Whites Only (or, WTF is the deal with diversity in the performing arts?)


Apparently there’s been some kind of heated conversation going on in the punditsphere about diversity in the arts. A post on ArtsJournal by Doug Borwick called “Considering Whiteness” seems to be latest iteration. Frankly, I’m not sure how much merit there is in examining “whiteness” at all – it seems like a kind of privileged posture. But I haven’t had time to catch up on all the backstory so I could be wrong. That being said, as Black History Month draws to a close, I’d like to toss out a few thoughts that have been kicking around the Culturebot offices for awhile in anticipation of  a longer, more thoughtful and fully investigated series of articles on this issue, funded by The Ford Foundation. (Just kidding about the Ford Foundation, it’s really Surdna) (Just kidding, we’re not getting funded by Surdna or anybody else. But we’d take the money if someone offered.)

Culturebot’s little “downtown” contemporary experimental theater world frequently laments its whiteness and a lot of the causes seem obvious – privileged access to elite educational institutions, easier access to capital through those networks of privilege, a sense of security by virtue of whiteness to spend 10 years not making money with the expectation that eventually you will. The cultural conditions and contexts of most “downtown” artists seem to predispose the sector towards a “white bias”. But while that may be true in part, it is hardly the whole story, and hardly an excuse.

A few months ago I went to what was probably one of the worst plays I’ve ever attended in my life, certainly the worst I’ve ever seen by a so-called professional theater. Not only was the show poorly written, directed and performed but it was spectacularly homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist. It also happened to be commissioned and produced by one of the first theaters devoted entirely to the development and presentation of work by African-American theater artists and artists of color. The company has been around for 40 years or so and continues to produce new work, if sporadically, despite a dwindling audience base and increasingly outdated politics and aesthetics. Fascinating anthropology, terrible art. From what I hear, this organization is repeatedly denied funding – the company thinks it is due to racism, everyone else says (in private) that it is because the work is consistently subpar. But then the question arises about cultural bias – are funders holding them to a eurocentric aesthetic standard without being sensitive to the cultural context? Or is that just white guilt talking? This is complicated and controversial stuff.

This got me wondering about how many black theaters are there nationally anyway? I started asking around and found out, anecdotally, there aren’t many – and that culturally-specific African-American theaters are in perpetual crisis. Frankly, until I got an email for DETROIT ’67 at The Public I couldn’t tell if Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre were still producing at all. From what I understand St. Paul, Minnesota’s Penumbra Theatre has gone bankrupt several times requiring major bailouts from funders just to stay in existence. What’s the deal? Culturally specific Asian-American, Hispanic-American and Other-American theaters thrive (relatively speaking) while Af-Am theaters languish. Is it because integration and race-blind casting have come so far in mainstream theater that there is no longer a perceived need for culturally specific Af-Am theaters? I highly doubt it. Is it because the African-American community doesn’t have a wide enough donor base or a history of arts philanthropy to provide access to resources? I don’t know and unfortunately I don’t know of anyone looking into it.

During Culturebot’s Long Table on The Politics of Cultural Production at the Under The Radar Festival, Clyde Valentin from the Hip-Hop Theater Festival made some really astute and challenging observations. In a discussion of process-based approaches to making theater he noted that artists working in the hip-hop vernacular are often very product 0riented, that’s the culture. It is about making  the song, the dance, the show and getting out there and, frankly, getting paid.

Just a few days ago Jason Zinoman wrote an article in the NY TIMES about how Upright Citizen’s Brigade has managed to grow so much partly because it doesn’t pay performers. One of the founders, Matt Besser, expressed surprise to discover that performers of color, moreso perhaps than white performers, are unwilling to work for free:

“One of the reasons you don’t see legions of black performers there,” Cyrus McQueen, an African-American improviser who studied at Upright Citizens Brigade, wrote in an e-mail, “is because I don’t know many minorities willing or able to work for nothing to get stage time.”

Mr. Besser sounded surprised about this point. “I never thought of it that way,” he said, though he conceded, “It’s true there are more African-American stand-ups.” But he argued that the Upright Citizens’ model ultimately lifts everyone.

“We pay our performers,” he said, “just not with money.”

Besser is referring to a kind of soft capital associated with prestige value rather than actual money. But for people who come from cultural contexts where actual money is hard to come by, that argument sounds pretty weak. Ultimately though, this is about class more than race, but in this case race and class are so intertwined as to be almost inextricable.

Later on in the Long Table, during a conversation on the ideal conditions for collaboration,  some artists talked about the need for trust. Clyde pointed out that with his artists the idea of walking into a room with someone they don’t know, without a determined outcome, can be unfamiliar and off-putting in and of itself. But the kind of trust that is implicit and assumed in that situation by artists with shared experiences of privilege is very likely unfamiliar to many hip-hop artists and can, in fact, be threatening. Artists from disadvantaged backgrounds or working in the hip-hop idiom may, in all likelihood, be coming from a place (both geographically, socially and psychologically) where blind trust is not an asset but a weakness. Unlearning that wariness is not only a significant undertaking but also demands a fundamental, ongoing change in their circumstances. Either that or they somehow must balance being trusting in the creative process with wariness in more hostile environs.

Clyde’s insights  put a spotlight on significant and frequently unacknowledged differences in the culture and conditions in which art is made and how that affects process, form and valuation. Returning then to the question about cultural bias – are curators, funders and institutions holding Af-Am artists and arts organizations to a eurocentric aesthetic standard without being sensitive to the cultural context? Is the white-dominated arts infrastructure being sensitive to these issues and addressing the underlying economic and social conditions that influence cultural production? Alternately, does “white guilt” play an insidious role in funding that leads to (I hate to use this phrase, given its origin, but…) the soft bigotry of low expectations?

For instance, everyone knows that NPN is pretty clearly divided between the bigger budget arts organizations focusing on contemporary work (and curated predominantly by straight middle aged white men) and more diverse, frequently lower-budget, institutions. The “of-privilege” institutions sit in an Art Burst showcase thinking “Do I really have to sit through another autobiographical identity politics solo show telling me things about poverty and racism that everyone in this room already agrees with and is working to solve?” while the more diverse organizations see the funding that goes to European and contemporary work and feel alienated by what appears to an unfair elitist, Eurocentric bias on the part of funders and institutions. “Why,” they ask “do these people insist on funding work that doesn’t speak to anybody else but themselves, certainly not me or my experience!?” And so everyone gets together and, with the best of intentions, sweeps the conflict under the rug. Year after year no-one seems to be able to have this conversation in public, no-one will initiate a real, if difficult, dialogue and the situation continues to deteriorate. Its a kind of war of attrition by well-meaning people with shared values and an overbearing fear of hurting people’s feelings by speaking truthfully.

At the same time that no-one will initiate actual dialogue among diverse arts organizations, “of-privilege” institutions worry about building a diverse audience base as part of their audience development and engagement strategies. All to often they implement initiatives that, more than anything, serve to reveal their cluelessness. They promote as “diverse”only the culturally specific work they feel comfortable with and fits their aesthetic presuppositions. They do “Spanish” or “Asian” or “African-American” adaptations of Western classics or poetry slams or other misguided, outdated endeavors without taking any time to look in the mirror. Regional theaters present August Wilson plays regularly as a gesture. I’ve been told that there are directors on the regional theater circuit who are considered August Wilson “experts” and whenever a theater wants to do one of his plays, they get hired. But let’s face it, August Wilson is basically Ibsen with Negroes instead of Norwegians, and these directors could just as well direct anything else in the canon. Do they get hired to do that? Or are they only deemed good enough for directing Wilson?

In my recent essay on The Politics of Cultural Production in Theater I briefly address the negative impacts of the over-professionalization of the field. As prohibitively expensive advanced degrees become increasingly de rigueur, the barriers to entry increase for a career in the arts or for access to institutional support as an artist. An unacknowledged class – and thus race – bias exists. I’ve never seen the statistics but I’d wager that minority representation in the philanthropic sector is also greatly lacking. If you work in a “white” organization whose funders are primarily “white” the odds of achieving any kind of actual diversity or authentically engaging diverse audiences dwindle proportionately. If you want diverse audiences engaging with your institution you need to be a diverse institution – and that means in leadership positions, not just admin and support. The sector is economically predisposing itself towards whiteness and then lamenting a lack of diversity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even in Culturebot’s little “contemporary” corner of the world there are artists who make a concerted effort to foster diversity in their work and in their audiences. You only have to look at artists like the visionary Ralph Lemon, Theaster Gates, Kalup Linzy and a host of other groundbreaking artists to see that cutting edge work is coming from an Af-Am perspective. Though it is worth noting this innovation is mostly positioned in visual art and dance, not theater. Non Af-Am artists are making efforts at diversity. From as far back as PULLMAN, WA Young Jean Lee has actively cultivated diverse representations in her work. The Shipment, Lear and Untitled Feminist Show all demonstrate simultaneous rigorous commitments to both diverse representation and contemporary aesthetic practice. Many of Richard Maxwell’s plays use truly race-blind casting and Alec Duffy’s ever-changing Hoi Polloi ensemble is intentionally comprised of a diverse group of artists, both “white” and “of color”, all of whom share a similar aesthetic outlook and artistic rigor.

Which is to say that contemporary performance and diversity are not mutually exclusive. There are people “of color” who are interested and well-versed in its ideas and practices and it is really a matter of all artists from all backgrounds working harder to reach beyond their immediate circles to find a wider group of collaborators from different backgrounds. Some institutions, like The Public, work really hard at it and do a great job, others are sorely behind in their efforts. But, going back to my theme of artists taking responsibility for their work – we can’t wait for institutions to create change, we have to make it happen on the ground, in our practice, right now, and model the world we want to inhabit. The shifting demographics in the U.S. suggest that this is going to happen anyway, so unless theater wants to become completely irrelevant, it better get with the program.

It is interesting that this representation problem seems to be much more a problem in theater than dance. The ranks of talented, successful and critically acclaimed choreographers includes numerous African-Americans from Alvin Ailey to Bill T. Jones to Kyle Abraham, Rashaun Mitchell and Trajal Harrell, to name a few. And the ranks of Af-Am women in dance is also notable, as evidenced by 651 Arts’ presentation of “FLY: Five First Ladies of Dance” and a number of younger choreographer such as Camille A. Brown. In this scenario, as my colleague Jeremy has pointed out, it is interesting to note that the most glaringly absent voice is that of the straight Af-Am male.

Semiotically and culturally, Af-Am women and gay men don’t represent a fearsome threat to white male power.  Straight Af-Am men do. They represent not only a threat to power, but, they symbolize work and labor. The rebellious slave of Django can be read both in racial terms and as representation of of slave rebellion as gory, retributive class war. Following this thinking I would contend that  cultural bias in aesthetic valuation is as much about class as race. Justin E.H. Smith just wrote a great essay in the NY TIMES called “The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours“,  making an eloquent case for race as we know it being a relatively recent construct, one meant to defend slavery and enforce a complex system of oppression. He says:

It is American culture that is principally responsible for the perpetuation of the concept of race well after its loss of scientific respectability by the mid-20th century. Even the most well-meaning attempts to grapple with the persistence of inequality between “blacks” and “whites” in American society take it for granted at the outset that racial categories adequately capture the relevant differences under investigation (see, for example: Thomas B. Edsall’s recent column, “The Persistence of Racial Resentment“) . This may have something to do with the fact that the two broad cultural-historical groupings of people in this country, which we call “white” and “black” and which have been constituted through the complicated histories of slavery, immigration, assimilation, and exclusion, tend at their extremes to correlate with noticeably different phenotypic traits.

So when we talk about cultural bias in aesthetic valuation we’re really talking about how much a given artist has access to the education, training, cultural knowledge, means of production and social networks necessary to create work “equivalent” to artists from privilege. In America that tends to break down along racial lines but the truth is that ginning up racial conflict is part and parcel of obscuring vast economic disparities. It is easier to “see” race than class or economic status, it is easier to identify along a spectrum of sameness and difference based on appearance, especially in an aspirational society where one day you might be rich too.

So if we truly want cultural diversity in the performing arts in America, if we want an arts ecology that reflects the heterogeneity of our society, then we have to look at the economic realities of the arts,  how economics dictates the means of production and presentation, how it affects arts access for artists, audiences and administrators. This is live performing arts, not film, by definition it is a two-way transaction. Audience development strategies are insufficient at best..  We’re going to have to look long and hard at  which artists and institutions we support, how we support them and what we really want to achieve with that support. We need to have frank conversations about quality and expectations, about funding and support not just for institutions but for artists themselves. We’re going to look at how to get the arts out of the institutions and into communities in substantial, meaningful ways. We’re going to have to commit to educating today’s and tomorrow’s audiences and artists. And we’re going to have to buck up for the difficult, sophisticated conversations about the multiple publics we serve, apprise the assimilable and the unassimilable differences of cultures in juxtaposition, interrogate the dubious notion of “universality” and be willing to confront our own biases and prejudices so we can change.

It’s a heavy lift but we can either do it ourselves or let the tides of history do it for us. You decide.

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