Acclaimed British actress and director Janet Suzman probably wishes she could rewind back to the time where she said “Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare.” Talk about a shit show.
As someone who has worked doing marketing and public relations for non-profit theatres, I can say that getting people of color to become a recurring part of the audience is a challenge that theatres have faced for 30 years. However, to say that ethnic minorities do not go to the theatre because theatre is a white invention is uninformed. I know plenty of Asians, Latinos, and black people who enjoy going to the theatre, and do so frequently. What I don’t know of is many theatre companies who produce work starring and written by Asian, Latino, and black people.
People like to see people who look like them onstage, and they like to see stories that they can relate to onstage. Doing one play with a black person does not guarantee a black audience. Not all people in any ethnic group have the same interests or experiences. I’d like to know what media outlets and community engagement events/programs the Print Room used to promote this play.
I have a feeling that Suzman did not intend to be offensive when she made these comments. She was probably just frustrated, as most artists are, by the lack of ethnic audience representation in the theatre. However, to simplify theatre as a white man’s invention is silly. There are many socio-economic, education, and political barriers that keep people of color away from the theatre in colonized countries. However, that does not mean that they are not creating their own theatre outside of the white establishment. Where there are people of any race/religion/culture/ethnicity, there will always be theatre. That has been the truth since the beginning of time.
Below are links to two responses that leave her without a leg to stand on:
“Theatre does not have one simple definition, of course. People of African and Asian descent have been making it for thousands of years, in open spaces, in temples and on the road.”
“To have a mature career as a theatre-maker of colour is practically unheard of, and so a tradition, a way of being, cannot be passed on, cannot be taught. We are always “in development”; “vibrant”; “emergent”. Our voices are at the mercy of others. We must always explain. Start again.
Actor Janet Suzman criticised for calling theatre ‘a white invention’ by Dalya Alberge and Mark Brown
“The sharing of stories between performers and audience stretches across every single civilisation beginning with the oral tradition of re-enacting folk tales or religious myths, graduating into more formalised forms of structured staging. But this shouldn’t be an argument about what theatre is or who ‘invented’ it. This is a more profound discussion about the relevance of the stories we tell and for whom we tell them.”