“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.