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After an 'OscarsSoWhite' kind of Barrymores, Philly theater questions the best way to be inclusive

At the heart of discussions is the matter of inclusion - whose stories should be told, who should be telling them, and, above all, who decides. The answers are not black and white.

Jasmine Ward stars as Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” at the Arden.
Jasmine Ward stars as Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” at the Arden.Read moreArden Theatre

On the surface, the current theater scene in Philadelphia seems diverse — in some cases, audaciously so.

The production of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye that's now on Arden Theatre's main stage is both directed and adapted for stage by black women of national prominence: director Raelle Myrick-Hodges and playwright Lydia R. Diamond. At the Wilma Theater, more than 60 percent of Equity contracts this season have gone to actors of color. The Lantern Theater Company's current production of Shakespeare's The Tempest stars Barrymore winners Bi Jean Ngo and Frank X, fronting a multicultural cast.

But offstage? Over a handful of months, complicated issues of diversity have surfaced.

At the heart of the theater community discussions is the matter of inclusion — whose stories should be told, who should be telling them, and, above all, who decides. The answers are not black and white, as illustrated this month in two separate instances:

People's Light  was criticized in a March 5 editorial posted by the arts and culture website Broad Street Review for presenting a multiracial cast in an inherently Jewish story, The Diary of Anne Frank.

At the same time came the debut of Las Mujeres, an original play put on by the Power Street Theatre Company. The play and its company resulted because its founder, Gabriela Sánchez, a Latina who graduated from Temple University, found herself being shut out of roles.

"I was facing a lot of adversity at one of the most diverse universities and in one of the most diverse cities in the country, and yet, not finding a space for my voice," said Sánchez, 27.

Those are just recent examples of how these issues are playing out in the theater community. Others from the last year:

  1. After the annual Barrymore Awards in October, a number of black actors, writers, and producers wondered why most of the Barrymore winners were white — its own #OscarsSoWhite moment — and some black actors, including Michael LeLand II, were missing from an "In Memoriam" part of the program.

  2. In December, Melody Wong, event and tech coordinator for the Asian Arts Initiative, wrote a blistering piece about the People's Light presentation of Aladdin, saying it employed stereotypical themes and inaccurate portrayals.

  3. In February, three members of the performing arts community hosted an"Anti-Racist Learning Group" at the William Way LGBT Community Center for "white artists and organizational leaders who would like to educate themselves about their privilege and how they can be better allies for artists of color."

Kasual Owens-Fields, a black director, said Philadelphia theater had made inroads to showcase actors of colors and the stories of minorities. This season alone brings a roster of stories and storytellers with inclusion in mind: Draw the Circle at InterAct by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen; Mrs. Harrison at Azuka by R. Eric Thomas.

"However, until we make conscious efforts to diversify the creators of theater in this city," she said, "we will continue to be ill-equipped to tell their stories."

Leigh Goldenberg, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, which runs the Barrymores and promotes the theater community's growth, said two awards out of 20 presented to individuals went to people of color in 2017, a decrease from the two previous years. (In 2015, four out of 20 awards went to people of color; in 2016, it was six, she said.)

She recognized that despite efforts to be more inclusive, it can be difficult for smaller community theaters to be acknowledged. The Barrymores require companies to have at least a 12-day run of performances and pay actors and stage crews on a specified scale. Goldenberg said 12 performances are required to provide sufficient time for both Barrymore nominators and judges to see the plays. (But previews may be included to satisfy that requirement.)

In Sánchez's case, Las Mujeres, by Erlina Ortiz, had an eight-day run at West Kensington Ministry in North Philadelphia; Power Street couldn't afford to rent space or pay the actors for much longer than that.

But Sánchez is not so concerned if those conditions preclude her from a Barrymore nomination. She said she was tired of being invited to panels to talk about diversity and tired of assumptions about what roles she can play. (A professor once advised her to move to California, where there are many Mexican actors. Sánchez is Puerto Rican.)

"There are many people of color, many women, and marginalized people in the city,"  Sánchez said. "They are eager to get work. It's just about people making the decisions, to [hire them]."

People's Light incorporated its multiracial cast partly for that goal: to open up opportunities for actors of any ethnicity, said Zak Berkman, the producing director of Anne Frank. Knowing the play would draw thousands of middle school and high school students of many "faiths, cultural backgrounds, and skin colors," it also was a response to current times.

The company held discussions with numerous religious groups, including rabbis, Jewish scholars, and Holocaust survivors, as well as civil rights and social justice groups, for 18 months before the play opened Feb. 21, Berkman said.

"We expressed to everyone that in the face of what the Trump campaign and presidency unleashed — this permission to voice such extreme hate, to use violent intimidation to exclude and discriminate, to put families in hiding — we wanted our production to be as welcoming and accessible as possible," Berkman said in an email.

Wendy Rosenfield, in an essay about the decision, wrote, "Audiences are smart. They can extrapolate."

Rosenfield, editor of Broad Street Review and a former theater critic for the Inquirer, did not see the People's Light performance, but she warned of the danger of removing or reducing Jews from the Holocaust narrative, "a common element of white supremacist and far-left dialogue on the subject," she wrote.

So how can Philadelphia's theater community resolve some of these issues of inclusion and decision-making? It's complicated.

Cara Blouin, a white freelance playwright, created — along with artists Cat Ramirez, LaNeshe Miller-White, and others —, a website to showcase the work and resumés of people of color. And then she got a lesson in racial politics.

She found herself asking: Who determines who is a person of color? She eventually decided people should identify themselves. Then there were applications from those who identified as Italian or Greek. When it came to female directors, she eventually featured them on an inside page after some were annoyed about the mostly white female directors dominating the homepage. Some white gay actors wanted to be listed. Then there were female-presenting white actors who identify as genderqueer.

"Race is about experience, whereas gender is about presentation, right?" Blouin wrote on Broad Street Review about the experience. "These questions are far above my pay grade (spoiler alert: zero dollars)."

There have been some success stories: Blanka Zizka, founder of the Wilma Theater, has created the Wilma Hothouse, an incubator for artists of various backgrounds.

Its work is why more than half of Wilma's Equity contracts this season went to actors of color, she said. Still, it's not easy to find plays with casting that reflects the racial composition of Hothouse, a reason Zizka is thrilled about Passage, coming in April.

"This play artfully captures a conversation that, at this very moment, is happening all over the U.S.: a conversation about structures of power and equity," she said. "I hope it encourages the conversation to continue."

And Terry Nolen, artistic director of the Arden Theatre Company, is hosting black-owned theater company GoKash ONSTAGE, created by writer-director Kash Goins (just as the Arden was hosted by Walnut Street Theatre in its early years). Nolen said he also worked with the Art Sanctuary to present a pay-what-you-can performance of The Bluest Eye, a sold-out event where about 40 people had to be turned away, he said.

Other organizations, like Taller Puertorriqueño, which uses art to promote development within the Latino community, believe its important to host theater groups when it has the resources and opportunity.

"It's the stories of our community," said Carmen Febo-San Miguel, executive director of the nonprofit. "Our community is the palette. The [theater] is going to tell our stories with the authenticity that comes out of the experiences of the community."

Still, some think there is work to do. In Wong's December essay criticizing People's Light's Aladdin, a holiday panto, she noted an Asian performer in the show had the name Mai Tai, a "tikki bar cocktail." She said she grew up with children making fun of her name and could only imagine children who saw the play teasing their Asian American classmates.

Similarly, Cat Ramirez, an events producer at Asian Arts Initiative who is biracial and of Filipino ancestry, noted that the only character in the play with an accent was an insect with a short life span (which she thought was a metaphor for immigrants), that the sound design used stereotypical Orientalist themes, and that the play employed effects like gongs, even though the show was set in the Middle East.

People's Light said it received "roughly 12 complaints, two published critiques and a series of social media threads that expressed a range of hurt, concern, and anger," in a blog post by Berkman, CEO Abigail Adams, and CFO Ellen Anderson.

"We also recognize that while the number of complaints were relatively small, they may represent people who did not feel comfortable, or know the best channel, to communicate with us. We are very sorry for any and all hurt we caused."

James Ijames, 37, a black actor and playwright who teaches theater at Villanova University, won the F. Otto Haas Award for Emerging Artists in 2011 and two Barrymore Awards for acting. But he said last year's Barrymores "really rankled people. It was a slightly diverse pool of nominees, then the majority of artists who won were white artists."

He has noticed a definite push for diversity locally, and it's coming from younger artists.

"The energy around all of these different conversations doesn't feel siloed — not [one group] talking about what they want. It's everybody pooling resources, thinking together, and supporting each other's work that is giving it attention and making it viable,"  he said.

But, ultimately, he said it's up to the artists to make their own voices heard.

"If you don't get the opportunity you want in the theater community, then you make the opportunity for yourself."