Diversity again

Diversity again. Over the past week, Actors’ Equity has released a survey of diversity in US theater, while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Oscars, has sent out a record-setting number of invitations for membership that include a notably large proportion of women and non-whites. I’ll reserve comment on the latter other than observing that many of the invitees would not appear remotely qualified by the objective standard of their film industry credentials, which will ultimately raise questions over the organization’s credibility. I’m more interested in theater.

I live in a country where diversity (as defined in the US) is not a big concern. With rare exception, casts in local productions here are 100% Japanese (note: not “Asian”), even in musicals – The King and I and Miss Saigon come to mind – where some need for ethnic diversity is built into the show. So I’m probably not overly sensitive to the issue.

Nevertheless, I seem to be missing something in the Actors’ Equity survey. It finds that Caucasians make up a majority of all onstage contracts for Broadway and national tours: 65% of principals in a play, 66% of principals in a musical and 57% of chorus members. So what’s the problem? Given that whites are 72.4% of the population (2010 Census), the data suggests that whites are in fact underrepresented among performers.

The site adds, “African-American members reported salaries 10% lower than the average in principal in a play roles.” But what were those plays? Were black actors’ salaries lower than those of other performers in the same show? Or, looking at last season’s productions, are they comparing actors in Jitney with, say, superstar Nathan Lane in The Front Page? These figures are meaningless without context.

Where diversity is really needed is the audience. Blacks, for example, made up only 4.8% of the Broadway audience in 2014-15 (“The Demographics of the Broadway Audience,” Broadway League Research Department). That’s far below their 12.6% ratio of the US population (2010). Even at an impeccably diverse show like the hip-hop hit Hamilton, there are often more minorities on stage than in the seats. (The situation was much the same at A Doll’s House Part 2 last month despite a magnificent performance by Condola Rashad in a “white” role.) That said, minorities might be forgiven for steering clear of shows where blacks, say, are essentially being asked to play whites, a situation that would seem demeaning to the actors and insulting to the audience.

This is clear as well in London, where non-traditional casting is far more common than in New York. The National and Globe Theatres are particularly active in using ethnic minorities in prominent roles way beyond their percentage of the population, such as the use of black actors as the leads in recent productions of Amadeus and Macbeth (both involving historic characters). Unfortunately, audiences have remained stubbornly and overwhelmingly white at both those theaters for nearly every performance I’ve attended over the years, that in a city where whites are only 45% of the population (2011). Diverse casting has had no evident effect whatsoever in attracting diverse audiences.

In any event, the idea that minorities will not be attracted to shows traditionally cast – in other words, that they will not see quality productions of Shakespeare or such unless they include ethnic minorities like themselves – is not a very flattering statement.

Whether such audiences will show up for ethnically themed shows is another question –they are currently vastly underrepresented in audiences for those shows as well – but it would stand to reason that people are more invested in material closer to their own experience. Isn’t there something unseemly about Equity begging white producers to hire more minorities regardless of the material? Shouldn’t minority producers be taking up the mantle and putting on their own shows rather than waiting for others to come to the rescue? I produced a limited-run show off Broadway myself as a total novice some years ago with an all-Asian cast, Asian director and Asian costume, music and other designers. It’s not that hard. If Broadway wants diversity (meaning racial diversity; I doubt diversity of political views, say, is a consideration), it would do better to encourage new plays or musicals from minority creators. Once it becomes clear that audiences will show up, producers will have a financial incentive to attract them – then watch how fast minorities get hired.

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