A few months ago, I was invited by musical theater writing team Michael Walker and Kyle Ewalt to be on a panel that would be discussing the lack of diversity or more urgently, the ever present whiteness of musical theater.
A little over a week ago, I awoke to a Facebook message from a black friend alerting me to the fact that I’d gotten a shout out and link to my website in a blog written by white actor and writer Brett Ryback about, among other things, the increasing lack of diversity in musical theater or more urgently, the ever present whiteness of musical theater. You can read it here:
My first reaction to Brett’s shout out was panic because I haven’t updated my website in over a year and I worried briefly that his linking to my site would drive people here and further expose the extent to which I am not exactly the world’s greatest musical theater business person. For me, the business of being a musical theater writer is an extremely taxing and soul sucking one. There’s so much about this business that seems to be about relentlessly promoting one’s “brand”, saying “ameezing,” and “theenk yo” a lot, and pretending that you are famous–all things I fail at miserably because I have to work a day job and am thus, less available to participate in the business part of this business which is one of the reasons I have to work a day job instead of more doggedly pursuing my art, blah, blah, shampoo, rinse, and repeat with sour grapes.
But it was also flattering to be shouted out by Brett in the context of so many salient points about an important set of issues that the musical theatre community is only very slowly waking up to–and in the same breath as Lin Manuel Miranda who, from what I understand, is changing the musical theater game like a true gangsta with “Hamilton” which I will likely never see because I’m the brokest nigga ever, I can’t with lotteries and that shit is EXPENSIVE AS FUUUUCK! WHY DO MUSICALS HAVE TO BE SO FUCKING EXPENSIVE?!?!? DON’T THEY ACTUALLY WANT PEOPLE TO SEE THEM?!?!? DO WE NEED TO ASK RUMPLESTILTSKIN TO SPIN STRAW INTO GOLD SO WE CAN GO TO THESE SHOWS?!?!?
But I digress.
I met Brett last January as a weeklong participant of the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at the Goodspeed Opera House where I had been invited to develop my piece “A Strange Loop.” Like Brett’s shout out on his website, I felt a 30/70 combination of flattery and panic. On one hand, it felt great to actually be selected to participate in this respected writer’s colony because of the quality of my writing. It gave me a small sense of professional legitimacy in an industry that can often feel so exclusive and cliquey when you’re trying to climb your way up. On the other hand, it felt unnerving to be walking into such a respected community to share an essentially autobiographical piece that is very explicitly about a black gay man who is in conflict with his own experience of himself–a piece that is explicitly from his own unique point of view–a piece that endeavors to force the hegemonic white gaze of the audience to lie dormant and see things as he sees things as a black, gay man. It was unnerving because like most things, I was going to be revealing some uncomfortable aspect of myself in front of a bunch of white people. The same white people who were and are, to my eyes, usually the exclusive recipients and administrators of these kinds of residencies, commissions, and musical theater awards, But gasp, those same white people were into it. And if my spidey sense was accurate, not in an even remotely racially patronizing way. They were legitimately into it. And on some level, I’m still unpacking that.
But here’s the thing: commercial theatre is a business like any other. Producers and theaters decide the appropriate ratio of art/entertainment to commerce in order get butts in the seats when investing their dollars in putting on shows they hope will be successful. Theatergoers then decide with their dollars where their butts will be sitting in theaters all over the country. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, at this point, the majority of those butts are white. And how open are those white butts to spending two and a half hours with characters, songs, and stories that have little to nothing to do with them? How open are those white butts to spending two and a half hours having to empathize with that which is unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable to them? How open are those white butts? It’s hard to say because those white butts are so rarely asked to do any heavy lifting in that regard. Those white butts are so catered to, powdered, diapered, and put to bed with the theatre that is presented to them for mass consumption. There is a strong and consistent supply and demand for whiteness on stage. I repeat: commercial theatre is a business like any other.
I recognize that every play is not going to be to my taste. As a consumer of media–theatre in particular, my only requirement is that whatever is happening on the stage make me think and/or feel. The great gift of theater is that it allows you the space and time to test your empathy. As a person of color, I am asked to extend my empathy to white people of all stripes in every piece of media I consume every day of my life. I can’t tell you what it is like to repeatedly sit through movies like “Juno” with its spunky pregnant white teen heroine or plays like “The Way We Get By” by Neil LaBute with its awkward white step-brother and step-sister who comedically fall in love and have sex with each other in a plot that would have been laughed out of even my very white intro-to-playwriting colloquium at NYU where I once had the comic misfortune of having the whitest actors read the blackest playwriting scene ever in a Kenneth Lonergan master class again IN A ROOM FULL OF WHITE PEOPLE.
So strike that: yes, I actually can tell you what it’s like. It’s boring as shit. It’s boring because it’s usually the same recognizable or interchangeable white actors spouting the same brisk, hip or hipster white dialogue on the same white American Naturalism set, written by the same popular white American author in the same white artistically directed theater in front of the same white audience. Another way of saying this is that it’s boring because it’s usually pretty clear that these plays are consciously or subconsciously for and about white people which is another way of saying that most of the plays I have seen in New York City over the last 16 years I have lived here are dependent upon white supremacy. And I believe that white supremacy is super boring–artistically speaking at least. But white supremacy is also super profitable. Remember those butts I alluded to earlier?
But let me be clear: just because I think the white supremacy of the American theater is boring doesn’t mean that I don’t think there aren’t some great white writers out there whose work deserves all of the attention and support it can get. To this day I still lose sleep over a David Adjmi play that I saw a staged reading of in 2000 or 2001 called “Strange Attractors” as part of the Cherry Lane Mentor Project. While there were ZERO people of color in it, the depth of thinking and feeling in that play successfully tested my empathy. My response to that play was basically “this nigga knows what’s up!” Another person of color may have felt differently–I wouldn’t know of course, because I was the only person of color in that particular audience (more on that later).
Everything I feel about plays goes double for musicals because musicals are harder to write, harder to direct, and harder to produce as they are dependent upon even whiter butts demanding their money’s worth for their white supremacy as well as the whitest critics writing for the whitest critical establishments–critics whose credentials were very likely earned in the whitest academic and/or theatrical communities where anything non-white can only be evaluated in terms of the cold white gaze. That’s a lotta damn white supremacy, right?
In his blog post, Brett discussed his perception that today’s wide swath of young musical theater writers are writing shows that seem bogged down by white supremacy. He strongly encouraged these writers to be more inclusive in their work–to paint their fictive worlds with more color–to strive to make the theater look more like the world we actually live in. I applaud his passion but I feel of two minds about his call to action. On one hand, I encourage white writers to embrace the diversity of today’s world in their work because yes, it is ridiculous that audiences should be subjected to play after play or musical after musical telling stories that offer seemingly universal insights into the human condition and yet somehow exclude the existence or any aspect of the experience of people of color. But I’m also wary of the knee-jerk, inartistic liberalism that can sometimes manifest in well-intentioned theatre pieces that are slavishly inclusive of people of color but traffic in emotional and/or intellectual dishonesty with their characters and stories.
Writing for theatre is fucking hard. It requires single-mindedness, perspective, craft, and determination. When you add music to the mix, it gets even more complicated because of the pluralistic ways music can function in storytelling. And when you add people of color to that, talk about intersectionality!
Brett also mentioned the dearth of musical theatre writers of color in places like www.newmusicaltheatre.com, a site that is “dedicated to the distribution and promotion of a new generation of musical theater writers.” On that we agree. There needs to be more of a consistent spotlight shone on musical theater writers of color–particularly black women in my view. While we have heard the belting and “screlting” of countless black women on the stage, we have not heard from black women musical theater writers (or black women musical theater directors or hello–black women musical theater producers!) nearly enough. Kirsten Childs is one name. Sukari Jones is another. There must be others. Repeat after me: we need to hear from more black women writers!
But whether you are a white musical theater writer or a musical theater writer of color, I would advocate for something that is maybe a little less politically correct but definitely on the side of art in terms of what makes it onto the stage:
JUST TELL THE FUCKING TRUTH.
That’s the only edict I would issue at this point. If your cast is all white, is that the fucking truth? It may be! But you need to ask yourself the question each and every time and not only when you’re casting it but also as you’re writing it. Race is a construct, so in that regard, it is arbitrary, but racism is a practice–and one that is often subconscious or defacto. And it’s a practice that affects all people of color everywhere. It’s a practice that affects white people as well and I would argue (with help from Toni Morrison) that it may even affect them worse.
All of this is to say that unless your play or musical is set on Mars (and even then …), your story is absolutely going to be in inhabited by characters who have lived in a world where racism and white supremacy have impacted them in some way. Even if it’s not the subject of the play, it should be as much a given circumstance as the weather, or what happened yesterday in the world of the characters or the dramatic question of what makes today different, i.e., the breaking of the ritual that starts every story ever told. So I would challenge any musical theater writer to factor the given circumstance of racism and white supremacy into at least their thinking about their shows just as much as their BMI charm songs or their “bro characters” or their JRB inspired ostinatos. Doing that work is not easy. It will force you to move out of your comfort zone as a writer but it’s worth it if you are truly interested in creating complex, dramatic pieces of art and entertainment. In that same vein, I would encourage creative teams to tell the fucking truth by thinking more deeply about who we will be seeing on the stage in terms of casting. Are you making an offer to the same waifish blonde white actress you saw in a Juilliard showcase years ago to cast as “an ingenue” in a musical about falling in love in New York? What would happen if you cast the darkest, thickest black actress you could find? Are the consequences really so dire for the storytelling? Do you even think (or know) about colorism? Can you move beyond the outdated notion of “types”? Do you have to go to the surly Adam Driver clone who is just perfect for that gritty Adam Rapp play? What would happen if you broadened the scope of your theatrical nepotism? So much of theatre seems to have to do with who is friends with whom or who is sleeping with or has slept with or is friends with someone who has slept with someone who has money and/or access. If that has to be the case, then sleep with somebody black, brown, Latino, Asian and also broke as hell if that’s what it takes for your paradigm to shift.
Because white supremacy is the order of the day in commercial theatre, I always do a count at every play or musical I see. I stand up before the show is starting and I count the people of color. It’s usually less than 5 and that’s truly depressing. But I think we are primed to change that. And so to producers, artistic directors, and development associates, I would encourage you to tell the fucking truth by looking beyond the white women of a certain age and economic background for your subscriber base. A few seasons ago, I went to Playwrights Horizons to see Robert O’Hara’s play “Bootycandy,” which to this day, is the only time I have ever felt truly seen as a black, gay man on stage. When I walked into the theater with the white person who got me a comp, I saw more black people in Playwrights Horizons than I had ever seen in any New York theater in my entire life. The person I was with said “we’ve never seen this many black people in our theater ever.” Misquoting “Field of Dreams” I said, “if you build it we will come.” And so it is. People of color are hungry for media that acknowledges and/or explores our existence. And we are increasingly going to be the audience you are left with after the blue haired old white ladies of Manhattan (and Manhattan Theater Club) die. So why not start cultivating us now and in perpetuity?
I am in the unique and blessed position of being both a creator and consumer of theatre. In everything I write, I want audience members to think and feel deeply regardless of the color of their skin or their station in life. I want them to empathize even if I am presenting a world that is wholly unfamiliar to them. In everything I see, I expect the same. For that reason, I believe that white creators and producers of theatre have got to get their arms around the fact that snobby, eye-rolling black gay intersectional bastards like me (and others) will be sitting in their audiences in larger and larger numbers with both open hearts and high standards and expectations.