In the past week, as protests have raged across the country in reaction to the murder of George Floyd and rampant police brutality, we’ve heard the following things from many non-Black friends and colleagues: “I don’t feel like I’m doing enough.” This is usually accompanied by a heavy sigh and a discussion of what they’ve been doing. Have you been donating to Black Lives Matter, bail funds and other social justice organizations? Have you called your elected representatives to tell them to defund their police department and pass laws demanding accountability for police officers? Have you been speaking up when you encounter racist or insensitive remarks by the people in your life? “Yes, but I still feel so depressed.”
To which we say, good. As Jose said in our recent Token Theatre Friends podcast: “I feel powerless. I feel like I’m not doing enough right now. I wouldn’t want people to tell me, ‘Oh, you’re doing so well,’ this is not what this is about. I think I would be very unhappy with myself if I thought that I was doing enough. So the fact that I’m wondering if I’m too, you know, I take it as a very good sign.”
Here at Token Theatre Friends, we feel like we haven’t done enough. Because if we had, if everyone who has shown support the past week has done enough, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor might still be alive. Our discomfort, our rage, our depression, is overdue. It’s a minor taste of what Black people in America feel every day. Meanwhile, too many people have felt comfortable for way too long.
That statement applies to both socio-political issues, as well as to our own backyard. We love the arts and we love theater. But recent events have made the industry’s shortcomings, and its hypocrisy, even clearer. On June 1, Dear White People actor Griffin Matthews posted a powerful Facebook video detailing his experience working on his musical Invisible Thread, which was presented Off Broadway at Second Stage Theater in 2005. He started the video saying, “Amy Coopers are alive and well in the American theater,” referencing the white woman who called the police on a Black bird watcher, Christian Cooper, in Central Park.
Matthews then listed the racism he experienced while working on Invisible Thread, including an instance in the rehearsal room: “A song in Act One mentioned the fact that I was the son of slaves, our producers in the middle of a creative team meeting said, ‘Slavery is over, nobody wants to hear about that,’” Matthews recalled. “Not one single person put him in check.” Second Stage also promised to donate money to Matthews’ charity in exchange for him and the cast of Invisible Thread performing at their annual gala; “their donation never came.”
“That is why Broadway is racist,” he said. Second Stage has not commented on the video, which as of press time has been shared more than 5,000 times. But the company did post a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. (Update: Invisible Thread director Diane Paulus also put out a statement.)
Matthews’ experience is not unusual. Because while the industry prides itself on diversity, behind closed doors it’s a different story. Award-winning actor/composer/playwright Daniel Alexander Jones wrote in a Facebook post that he’s been told by: “white artistic directors that: my work had no relevance to the contemporary American theatre, and told that I needed to write a white male into my play because it didn’t make sense that there wasn’t one in it, and being told that no-one would ever want to produce my work, ever, so is there something else I could do?” (We pity any producer who doesn’t understand the beauty of Black Light.)
Actor Cooper Howell wrote, in devastating detail on Facebook, the sexual and racial harassment he experienced at the hands of a white director while acting in Frozen at Disneyland. The first-hand accounts are too numerous to describe, as Black artists have taken to social media to voice their dissatisfaction with the industry, speaking up about negative work environments, microaggressions and outright racism that they’ve experienced while working in the theater. This stands in stark contrast to the many Broadway shows and theaters that have posted up statements supporting Black Lives Matter and vowing to be anti-racist. The Metropolitan Opera posted up a statement, yet it’s never produced an opera by a Black composer. A Black playwright has not won a Tony Award for Best Play since 1987. White actors and playwrights are overrepresented on New York City stages.
A public statement may be heartwarming, but it lets companies pull the curtain on their own hypocrisy. Like a black square on Instagram, the performance can be a substitute for meaningful action. Some of the companies who have released statements have produced primarily white writers at their theaters. They’ve contributed to an erasure of Black and POC voices. They’ve fostered negative work environments for Black artists and hostile viewing experiences for Black audiences. And they punish those who speak up. “I may never make it to Broadway for speaking out against the horrific treatment that I received, and all of the Amy Coopers will be fine,” said Matthews in his video. It echoes what Star Wars actor John Boyega said during a protest in London on June 3: “Look I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this but, f**k that.” By blacklisting artists who dare to speak up, these so-called liberal institutions contribute to the systemic racism that they disavow.
As COVID-19 has shut down the entertainment industry, we are left with two options: we can either build back better than before or we can continue the status quo, where artists of color are forced to swallow their discomfort for the sake of the white people around them. Theaters and producers who have put out these Black Lives Matter statements need to take this time to listen to the voices of Black artists around them and on social media, who all have important suggestions for change. Director/actor Schele Williams posted a poetic, detailed statement on Facebook with the following suggestion:
Broadway is white.
And white is not bad
But White is not Black
If you mean the words in your statementsSchele Williams
Show us your values
Live up to your mission statements
Give us space to breathe and speak without fear of reprisal.
Look around the room and if you only see yourself replicated – CHANGE IT.
When people are risking their lives to march on the street, a social media statement is not enough. Now is the time to act. Now is the time to look not just outward, and inward. The calls are coming from inside the house.
What do theater companies and producers commit to doing to make sure what happened to Griffin Matthews and countless Black artists does not happen again? Will these companies cater to Black audiences as faithfully as they do white ones? Will they make their work accessible and affordable to the Black community? Will they make sure to spotlight Black voices regularly, and not just once a year and as side characters? Will they help support the Black-led business and theaters in their communities? If their Black artists get criticized by the New York Times, will they stand by their artists? Will they prioritize fair wages so that Black artists can afford to be artists? Will they defend their socio political stances to angry subscribers who just want them to “shut up and sing”?
To our Black friends and readers: we stand with you and we are sorry for not having done enough, and commit to continue to advocate for justice and anti-racism.
To our non-Black readers: Right now, if you’re feeling comfortable, it means you’re not doing enough. Your discomfort is overdue. Sit with it. Let the discomfort propel you to act and fight for a better world for everyone.