In the wake of the widespread distribution of the videotaped murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Toni McDade, there continues to be unprecedented, nationwide examinations of and discussions about the effects of racism, white fragility, white privilege and white supremacy in America. These discussions are now touching every sphere of American life.
This past week, the focus was on Broadway. Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) theater artists turned the spotlight on “The Great White Way” with a signed, online letter pointing out “the scope and pervasiveness of anti-Blackness and racism in the American theater.” The powerful and stirring BIPOC letter was based on the legacy of the award-winning playwright August Wilson’s seminal 1996 speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand.” It passionately articulated the many forms of racism, discrimination and exploitation that these multi-generations of artists, theater managers, executives, students, dramaturges and producers have endured while working on Broadway theater productions.
There were more than 300 signatories to the online letter, including Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda; award-winning stage, television and film actors Viola Davis and Blair Underwood; and many Tony Award winners, including the actor and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and the playwright David Henry Hwang.
This past week also included published interviews with several African-American theater artists who shared their insidious experiences with racism and the white theater community, and the impact it has had on their careers. In addition, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition held a three-day forum “for the Broadway community to heal, listen, and hold itself accountable to its history of white supremacy.” And the petition to make Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater a Broadway house was in the news again.
The issue of racial injustice continues to have international implications: In Britain, a group of theater artists put together its own letter calling on the theater industry to take on the “extensive inequality woven into (its) fabric.”
BIPOC artists have carried an inordinate amount of the responsibility for ensuring that equity, diversity, inclusion and access initiatives have been advanced on the stage, in the back of the house, and in the executive suites. But if justice is ever to be realized, all of us must take full responsibility. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, true Champions of the Arts must end their silence; true Champions of the Arts must take substantive and concrete action.
I believe the BIPOC letter, the frankness of the interviews, along with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition events, represent a turning point for all artists working on Broadway. This is the time when speaking the truth is more important than the next production; a time when the prestige of directing, producing, performing in or writing a Broadway play needs to take a back seat to the call for justice and equitable treatment of all BIPOC theater workers.
Now, more than ever, the demands for racial justice require more than condemnation and messages of solidarity from allies. As Attorney Ben Crump wrote in a Washington Post opinion article shortly after Mr. Floyd’s murder:
“This is a moment for deep reflection and fundamental change…It’s a moment for all Americans to take a hard look in the mirror, change themselves and demand change from their institutions. Only then will we be able to breathe again.”
So to the readers of Arts & Culture Connections, what does change in the arts community look like? What does accountability mean? What steps do you think are important to take to address the issues of racial injustice within the arts? As always, I am interested in your thoughts. And I urge you to share them below.
Thank you in advance for engaging in this imperative dialogue during this challenging time!
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