By Katrina Liu
Boston University News Service
Back in September, Broadway officially received the green light to reopen after 18 months of darkness. Renowned shows such as “The Lion King,” “Hamilton” and “Chicago” opened again to live audiences, ready to experience in-person theater after a long year and a half.
But for some, the reopening has been shrouded with a feeling of skepticism.
The heightened spotlight on systematic racism and inequality amid the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the theater industry to face inward. People in the arts industry, such as creators, performers and producers, have been outwardly demanding the industry to act.
But what does a diverse theater industry truly entail? For the grassroots organization Broadway For Racial Justice, it’s to create a space where people are allowed to fully express themselves comfortably no matter who they are.
“The bottom line of it all is just allowing people to come as they are … and let them share their artistry with each other.” BFRJ Director of Operations Noax said. “I think that helps us grow as a community, and it helps us grow interpersonally because we learn a little bit more about people that have experiences outside of our own.”
While Boston University School of Theater junior Valyn Turner is a performer, she also works with diversity and inclusion in the theater education space, where diversity of thought is valued and critical.
“As far as the spaces that I’m in, at BU, and the work that I’ve done with Boston-area theaters, there certainly is a lot of that diversity of mind,” Turner said. “We’re working with a lot of different kinds of people, a lot of different kinds of thinkers and people from different places.”
The industry still remains predominantly white. According to a report conducted by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, during the 2018-2019 season, 81.3% of directors on New York City stages were white.
For BFRJ Executive Director Brandon Michael Nase, individuals must confront themselves before beginning to address the issue.
“A lot of people have listened a lot and been like ‘these are the things that I need to do.’ But then it’s like, where are you on your own personal, anti-racist journey?” Nase said. “How do you confront the anti-Blackness within yourself? And most of the time, there is no answer to that. so then you’re still at square one.”
Olawumi Akinwumi, ArtsBoston’s deputy director of programs, said that highlighting artists of color and giving them proper resources and support is vital, and that ArtsBoston is doing just that.
“We want to make sure that we’re highlighting and advocating on what things need to be said, and what actions need to be taken,” Akinwumi said.
Numerous stories of mistreatment by Broadway producers, performers, creators and directors have been shared in a staggering amount in recent months. Noax said that while speaking out will encourage others to share their stories, the next step is how others choose to participate in the industry.
“Audience members have a say in that they can choose to not support that show,” Noax said. You know, cast members have a say in whether they go back to the shows or whether they come up with a list of demands for them to be able to go back into the workplace.”
Many theaters are taking initiatives and releasing statements about the work they are doing to address racism within their theaters. Additionally, many artists have voiced support and pledged to change their practice methods to be more anti-racist. But Nase said that while it’s a start, it’s not enough.
“All the things that [people] think [they’ve] done, all the things you put into place, they don’t mean anything,” Nase said. “Because it’s a Band-Aid, [they’re] trying to put a Band-Aid on a compound fracture.”
As a student and an aspiring “black theater maker,” Turner is grateful to be able to look up to older theater students and watch them advocate for themselves.
“We’re starting to realize that we don’t have to be traumatized to learn how to act,” Turner said. “We can actually just draw on our own experiences in a really healthy way. And confront it from a place of honesty, but without destroying ourselves.”
Nase said “complete radical transformation” of the industry is needed to address the root of race in theater, and he sees the younger generations starting to shift their thinking and methods compared to the system that has been in place.
“I’m not trying to come and do an audition for you to tell me who to be or who I am,” Nase said. “That’s what we’re conditioned to do, though. That’s what this industry has been. And I think that younger people are starting to learn this and say ‘I don’t have any desire to do that. I actually just want to inhabit myself and exist in my body fully.’”
Akinwumi said that giving a space for younger creatives to share their work is crucial.
“We see a lot of younger playwrights coming in trying to bring a younger audience, whether it’s subject matter or geared towards something that’s happening right now,” Akinwumi said. “What we can do right now is support those artists and share resources and create a channel of networking opportunities for them.”
Noax hopes the transformation of the industry continues and individuals who are beginning to enter this space continue creating waves of change.
“The road less traveled is always harder to choose. But I encourage people to choose that because most of the time, it’s what their gut is telling them to do and what their spirit is telling them to do,” Noax said. “And that’s ultimately what they should be listening to in terms of how to approach this work and how to be an artist in the industry.”
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