Crossing the Racial Divide in Theater on the Great White Way:

Theater in Transition

Color-blind casting has helped diversify roles for actors. In terms of diversifying the world of the stage, though, not so much.

To make the world on stage reflect a more diverse audience—characters  of different ethnicities, abilities, and backgrounds need to encounter each other as they do in life. On stage, they need to meet, to collide, to learn, to grow, in bodies and shapes that exemplify a society in which people live and associate with others different than themselves.

In other words, playwrights need to begin writing those worlds in which people of different backgrounds, colors, shapes, and values come together naturally. And not simply as the mortgage collector or the butler.

The Theatre Market for Diverse Plays

Any playwright will tell you that it is hard to sell a play which has an ethnically or racially divided cast.

Theaters comfortable doing plays with mainly white roles don’t have large numbers of great black actors at hand. And Asian actors are at a premium. Conversely, theaters with predominantly black themes face similar issues.

And most playwrights will admit that it is difficult to write such a play. Most of us have lived, worked, or loved adjacent to people not very different than ourselves.

Not all of us have had the experience of living in, with, around, immersed in the lives of families and communities of different colors, religions,  or world views.

And, God forbid, let’s not raise the issue of cultural appropriation. At least until the next blog.

“The act of whitewashing and improper representation of different races has been ongoing since the beginning of Hollywood, and it’s only recently where the subject matter is being talked about more openly on how it can be improved. However, I’ve yet to see and hear an in-depth discussion regarding the ethics surrounding the casting of mixed race characters when it calls for it.” Lauren Lola, Multiracial Media.

So, let’s talk about that. Even in large cities like New York or Los Angeles, playwrights have comments in the difficulty of selling productions of their plays with major roles that reflect diverse communities.

“For the past seven seasons, white actors have monopolized the stage on and off Broadway, accounting for somewhere around 80% of roles, a ratio that has seen little fluctuation over time.” Quartz, By Mimi Onuoha & Commentary.

And Why Is This Monopoly in Theatre Surprising????

The majority of roles are already written from the perspective of a predominantly white society. And are produced by theaters that play to predominantly white audiences. The Book of Mormon could make a claim to upping the ante for mixed ethnic casting. But even that musical has a “white” perspective on not only Mormonism but also the way we perceive people from Africa.

Okay, we could go to color-blind casting, but what does that accomplish in terms of revealing the reality of a world in which technology has fostered global relationships, where “neighbors” may be a continent away,  where a society which needs to become more inclusive to survive?

There are plays out there that reflect the cultural divide. Clybourne Park comes to mind. To say nothing of Hamilton. But their productions are exceptions rather than the rule.

Diverse-Cast Plays Looking for a Theatre

humans remain play script cover
Humans Remain by Robin Rice

There are other contemporary dramas and comedies that give diverse actors authentic roles to play. Humans Remain by Robin Rice is a multicultural tour de force.

A society spawned from refugees from slavery, abuse, and the law, create a functional community threatened by the arrival of a journalist wishing to investigate them.

The musicality of Rice’s dialogue is a driving force in this play about the strength and beauty of language.

Here is the indigenous character Tiny, thinking about  getting married:

TINY: Jist now. Watching sprouts grow in the woods —  tinks I did. Lack of rain, sprouts fade. Too much, they flop over. Bear step on ’em. Groundhog nip they head off. Still brave sprouts stretch for the sun. Say to myself: Goldurnit, Tiny Oromeda! You lacking courage them little sprouts has got! Made a decision then and there. Tonight I’s popping the question! (clears his throat) . . .
Gots to strike while fire’s a’blazin –
Blazin like sun heats grape to raisin;
Blazin wit courage I haint afore got –
Don’t ask tonight, I might’s well rot.
That jist come to me. Banni say “yes” don’t you tink?
FERN: She better.

Humans Remain has had readings, won awards and is yet to be produced on a main stage. (Hint, hint).

the crying tree play about slavery book cover
The Crying Tree by Peter Gunter

Not to be overlooked is Peter Gunter’s new play, The Crying Tree, a stunning, dramatic reminder that the politics of money and the politics of slavery in America are joined at the hip.

In his latest full-length drama with great comic scenes, Peter Gunter reminds audiences that the roots of racial division ran as deep as kudzu and that our recently discovered “enlightenment” is planted in shallow ground.

DAVID: Do you see the big Poplar down there?
MORRIS: Yes. It’s a remarkable tree.
DAVID: It’s over 300 years old. The realtor said it had been known for years as the Crying Tree. Supposedly, that’s where the young women said goodbye to their beaus before the young men went off to war.
SHARON: Actually, there are other crying trees on southern plantations. They usually mark a place where slave families were sold and separated from each other.
DAVID: (Pause) Oh, I see. Well, there’s a lot of history here. A lot of history … and speaking of history, did you know that Thomas Jefferson was a frequent visitor here? In fact, he may have stood on this very spot. Can you imagine? If we could all go back in time.
MORRIS: Yes. What I wouldn’t give for an hour to talk to that amazing man.
CYNTHIA: If I could talk to him, I’d ask how he could say all men are created equal and then own slaves.
MORRIS: Actually, Jefferson was a great proponent of emancipation.
CYNTHIA: Really? Then why didn’t he free his slaves?
MORRIS: He believed that emancipating slaves should be part of a democratic process.
SHARON: So Thomas Jefferson kept his slaves out of a commitment to democracy?
MORRIS: He was against the federal government imposing abolition.
SHARON: There were other slave owners at the time who freed their slaves.
MORRIS: Jefferson abhorred slavery. He thought it was a crime against humanity.
SHARON: He also believed they were racially inferior.
MORRIS: I don’t know about that.
SHARON: He called them “as incapable as children.”

The Crying Tree by Peter Gunter

In The Crying Tree, the white supremacist concepts of The Bell Curve fame create friction in the present-day Frommer family, just as issues of slavery and ownership divide the Colonial Randolph family—Martha Randolph being the daughter of then-President Thomas Jefferson.

The Frommer family and the Randolph family are cast as the same actors, strengthening the ties that bind our collective roots, deep underneath the crops we harvest.

“The Crying Tree is a fascinating mix of history, tragedy and humor, connecting the politics of slavery with the current-day politics of money.”

February 2019, The Crying Tree on Facebook, by Gail Esterman.
Angel Band by Robert P. Arthur

Angel Band, a new play by Robert P. Arthur, has a similar issue. His subject matter dives into the hidden world of the Blue People of Kentucky.

Like Rice’s, his characters are based in reality and reflect societies within American culture. His are the hidden people of Kentucky; Rice’s reflect a hidden community in the hills of New Jersey. Arthur, a poet by trade, has made much of the language here as well.

Mr. Stanley: Your man was killed by a snake in church. It could have been one of your children.
Star: Ain’t so. He weren’t killed by a snake. Poison from a snake takes a lot longer than five minutes to kill you. He busted his own heart.

refraction of light play script cover
Refraction of Light by Jean Klein

My own play, Refraction of Light, has received generous audience support and numerous readings, including one by the Transcendence Theatre Collective in New York.

It is a fictional piece of our very real history: Joe Taylor, an African-American World War II veteran, returns home with a new sense of identity, to which his old mentor, a Southern white schoolteacher, cannot adjust. Always quick to love and anger, Joe explodes:

JOE: Is that right?  What do you and everybody else see? A colored man with a piece of paper in his hands.  If I’m lucky and work real hard, maybe I can be head porter on the Southern and Western Railroad. Oh, wait. If I’ve got a degree, I could probably get a job in the circus. “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. For just one thin dime, you can see the colored man recite from memory. He adds. He subtracts. He makes change for a ten dollar bill!”
ROSE: The Joe Taylor I knew wouldn’t have talked like that.
JOE: The Joe Taylor you knew just went missing in action.

Directors, actors, and producers claim to find it absorbing and relevant. Everyone wants to see it done. So far, no one has stepped up to produce it.

play script n-word front cover

So, hats off to both Playhouse in the Park in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Plowshares Theater in Detroit for their productions of N, a play with a realistically “mixed” cast by Adrienne Pender.  (Plowshares is mounting this play in January/February 2020.)

Already a playwright with production credits, she found a story in the life of her distant cousin—Charles Gilpin. Although he had been largely lost to history, Gilpin was the first African-American to play on Broadway.

And he not only played on Broadway, but he was the star of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. Gilpin was not only the title character on Broadway but also played in the first American touring company of the play.

Charles Gilpin
Charles Gilpin as Emperor Jones

So why have we not heard about him? It’s not simply that he was black—Paul Robeson succeeded him in the London production. But Gilpin objected to the number of times the N word was used in the production.

Increasingly uncomfortable with the use of this denigration, he began to modify the script, creating a feud between himself and O’Neill.

CHARLES: Your new plays – what are they about? Or can’t you say yet…
EUGENE: One is called Marco Millions; it’s about a Marco Polo-type figure in the Orient.
CHARLES: It has to be about more than that.
EUGENE: Yes… it’s about capitalism, race, social classes. All the fun subjects I love.
CHARLES: Any parts for a Negro actor in that?
CHARLES: Well what about your other play?
EUGENE: (Pause)There’s a part for a Negro actor in the second play, yes.
CHARLES: What’s it about?
EUGENE: It’s about a Negro married to a white woman.
CHARLES: It is? Can I read it?
EUGENE: It’s not done yet, Charles.(Pause)
CHARLES: “Charles?”
EUGENE: I have someone in mind for the part.
CHARLES: Someone else?
EUGENE: His name is Paul Robeson. He just graduated from Columbia Law School.
CHARLES: A LAWYER?? Can he act?
EUGENE: He can act.
CHARLES: Oh. He can act; AND he’s smart.
EUGENE: (Now it comes out) Smart enough not to change the dialogue in my plays…
EUGENE: Did you think I wouldn’t find out that you had your way with my script?

What is important about this play is that the racial issues are symbolic of a larger issue: Who “owns” a play? Or a character? Who created the character of Emperor Jones? Was it O’Neill alone or was Gilpin part of the process?

How We Got Here

I’d love to be snarky and chalk this reluctance to tackle scripts with a diverse cast up to a history of racism.  And the racial divide might provide part of the answer. But our theatrical communities grew up, as did our churches, in an era of segregation.

Churches and theaters thrived in their own ethnic surroundings. (As did the Yiddish theater in New York during a time of mass migrations and immigrants new to the country. They wanted to see someone who looked like them, hear familiar turns of phrase, when they went to the theater.)

And we want to see ourselves, as well. The problem is, we really aren’t yet used to the idea of seeing ourselves all together on the same social footing, on the same stage. Especially at the community theater level.

White community theaters have not traditionally cultivated actors of color in their community because the plays they chose did not require them to. Black theaters were interested, understandably, in producing plays by black playwrights with black casts.

And, so, the theater on Saturday night became the second-most voluntarily segregated place in America. The first? Church on Sunday morning.

How We Get to There

To rectify this situation, producers and directors must actively pursue quality scripts with diverse casts and writers. Then, as a country and as a world, we can imagine ourselves on the same stage, sharing feelings, stories, and memories—getting to know one another.

When I began HaveScripts publishing company years ago, it was a lark, a chance to deliver worthy scripts that had not found the productions they deserved. Years later, HaveScripts became Blue Moon Plays–and the mission changed. At that point, I knew I wanted to find and foster scripts that reflected the more diverse world we are. And blue moons are astronomical events that amaze us and fill us with wonder at our very small existence in such a grand universe.

Theatre does not change us by preaching. It changes us by showing the landscape in which we live and the landscape to which we should aspire. – Jean Klein

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