Straight to the punch

This is what white peo­ple do when peo­ple of col­or even dare to ask the questions

5 minute read
Marginalized people have questions, and so the storm begins. Nothing was wrong till they spoke up...right? (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)
Marginalized people have questions, and so the storm begins. Nothing was wrong till they spoke up...right? (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

My closest brush with a punch in the face happened in third grade during a game of dodgeball. A big, bullying boy took aim at me with a stoutly inflated rubber sphere the size of my head. It hit my face as roundly as a perfectly flipped pancake slaps the griddle. The impact flamed inside my nose and tears burned my eyes.

So if we’re going to talk about punches, for the record, that’s my frame of reference. I thought of it when I read Philly theater artist Kevin Glaccum’s response to an open letter addressed to Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) last week. Glaccum says, “I think it’s very difficult to have a conversation with someone right after you punched them in the face.”

“Infuriated and exhausted”

The original April 9 open letter, signed by 20 Philadelphia theater artists (in disciplines from design and acting to playwriting and producing), points out that after PTC’s promising return to the scene with plays by Lynn Nottage, Marsha Norman, and Christina Anderson, the theater’s public promise to boost inclusion on its stage has fallen flat with the announcement of its 45th anniversary season.

PTC has pledged to promote diversity by producing one play each year from the Kilroys’ List, an “annual industry survey of excellent new plays by woman, trans, and nonbinary playwrights.” That pledge is launching with a season of shows by white, cisgender writers, including Kilroys pick The Wolves, a much-produced play by Sarah DeLappe.

The letter’s signers, a diverse sample of Philly’s theater scene, including artists of many races and genders, say they are “infuriated and exhausted” by PTC’s 2019-2020 programming.

“As Philadelphia Theatre Company, you have a commitment to highlight stories that speak to the racial diversity of the Philadelphia community at large and selecting three plays by white writers is not honoring this commitment,” they say. The letter’s signers add, “It feels disingenuous that you aren’t including a single play by a writer of color, but still using the Kilroys’ List Pledge to highlight diversity and inclusion in your programming.”

A Kilroys pick: Stephanie Weeks and Shayna Small in PTC’s ‘How to Catch Creation,’ by Christina Anderson. (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)
A Kilroys pick: Stephanie Weeks and Shayna Small in PTC’s ‘How to Catch Creation,’ by Christina Anderson. (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)

Bristling

Blood pressures spiked as the letter hit social media and was picked up by the Inquirer, which says PTC producing artistic director Paige Price was “blindsided” by the missive.

Glaccum, a stage director and founding member of Azuka Theatre Company (and an adjunct professor at my alma mater, Arcadia University) quickly got attention with his responding statement, posted April 12 on Facebook.

He calls the letter writers’ “demand” for better representation “a noble aspiration,” but says the letter itself saddens him, that it’s “a cheap shot,” and that it’s “absurd and childish” to criticize PTC’s Kilroys pick.

And he’s “terrified.” Why? Because the letter “stands atop a very slippery slope.”

Glaccum is all for a more inclusive industry—but “the very idea that someone can TELL an artist what kind of work they can make, and how they can make it causes me to bristle.”

Wherever the wind blows

He’s worried, because “the winds today blow from a direction of inclusion and participation, but what happens when the prevailing winds change … and we’re suddenly hearing voices telling us to exclude and isolate?” He concludes by affirming that his best theater experiences have come when he’s able to imagine himself (a white man) in the shoes of other kinds of people—apparently implying that nonwhite, nonbinary folks should recognize this as good reason to get comfortable with PTC’s picks.

Naturally, the comment thread is hotter and more uncomfortable than a summer matinee at Panorama Philly.

Plenty of folks are explaining that ye olde “slippery slope” rhetoric about artistic integrity dodges the crucial point about endemic underrepresentation in the industry for (let’s face it) anyone who’s not a cis, white, able-bodied man, and that these artists are already well-versed in searching out pieces of themselves in people who do not actually represent them.

“Terrifying” questions

Later, Glaccum says he felt “a bit beat up” by the comments; his intention was community-building.

But he has plenty of support.

A raft of apparently white commenters thank him with words like “pitch perfect,” “so very well said,” “bravo,” “I cannot love or agree with this enough,” and "pay no attention to this circular firing squad.”

A Kilroys pick: Stephanie Weeks and Shayna Small in PTC’s ‘How to Catch Creation,’ by Christina Anderson. (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)
A Kilroys pick: Stephanie Weeks and Shayna Small in PTC’s ‘How to Catch Creation,’ by Christina Anderson. (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)

But if we really listen to the original open letter, we realize that it’s not a slippery slope, a cheap shot, or terrifying at all.

The open letter is a vehicle for a list of cogent questions, like “What did your grants promise about diversity and inclusion on your stage in your 2019/20 season?” It asks who was represented on the season selection committee and whether they discussed the exclusion of POC, trans, or gender-nonconforming writers; how PTC’s staffing selections will represent these groups; and what PTC is doing to cultivate younger and more diverse audiences

If we think this letter to PTC was out of line, we must realize one simple thing: our investment (conscious or not) in the patriarchal, white-dominant status quo is so great that not only are we refusing to work on changing it—we can't even handle our own discomfort when marginalized folks pose thoughtful questions about it.

What we must do

It's as if the big, bullying boy who hit me with the dodgeball heard someone ask about how we could avoid injuring other kids in future, and then simply hearing the question made him storm off, because he can't imagine the possibility of giving up the ball.

All signers of the open letter to PTC identify themselves by factors like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Sitting behind the keyboard of this article is a white, heterosexual, cisgender woman, and my work in dismantling my own white supremacist matrix is ongoing.

That white supremacist matrix means that we also can’t single out PTC in conversations about equity, inclusion, and diversity in the theater industry. Many local companies are doing excellent work in this vein—and many more, with their majority-white staff and decades of white, mostly male leadership, must take notice of this conversation.

And here’s what we need to do when marginalized people speak up:

Listen.

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