site’s front page. That rankled others; seeing photos of successful white women listed alongside POCs in the database seemed to equate, say, an Arab-American actor with a recognized working white actor who sometimes directs.

"Race is about experience, whereas gender is about presentation, right?" (Photo by Wonderwoman0731 via Creative Commons/Flickr.)

I moved female directors to another part of the site. Some white queer actors wanted to be listed. Being queer still brings so many challenges for people, but in theater? I’m not sure. Then there are female-presenting white actors who identify as genderqueer. Do theaters need an easy way to find genderqueer actresses for genderqueer roles? Race is about experience, whereas gender is about presentation, right? These questions are far above my pay grade (spoiler alert: zero dollars).

What to do?

We also received refusals of our invitation. Some people don’t want to be featured on the site because the concept bothers them; some were patient and helpful in explaining why they thought it was problematic. Others just politely declined. Actors and designers of color explained that it was frustrating to walk into an audition and see that every black actor in town had been called for a show, whether they were right for a part or not. The database might exacerbate that.

While white actors enjoy the luxury of being thought of as “perfect for this role,” all black actors seem to be equally viable for all black parts. Others respondents felt understandably uncomfortable with being siloed into categories. And it was painful to know I’d made them uncomfortable, especially in service of my desire to be a “good white person.”

The experience of navigating all of this is, of course, a very white one. I stepped voluntarily into the complications of race, and then was surprised it was so complicated. Further, it’s difficult for me to avoid centering myself as I grapple with running the site (or taking it down). Is this a good idea? How do I signal-boost without imposing my invisible prejudices and ignorance, if that’s possible at all? If it’s impossible, is it worth trying? I feel hesitant to reach out to friends of color to help with these questions because the whole point of the site was to take work off their shoulders, not to give them more work in educating me.

I wish I could write sunnily about how proud I am of the work Counterweight is doing to try to lift up underrepresented artists, but that wouldn’t be honest. Right now, all I know is that the site exists, and I am where a lot of people are right now: mired in the complications of being part of a racist culture, not knowing whether we’re making things better or worse, and trying to build an intersectionality that doesn’t turn into the oppression Olympics.

I’m going to keep working on the site because having it feels less harmful than not having it. But I can’t really say for sure. 

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