Minima Dramatica: Theater As White Supremacy
This fall, both North Shore Music Theatre and San Diego Rep staged productions of Evita featuring an all-white cast. This event was brought to the attention of the Latinx theatre community through the Latinx Theatre Commons. In it, a lively debate was held, most notoriously, on the “whiteness” of Argentines and how pointless a debate about Evita really was. Though this debate never made it out of the Commons, it followed the same pattern as the other examples that have come up recently about whitewashing. Nevertheless, a couple of points: Yes, Evita is the production of two white Englishmen mostly based on a long-discredited book (The Woman with the Whip); yes, Eva Perón was white and Argentine; and yes, whiteness in Argentina is itself the product of a brand of white supremacy. However, this is a production of Evita taking place in the United States, a country whose privileging of whiteness is woven into the first paragraph of the Constitution, and which, since 1790’s Naturalization Act, has made it very clear that the standard for citizenship is white, which only changed legally in 1952 with the Immigrant and Nationality Act. It is for that matter that we should talk for a second of what we really mean about whitewashing in the theater of this country.
Our theater has largely seen itself as a place of tolerance and progressive thought. As a way of coping with its erstwhile irrelevance, it has compromised its cultural and financial dominance in favor of artistic importance, a design that it bestows largely to itself. Most of the conversation around our work aims to applaud something other than itself, whether it be something like political relevance, diversity, or the human (usually a very white) condition. We also at the same time create a craft-based and merit-based system which exists to justify decisions which are more the result of board and subscriber pressures than anything we might deem to call “artistic integrity.” The problem in this kind of thinking is that defenders of casting choices –often rely on a number of excuses. Usually, 1) that a search was made, we promise, and we looked at many people of color, but these were the best people for the job; or 2) that a search was made, but not enough (or any) people of color showed up. Both of these excuses rely on one very important presupposition: That, by being a person of conscience, I am immune to the effect of white supremacy; therefore, my decisions, as long as I make an effort to show my conscience, are not racist.
The problem is that white supremacy is not demonstrated by intention but by structure. Even if you try, if your decisions continue to uphold the structure where white people are privileged and valued over people of color, you are upholding the (perhaps not so vaunted) values upon which this country was founded. End of story. If you looked, and saw white people that were good enough and people of color that weren’t good enough, and chose the white people, then regardless of your intention the result maintains what is very much a reality of whiteness in this country. Not only is it the default when it comes to citizenship, American-ness, human-ness, it becomes the default of theater-ness.
Going back to this issue with Evita, of course, if we abstract from everything, the argument for casting an all-white cast for a British play about light-skinned South Americans of European descent seems logical. The whiteness of these characters, however, does not mean we are not essentially upholding white supremacy and participating in racist culture when we cast it that way. Why? Because even if they were white characters, even if the play was the whitest play, written by the whitest writer, if we go ahead and cast an all-white cast, and use an all-white production team, we are also participating in white supremacy. We are essentially continuing to enact racism on our stages. It does not have to be a show that originally had people of color in order for it to be a “whitewashing.” Any time our stage is awash in whiteness is a whitewashing, what we wash over does not matter if the result is just white. Even if the content is conscientious and even calls out America for its crimes, it is still, as meritorious as its content is, participating in and contributing to white supremacy on our stages.
Rather than advocate for ourselves as good people who tried, to vindicate us, as the theatre loves to do with itself, we must face an ugly reality. As theatermakers, as makers of culture, we are doing as much to perpetrate white supremacy and racist ideology than anyone else. A play that features all white actors, is by virtue of its existence in this country, a racist play. We must not hide this fact, but embrace it since it forces all of us to make active, real choices in order to address it. Theater does not exist in a vacuum, if the United States is a white supremacy, as so many of us are apt to say especially in an age where it is more apparent than ever, then theater does not exempt itself, unless it actively tends to the plague of whiteness onstage, behind the stage, and most importantly in nearly every structure of power within our artistic stages.