Diversity Onstage: A Critical Issue

The role of the theater critic

5 minute read
Blanka Zizka, founding artistic director of the Wilma Theater, shows how it's done.
Blanka Zizka, founding artistic director of the Wilma Theater, shows how it's done.

Theater critics have responsibilities that may or may not align with those of artistic directors. You want butts in seats? Not my problem. Pull-quotes for your marketing material? Good luck with that. Theater that widens and deepens the scope of our regional scene? Now we’re talking.

If you, Mr. Artistic Director (of the 967 people who joined the Directors Guild of America in 2009, 72.1 percent were Caucasian males and 8.3 percent were minority males) choose to present an all-white, all-male season of playwrights and directors, all set in and around 20th-century upper-middle-class living rooms, you have no obligation to do otherwise — not to me, not to your audience. You can produce this season and occasionally do. Some might argue that there’s a larger cultural obligation here — that art is a mirror held up to nature, and if you’re only showing your own reflection, you’re undermining its entire raison d’être and subsequently damaging your community by appealing to an insular and false version of the area you serve. But I’ll let that bit slide for now.

If I, Ms. Theater Critic, attend your theater and see a good but traditional production of The Odd Couple, or maybe Glengarry Glen Ross, or especially, Lend Me a Tenor, I am obliged to explain how and why this production works. However, as a critic tasked with analyzing the work in its larger sociopolitical context (Why this play? Why here? Why now?) I am also obliged to wonder, in print, why you’re producing these old ringers, and how, in the case of the third example, you can in good conscience, in a city whose population is 58 percent African American, present a farce whose conceit relies on blackface and an Afro wig, unless you are deliberately thumbing your nose at the neighbors. (This last example refers to a production in Wilmington, Delaware, but I’m not picking on anyone; that was only one of three Tenors this season alone.)

The invisible woman

Anyway, there’s no shortage of other examples of artistic directors’ obliviousness to issues of race and gender. The Lantern Theater is presently taking some heat for producing a Japanese-themed Julius Caesar that includes no one of Asian descent. And this week in Washington, DC, critic Peter Marks hosted a conversation with artistic directors about representation of women and people of color onstage, at which Ford's Theatre's Paul Tetreault said, out loud, “plays by women don’t exist,” and Round House Theatre’s Ryan Rillette added the ones that do are “feminist,” and thus, “outdated.” (I don’t believe he went on to explain why, conversely, Brecht’s Marxism or Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English remain relevant.)

Some critics don’t concern themselves with diversity or context, sticking to the subject before them. This is its own form of injustice as well as an abandonment of the critic’s role; to see exclusionary practices and not comment on them is to perpetuate them, but also, to pretend a show exists in a cultural vacuum does a disservice to the role of art.

If you are passionate enough about theater to spend your professional life critiquing it, you’ll do whatever it takes to ensure the form’s survival. Advocate for the kind of theater that reflects our surroundings. Just 17 percent of plays produced in this country are written by women. Since 2000, the annual list of the top 10 most-produced plays averages three female playwrights. (An interesting side note: there’s far more ethnic diversity among these women than there is among their male counterparts, which is great, but leads me to wonder whether this is because such playwrights enable artistic directors to check off more than one “diversity” box.)

Better in Philly

In the Philadelphia area, at least eight, maybe more, theater companies have female founding or artistic directors. They’re all white, but even so, this makes us something of an anomaly. While women’s leadership doesn’t always translate into diversity or gender parity (for example, Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current season consists entirely of works written by white men), it helps.

We ought to be championing the Wilma Theater’s Blanka Zizka as a national model of how to get it done right. The Wilma presents a solid season featuring three female playwrights out of four (half of these shows also feature female directors): Lisa D’Amour, Danai Gurira, and Paula Vogel. D’Amour is a young writer; Gurira, African American; Vogel, with a world premiere, is an out lesbian and one of the few women whose work is regularly produced. Zizka presents them alongside Tom Stoppard, with whom the company has enjoyed a long producing relationship.

The Wilma hasn’t announced a diversity initiative, and they haven’t sent out press releases trumpeting their season as a hard-won triumph that bucks the system. Maybe they should, so more people will realize the quiet game-changing that’s taking place along the Avenue of the Arts (and to a lesser, but also influential extent, off-Broad Street, at companies such as InterAct Theatre, whose mission has always been one of supporting diversity and producing new work). Even if they don’t, though, that’s something we critics are obligated to notice, not just because it widens and deepens the scope of theater in our region, but because there are still artistic directors who say they just can’t find any decent [check whichever box/es you like] playwrights. It’s the critic’s responsibility to show readers there are and also where they can be found.

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