Nontraditional directing

but now they would also be tinged by a context in which black dreams were sparked and then doused”

Diversity in the American theater is a topic that theater artists and administrators have been having serious (though often ineffective) conversations about for the past 30 years. We’ve gone through phases of multicultural casting, color-blind casting, casting (insert race) actors in white roles, etc. And yet white producers, playwrights, directors, designers, and actors dominate the work that the industry deems worthy of mainstream, commercial acknowledgement. This then, of course, has a trickle down effect on professional, regional theaters, which produce most of the plays in this country. And in times like these, regional theaters are looking at plays that have commercial success to plan their seasons, and ultimately sell tickets. I recently wrote a piece for Black Masks Magazine on this very issue, using regional theatres in Upstate New York as my microcosm. You can read my piece here Black Masks_Regional Theater.

Alisa Solomon recently wrote a piece on Howl Round that delves into this very issue, then takes it a step further by looking at non-traditional casting as a copyrightable idea. Mind you an idea cannot be copywritten, because it is  not concrete. For something like a play or stage directions to fall under copyright law, they must be published in the text of the play, Samuel French style.

Director Timothy Douglas (who is African American) had the idea of staging Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful with an all-black cast. There was a production successfully staged at Cleveland Play House, then Roundhouse Theatre, and then in Cincinnati under Douglas’ direction. Then like a dream come true an all-black cast starring Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams, was slated to bring the show to life on Broadway…without Douglas…

In fact, the producers went with a white director named Michael Wilson, who is certainly talented and qualified, but it’s not like Douglas is somehow not qualified (he’s directed plays at theater all across the country).

Now to address Ms. Solomon’s suggestion that this is copyright infringement, I think she’s stretching this a bit. This is not a case of a director’s creativity being infringed upon in a legal sense, but this does reinforce the American theater’s message that quality, profitable theater is made for and by white people. In fact Solomon writes in her piece:

“(How less heated—or necessary—this debate would be in a landscape where black directors had more opportunities for all kinds of plays. Despite the promises by producers in the wake of the Sher flap to reach out to more African American directors, you can still count on one hand the ones who have worked on Broadway in the last decade—Debbie Allen, Kenny Leon, Marion McClinton, Charles Randolph-Wright, and George C. Wolfe—and they aren’t exactly being tapped for Shakespeare or Odets or Durang. If they can’t even hang onto the African American shows, what will they have?)”

That’s a great question: What will the have? If seasoned directors like Douglas can’t expect fair acknowledgement of their talents (after all the Broadway production is using a quote from a review of his version of the play), what does this mean for the undiscovered, unknown, wealth of talented artists of color? We are vital to the life of the American theater! Let’s face it, outside of New York City, theater is the chess club in the high school of life. It’s way past the time to do better. We need to get to it.

Read the full article “The Not-So-Bountiful Trip to Broadway” on Howl Round.


Response to “The Weight Those Heels Carry”

Today’s New York Times ran an article by Felicia R. Lee about Kerry Washington’s role as Olivia Pope in the ABC television series Scandal. Through much of the article Lee wrote about how Washington’s portrayal of Pope impacts the often vile (or absent) image of black women in the media. She noted that Washington is only the second black woman to lead a hit network television series (Diahann Carroll in Julia came before her).

When it comes to images of minorities in Hollywood, in this case black women, I always say “Absence has just as much influence as presence, perhaps more.” What I mean by this is, the images we don’t see affect us just as much as the ones we do. Now, I will go on the record as saying I’m a fan of Scandal (I’m in front of the TV at 10pm every Thursday) and Kerry Washington (love it when she’s on Real Time with Bill Mahr!).

However to call her character a triumph and somehow different from other images of black women is…not inaccurate…but perhaps a reach…Take this quote from the article from a professor at Drexel University (for example):

“We’re putting a lot of our hopes on Kerry’s shoulders,” said Yaba Blay, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, who live-tweets about the show with a group of female academics. “The conversations about her go beyond the role, to the idea of representing us well as middle-class and upper middle-class, educated women,” mostly because of the scarcity of such images of black women.

“We are the same women the media has said are not attractive, are not marriageable,” she added.

But she’s not marriageable. She fits the bill of upper middle class, educated, successful, strong SINGLE BLACK FEMALE. She was the President’s mistress, not his wife, and the only other two men who have tried to step to her on the show both had ulterior motives. So is she throwing wine glasses at another woman’s head, or in line receiving welfare benefits, or taking care of someone else’s children? No. But is she all that different? I’m not so sure. She seems to be just another example of women not being able to have it all (have we met anyone in Olivia Pope’s family?).

Though, maybe the triumph is that I don’t care. I’m going to watch this disastrous affair and political melee play out until Shonda Rhimes is fresh out of ideas. What I did like about the article is the concluding quote from Ms. Washington. It’s very clear that she is passionate about her craft, and anyone who has performed on stage and had this moment will totally get it:

“Ms. Washington insisted, laughing, that she has not plotted out her career. She seems happy just to be an actor, fulfilling an old dream. At Spence, she recalled, after finishing Ophelia’s mad scene during a student production of “Hamlet,” catching a glimpse of her no-nonsense mother weeping in the audience.

“I thought ‘Wow,’ ” Ms. Washington said. “This woman who held me in her womb for nine months — and knows exactly who I am — for a moment something about this world allowed her to suspend her disbelief and believe I was some other person in some other time.

“I thought, ‘this is powerful.’ ””

Read the full article.

Q&A with David Lindsay-Abaire

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview playwright David Lindsay-Abaire for Syracuse Stage’s production of Good People. The play is set in his native South Boston, and is about a single mother struggling to support herself and her special needs adult adaughter. Desperate, she reaches out to an old flame who is now a successful doctor, but as we all know, people are never where you left them. I spoke with David one Thursday morning while he was in his apartment in New York City. He has a great sense of humor and he is a generous interviewee. I really enjoy doing Q&As because I am curious by nature, and being able to ask anyone, anything, really appeals to me.  The article is called “Going home to find Good People: David Lindsay-Abaire talks Southie, strong women and forays into naturalistic drama.” Read the full article here Good People interview with David Lindsay Abaire.