After a Long, Starring Run, Will Racism at Last Get the Hook?

Severed from the rest of New Haven by Metro-North tracks on one side and I-95 on the other, the Long Wharf Theater shares a patch of industrial bleakness with a busy food terminal and a chicken processing plant. The only convenient way to get there is by car, which is one reason the Tony Award-winning company, despite decades of excellent work, has had no trouble attracting visitors from the suburbs and exurbs. For many Black and Latino New Haveners, that seemed to be the point; according to a local joke, the initials L.W.T. stood for “lily-white theater.”

To be fair, the epithet could apply to most theater in most of the United States for most of its history. Regardless of demographics — white residents have long been a minority in New Haven — producers of commercial and nonprofit work have overwhelmingly selected repertory and instituted policies that in essence ensured a monoculture.

Even the improvements that started surfacing more recently have come with caveats. On Broadway, most musicals now offer some degree of diversity in their ensembles, if less so in leading roles. In the 2018-19 season, the last for which there are published results, the percentage of “non-Caucasian” ticket buyers grew to about a quarter of the audience — nice, but still vastly underrepresenting their actual proportion in New York.

It took the double punch of Covid-19 and the racial reawakening of 2020 to fully expose the unfairness and disrupt the status quo. First, the pandemic, stopping theater cold that March, gave people time to reflect on the work they do and the values inherent in it. Then, that May, the killing of George Floyd — and the publication a few weeks later of “We See You, White American Theater,” a crowdsourced manifesto featuring 29 pages of demands for a more equitable industry — threw grief and outrage into the mix. As theater companies rushed to put diversity training on their agendas, and anodyne expressions of support on their websites, it seemed real change might be coming at last.

This summer I’ve been thinking about what that change will look like. In earlier parts of this series I’ve argued for ridding the art form of its “great man” inheritance, weighed the costs of fair pay and explored the physical and emotional dangers theater workers face as part of their jobs. And though these are all important, they are really just aspects of the bigger picture of inequity that begins, in the American theater as in the country at large, with racism. Previously swept under the rug of supposedly immutable traditions and rules, it is now revealed everywhere, in casting, funding, leadership, programming.

Yet many of the people I’ve spoken to about it feel hopeful. They are not deluded; they know it will not be a smooth ride. Though the running of some regional companies has, for the first time, been taken out of white hands, their inheritors immediately faced a public health disaster. Efforts to improve diversity onstage and backstage have too often come without the support necessary to help new hires succeed. Culturally specific theaters may face an existential crisis if their function gets co-opted by change. And as new ways of thinking about the purpose of theater have led to new ways of producing it, traditional audiences, feeling disoriented, sometimes resist.

I understand that; it’s hard to let go of what you grew up loving enough to make room for what others might love. But sometimes the first step in fixing a bad foundation is to get out of the house.

That at any rate is the Long Wharf’s plan. In December, when the lease on its longtime home expires, the company will say goodbye to I-95 and the poultry plant as it embarks on an “itinerant production model” — which Jacob G. Padrón, who became the theater’s artistic director in 2019, recently described as “placing ourselves fully in the community.” As a taste of that undertaking, “Jelly Roll’s Jam,” a jazz concert in connection with an upcoming reading of the 1992 musical “Jelly’s Last Jam,” was presented Aug. 16 at a public library in Dixwell, a predominantly Black neighborhood. It was packed.

But it’s not just the venues that will change. To see how thoroughly the Long Wharf has reimagined its agenda you have to look at before-and-after snapshots of the work itself. Emerging from the pandemic, the 2021-22 season seemed relatively familiar, at least in format, with four plays running in fully mounted productions of about three weeks each. Even so, not one was the work of a white playwright, and only “The Chinese Lady” was by a man.

Shannon Tyo as the title character in Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady,” a play that tells the story of a young woman brought to the West and forced to perform a distorted version of her identity.Credit…T. Charles Erickson

The 2022-23 season, which began Aug. 3, is a new creature entirely. Among eight events, there’s only one conventional run, if convention can be said to encompass a work by the multidisciplinary ensemble Universes at a site suggested by the artists. The other seven, most lasting for just a few performances, include that jazz concert, a festival of short plays by and about Black trans women, a “work-in-process sharing,” a “community parade,” a Muslim American virtual play project, a monologue competition and, in a nod to the Long Wharf’s inaugural production, in 1965, a benefit reading of “The Crucible.”

“Our legacy should not be one of bricks and mortar but of people,” Padrón said during a Zoom call that also included Kit Ingui, the theater’s managing director. “And if we want to belong to all people in the city, we had to move into a space where they could discover us.”

Ingui pointed out that the rigid way regional theaters function is very different from the fluid way theater is created — “and that’s part of the base problem,” she said. “After 50 years without change, their mission has become keeping the company alive as opposed to making the plays. We haven’t allowed ourselves to ebb and flow with the times.”

The Long Wharf’s new flow, Padrón admitted, has elicited “a lot of fear of change.” But he quickly added that “the hope is that we can decenter fear and recenter possibility and imagination.”

Still, the problem of racial inequity was never far from the surface of our conversation. The theater’s board of directors, for instance, did not “reflect the composition of the community” when he arrived; of its 26 members only two were people of color. (Now there are 28 members, 15 of them people of color.) To achieve that balance, Ingui added, the theater explicitly removed the requirement that members “give or get” a certain amount of money — a typical condition of board membership that often discourages diversity.

Though this is the kind of structural change that can begin to undo institutional racism, it comes at a cost; money not donated or raised by the board has to come from somewhere else. One source, Ingui pointed out, is the new production model itself, which will save the Long Wharf $250,000 this year, and $500,000 next year, on an annual operating budget that as of 2019 was $6.4 million. The savings will be reinvested in the model.

“Show me your budget,” Padrón said, “and I’ll show you your values.”

Padrón, who is Latino, is one of a new generation of artistic directors hired over the last few years at regional theaters whose prior leadership was almost entirely white. The circumstances of their hiring vary widely. Maria Manuela Goyanes of Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C., and Robert Barry Fleming of Actors Theater of Louisville are both taking over from retiring artistic directors associated with their theaters almost from the start; Padrón replaced Gordon Edelstein, who was fired in 2018 after he was accused of sexual misconduct.

However they came to their jobs, they found institutions that had hardened into fortresses, doing essentially what they had always done in the way they had always done it. The idea of theater as collaborative and evanescent had long since given way to a rather different image: an expensive building enshrining the taste of a single, immovable and usually white male visionary.

If too little turnover can be sclerotic — the artistic directors of several of New York’s most successful institutional theaters have been in place for three, four or even five decades — too much can be chaotic. Some companies are staking a compromise position, one that aims to maintain the stability of the single-leader model without relying on a single leader. Taibi Magar, who is Egyptian American, and Tyler Dobrowsky, who is white, have just been named the joint artistic directors of Philadelphia Theater Company — a two-for-one deal, as they are married. Soho Rep in New York City has three co-leaders; Steppenwolf Theater Company, in Chicago, has two.

But another Philadelphia theater, the Wilma, recently established what may be the most unusual setup, a rotating triumvirate in which Yury Urnov, James Ijames and Morgan Green are taking one-year turns as “lead” artistic director, in the off years serving as advisers in what Ijames described as “heavy, heavy consultation.”

Ijames, who was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his play “Fat Ham,” told me that the Wilma’s arrangement, which began in 2020 and was immediately stressed by the advent of the pandemic, still has kinks that need to be worked out.

“The tricky thing about the shared leadership model,” he said, “is that it’s still leadership. It’s still about decisions coming from the top. One of the lessons out of this great time of reckoning is that we have to, have to, have to listen to people and create systems in which they feel heard. But because we don’t always agree, decisions take longer too, which is a weird drawback.”

Brennen S. Malone, right, as a Hamlet figure, with Jennifer Kidwell, left, and Kimberly S. Fairbanks, in a filmed production of James Ijames’s “Fat Ham” for the Wilma Theater.Credit…via The Wilma Theater

Certainly it was weird for the Stratford Festival, in Ontario, where a three-headed directorship failed almost immediately in 2008, victim of a leadership style best summed up as “the buck stops nowhere.” Still, Ijames isn’t sure disagreement is always the enemy (“it encourages deeper thinking”) or certitude a supreme value. “Theater prepandemic was very much obsessed with trying to get things perfect, and not very interested in making the industry a good place to work. Something that looks great can be rotten underneath.

“And anyway,” he continued, “what’s the virtue of the singular vision? When we think of great movements, like the civil rights movement, we may think of Martin Luther King, but the number of lay folks, women and young people who were actively involved in petitioning, marching and driving people to the polls is how the world got changed.”

Ah, but one still wants a King. I am sentimental enough to enjoy my memories of great directors and their signatures, great companies and their sweet spots. One result of these leadership shifts is that theaters will develop unfamiliar house styles, or multiple house styles, as decision-making becomes more distributed and diverse. That’s an obvious plus for those who will now get a seat at the table, and for the health of the system overall, even if it may be disorienting to those who expect, every time out, to see and love what they’ve seen and loved before. Yet how can change happen without letting go of the past?

For me, meeting new people and new worlds through plays has always been the point. In a way, the further from my experience they were, the more meaningful the exercise; to find something familiar in violent Jud Fry or reckless Walter Lee Younger or donkey-struck Titania was to triangulate my own geography by distant stars.

More recently there have been more stars to go by. Even with a 15-month hiatus, I have seen more work by Black authors on Broadway since 2019 than in the 10 years preceding it. But Broadway is fickle, and that burst of diversity will end if the plays don’t start turning a profit — which they probably won’t, if the industry doesn’t learn how to make theatergoing more inviting to diverse audiences.

In any case, the real work of serving communities often marginalized by the mainstream falls to what Ralph B. Peña calls “culturally specific” theaters. Peña is the artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater, whose mission is to develop and produce new plays by Asian American writers. In the last few years I’ve seen many excellent results of that mission, including “Vancouver,” Peña’s gorgeous puppet play about cultural displacement, and “The Chinese Lady,” by Lloyd Suh, which is now being staged around the country.

Ralph B. Peña’s “Vancouver,” a puppet drama about the unhappiness of displacement, was produced by Ma-Yi Theater and the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival in the spring of 2021.Credit…via Ma-Yi Theater

“There’s a focus on Asian American works I have never seen before,” Peña told me. “But we still don’t receive the kind of support the mainstream theaters do. Our annual budget is about $1.5 million. We should be between $3 and $5 million to carry out our mission. We have a lot of writers we’ve cultivated over the years whose plays we can’t produce because we don’t have the money.

“So we do co-productions,” Peña continued, “and push other theaters to schedule the work. But oftentimes when they do, they put them in their basements. I’m saying stop: You cannot use works by playwrights and artists of color to check your diversity box, and then blame the work when you don’t sell enough tickets. You put on one Asian American play and expect audiences to come in droves? How is that supposed to work? Think of the plays instead as loss leaders, sunk costs, whose success should be measured in helping to create a relationship with the community.”

Part of Ma-Yi’s aim, Peña said, is to “get the work out there” — meaning into the mainstream. Other culturally specific theaters aim also to get the work “in there,” delivering it to their neighborhoods. In Atlanta, True Colors, co-founded by the director Kenny Leon in 2002 “to celebrate the rich tradition of Black storytelling,” has been highly successful at that; at a performance in 2020 of “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play,” a comedy I had seen in New York three years earlier, I was just about the only white person in the sold-out auditorium.

From the reactions around me, I recognized the pleasure a shared understanding between actors and audience can engender. I remembered feeling something similar watching work that speaks to my own cultural background, which because I am white means most of the work produced in the American theater. Why shouldn’t everyone have that experience? And why shouldn’t I enjoy being a witness to it?

At the same time, I wondered what the improvements in diversity I otherwise support might mean for companies like Ma-Yi and True Colors — and the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, Minn., Pregones in New York and Two Worlds in Albuquerque, which serve Black, Latino and Indigenous communities. Will they go the way of the gay bookstores of my youth, which disappeared completely as gayness went mainstream?

That already seems to be a concern at Penumbra. “When we developed these actors and people began to see these stories being told,” Lou Bellamy, the theater’s founder, told the PBS NewsHour last year, “we became almost a farm team for the larger theaters in town.”

Peña isn’t worried though. “If someday the use for us becomes nonexistent,” he said, “then we will become something else.”

Nicole Javanna Johnson, a diversity, equity and inclusion director, on opening night of the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.” She walked the red carpet with young theatergoers who benefited from a ticketing initiative she worked on.Credit…Shoshana Medney/bwaySHO

That’s a good lesson for the American theater, which should be flexible and imaginative and openhearted enough to adapt itself to new conditions. But what looked like a willingness to change at the start of the pandemic in many cases bounced right back to business as usual when performances resumed. Nicole Javanna Johnson, a diversity, equity and inclusion director, said she rarely faced resistance when she started working with theaters soon after George Floyd’s death. But when the urgency of actual production returned, “it was more like capitalism, money, can we just do this fast? People didn’t understand that they had the quality of someone’s life in their hands.”

Johnson, a “theater kid” from Florida, was already booking professional roles while attending New York University. “With my entree as a Black, female, cisgender musical theater performer I could easily grab one of those Black female spots, even if it was tokenized,” she told me. But while performing in regional productions and national tours of “Hairspray,” “Aladdin,” “The Wizard of Oz” and others, she began to observe differences between the treatment of union and nonunion actors — and also “unfortunate incidences when you’re in Kansas doing a show, living in a community they placed you in, and the community has an opinion of you as a person of color.” Left with a feeling of unendurable “dissonance” with her ethics, she quit performing.

It’s no surprise, then, that in her recent D.E.I. work — with “Pass Over,” “Freestyle Love Supreme” and “Into the Woods,” as well as several institutional theaters — she is deeply concerned with how people get hired but also what happens after. Banishing audition tables that feature a monolith of white faces whispering secretively to one another is the first thing, she said, productions must do to make their workplaces more equitable.

But it is hardly the last. Now that “everyone’s calling everyone to find a stage manager of color,” it’s imperative, Johnson said, to provide people thrust into leadership positions with the resources they need to thrive in “what has always been an unhealthy industry.” Instead, they are typically asked “to do several additional jobs and then if things don’t work it’s their fault.”

Kennedy Kanagawa, left, and Cole Thompson in “Into the Woods.” The production worked with Johnson to develop an accessible tickets initiative. “There’s progress,” she said. “Not a lot, but I err toward hope.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Narratives that Johnson has begun to collect for Harriet Tubman Effect, an institute for justice advocacy research she founded in 2021, demonstrate the result, she said. “Some people are experiencing large-scale pain cloaked in this smile and these great-looking shows. And some” — she paused — “are just breaking.”

Perhaps that’s inevitable as the theater “quickly and haphazardly” tries to address decades and even centuries of wrong. Even so, Johnson has found purpose in training the ushers and house management staff of “Pass Over” to deal with racist responses to the confrontational work, and joy in helping the cast of “Into the Woods” build an accessible tickets initiative for young people from “under-resourced communities” who had never seen a Broadway show. “There’s progress,” she said. “Not a lot, but I err toward hope.”

A real reformation must do more than “err toward hope,” of course. It must leap toward the future, not fully knowing what hope even looks like. It will certainly include changes in leadership; would it be so wrong if, in the coming generation, most major theaters put a person of color at the helm? (They had white people at their helms forever.) Experiments in content and format should be part of the agenda as well; perhaps there will be fewer conventional plays meant for everyone and more rituals, parades and sharings meant for someone. Profound changes in funding are also imperative. If fairer pay for workers, as well as greater respect for their well-being, means less money for leases and leaders, so be it.

To be clear: I am not saying we can’t still have “Oklahoma!” — let alone “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Cancellation of imperfect or merely old work is not a healthy part of a vigorous art form. Nor, I add disinterestedly, is the cancellation of imperfect or merely old critics.

But sooner or later we must make room for what’s coming next, even giving it a chance to fail. For many people, that may feel like a loss. And yet, can we really look at the rotten edifice supporting what we’ve loved and not be at least a little revolted?

This recently hit home for me at, of all places, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., about the whitest place it is possible to imagine. In the corner of an exhibition called “Imprinted,” exploring the role commercial illustrators played in forming the country’s ideas about race, I saw some posters for Hilson’s Famous Minstrels, a troupe that toured widely in the mid-19th century. Nearby were engravings of various minstrel characters, including one called “Zip Coon.” This was of course a white actor painted and dressed to ridicule a Black man. In other images, Black people were made to look like apes.

Keep in mind that the popular American theater began with these racist depictions. And since that is where it began, that’s where the reformation must begin as well.

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