Amateur Theatre Is Racist.
I’m going to say it in case you missed the title…..amateur theatre is racist. Hopefully within this article I will show you why and maybe proffer a few suggestions as how to begin to address this. I am also writing this as someone who loves amateur theatre and this passion is why I want to see it do better.
Let me start off by saying that I write this article from a position of white privilege. I would therefore like to thank all of the performers from ethnic minorities that have reached out to me in order to speak to me about their personal experience in amateur theatre. I also want to highlight that I do not write this article from a holier than thou position and I have learnt a lot in researching this article, including what I should have done better in the past. I hope to put what I have learnt into practise as soon as we can get back to performing, and continue to learn!
Why Is Diversity On Stage Important For Amateur Dramatics:
If people do not accept that diversity on stage is important then the rest of this article falls away. Personally I think it is as simple as the fact that in 2020 it is embarrassing to simply see a sea of white faces on stage. Some will agree that diversity is important but when asked what proactive steps they have taken they simply ask ‘Why should I?’ So here are just a few, of many many reasons, why diversity on stage is important.
Amateur theatre is sometimes known as community theatre and with anything with community at its centre the aim should be to make the membership as representative of the community it is in, as possible. One of the ways to represent the community is to have a diverse mixes of ethnicity on stage. Additionally having one or two members of an ethnic minority is not enough, allow me to quote a Black performer I spoke to who stated “Musicals are such hard work to be involved in and the emotional labour of being one of the few black people in the room exacerbates that.” These words alone should be enough to show why having a diverse company is important for the wellbeing of members.
With this hobby the end goal is putting a show on. Often these shows are much more affordable then the West End or other local professional shows. There is therefore a responsibility to reflect your community back at itself with the actors the audience see on stage. I use the example of a young Black girl, looking up at the stage. If she sees nobody that looks like her on that stage then her envisaging herself on that stage may require an extra leap for her. However if she sees Black women on stage then her imagining herself up there has just been made a whole lot easier. Equally if the only roles that Black actress is playing on stage is a slave in Parade for example, then this is not aspirational for younger members of the community to look up to.
Additionally if you have a society that is rich in different races then you also bring a wealth of different experiences to the rehearsal room. This wealth of experience can lead to more well rounded characters on stage, a more creative outlook and consequently a higher standard of show.
It is not just diversity on stage that is important but also on the creative team. Some musicals have race at its heart, Hairspray, Ragtime, Parade are just a few shows that amateur groups perform and whilst there may be a diverse cast on stage for these shows, often when you look in the programme the faces of the production team are all white. None of the white members of the production team can fully understand these characters story when it comes to race and in fact approach the show, normally subconsciously, from the point of view of the oppressor. If however there is a member of the production team that is not White then the understanding that they can bring to that story will be much more real than the White member on the production team. A perfect example of this was highlighted to me in a conversations I had in researching this article. We were discussing Fame and the scene where Tyrone (a Black hip hop dancer) and Iris (a White ballet dancer) were discussing Tyrone’s ballet ability. Tyrone is repeating to Iris what he has repeatedly been told, ‘that Blacks can’t do ballet.’ In this one production this line was played for laughs, rather than a serious pointed scene that drives home the prejudice that Tyrone has faced. If there had been a Black creative on the production team then the chances are they would have picked up on this and understood the narrative.
Is Amateur Theatre Really Racist?
When I say amateur theatre is racist I am (hopefully) not referring to individuals within amateur theatre but it is systemically or institutionally racist. To put it simply (and to quote from a friend I spoke to in researching this article who puts it better than I could) “the structures and systems in place within it create inequalities and systemic biases” which in turn leads to a lack of representation.
For those that don’t accept what I am saying please undertake this simple exercise. Think about an amateur society you are involved with and work out the rough percentage of members from a ethnic minority. Next look up the ethnic minority population percentage in your local area. I would put money on the fact that there is a large difference in these 2 figures. As someone who partakes in and reviews a lot of amateur theatre in London, one of the most diverse cities in the UK, I can confidently say that this disparity is huge in London.
Some of the examples of racism in amateur theatre are more obvious than others. Amateur theatre seems to have a particular problem with casting roles that needs to be played by ethnic minorities. Until Thursday all White productions of Hairspray were allowed by the rights holders and therefore happened frequently, the part of Horse in Full Monty has been played by a white actor, despite him having a song called ‘Big Black Man,’ I have seen a White girl play Dannielle in Bring It On with a black wig and fake tan to try to hide the fact that she was as white as Campbell, as well as White actors play roles that were designed for Asian actors including Christmas Eve in Avenue Q, Ching Ho and Bun Foo in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Ching and Ling in Anything Goes. I am sorry if reading this makes you feel uncomfortable as you may have been part of a production that did not cast appropriately but imagine how a member of that race may have felt in that theatre audience. These parts are not ‘our’ (I write our as a White writer),’ story to tell. Equally with those roles that are comedy roles, the humour comes from the actor from an ethnic minority being able to laugh at their own race, not white actors mimicking it.
I would like to directly quote somebody I spoke to recently “Amdram companies should not tell the stories of PoC if they are not willing to put the work in and do it accurately. As White people have done for centuries, they are more than happy to take stories and experiences of PoC to profit and show off but they do it in the whitest way possible with little involvement of the people whose culture they’re taking from.”
The diversity imbalance is not just apparent in amateur theatre but also in professional theatre. Looking at musical theatre as a whole and the canon of work there is still a lot of ‘White pre-identified roles.’ It is still the case that if a character is not explicitly described to be non-white then it is assumed that this part is for a white actor. Additionally there is a preconceived idea that beauty or feminity is another way of saying White female. Professional theatre however has taken steps to improve this over the last few years. The 2019 Broadway revival of Oklahoma saw Rebecca Naomi Jones, a Black actress as Laurey, Amara Okereke became the first British actress of colour to play Cosette in 2019, Cynthia Erivo has played Cathy in The Last Five Years and Heather Duke was played by T’Shan William. All roles where ethnicity does not matter but until recently were roles played by White women. Recent shows like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Six and Hamilton show that ethnicity shouldn’t matter even if you are playing a character based on a real person. I’m certainty not saying that Hamilton and similar shows solves the problem but it is a very small step in the right direction.
What professional theatre does, amateur theatre seems to follow a few years later. However amateur theatre (on the whole) hasn’t cottoned onto colour blind casting as quickly as one might hope. In speaking to performers from ethnic minorities in researching this it seemed a common thread that many of them are predominantly approached to play roles where they need to be a specific ethnicity for that role. I was told about a Black actor who had received 6 calls to play Lola since they recently released the rights to Kinky Boots. Additionally a Black actor spoke about a call he had taken asking him to reprise his role in Parade, when he had never been in Parade. Finally when amateur theatre does do something right and cast a Black performer in a role where race did not matter upon telling members of the company that she had been cast as a lead in Chicago they assumed it was the role of Mamma Morton (the role Queen Latifa played in the movie) when in fact she had been cast as Velma.
So What Is The Solution
Firstly let me start by saying it is not the responsibility of a performer from an ethnic minority to turn up to auditions but the responsibility of White members of the amateur dramatic community to be proactive in changing their societies for the better.
I don’t have any hard and fast solutions and some of my suggestions may not work for all. What these suggestions hopefully are is a springboard for conversations to try and improve the current status quo.
The first step has to be a statement on all casting calls. A statement making clear that the society is committed to casting on talent, in particular that the society is keen to make the society more diverse and therefore they are further committed to colour blind casting. The production team further needs to echo this at the pre-audition meetings or conversations. One mistake I have made personally is that I have assumed that actors from an ethnic minority know they will be considered for any role. Assumptions need to stop and proactive statements need to be made explicitly, loudly and clearly.
However if these statements are made to the average amateur societies current audience and they continue to advertise how they have done for the past few years, this statement will be to very little effect. Proactive outreach needs to be made to reach potential members from ethnic minorities. Research needs to be undertaken and outreach to community leaders, singing teachers, local churches – the list could go on.
This possibly goes without saying but when a society says they will cast fairly and on a colour blind basis this needs to be more than just lip-service. Frank conversations need to be had with directors and casting panels to ensure that they agree with this and if they are not enthusiastic about this then maybe they are not the right director or casting panel for the society you are working with, or maybe you don’t want the society to change enough.
The diversity balance of a society is not going to shift overnight or in one season however as the percentage of cast members from an ethnic minority improves the society can begin to take further steps. Members from an ethnic minority need to be encouraged, to and feel valued. Often conversations about ethnicity can be uncomfortable, sometimes simply down to the good intentions of not wanting to offend or say the wrong thing but if you don’t speak to your members about these issues then you are potentially missing out on a lot of constructive feedback. There is no point in having a diverse cast base if this is not represented on the committee/board. The committee/board is where members can have a voice about the society. Therefore just like members from an ethnic minority are actively encouraged the same needs to happen for committee/board members.
Much of this article may be seen as negative so allow me to give two examples of when it can be done right. The first is a simple example that someone gave me when I spoke to them about the article, they gave me an example of when the society changed a line in the script to ensure that they could credibly play a role without question, Another example was an amateur pantomime I saw. The pantomime was Snow White and playing the magic mirror was a Black performer. He rapped brilliantly throughout the show and I found out after the performance when speaking to the director that when he turned up at auditions he didn’t sing (as he felt he couldn’t) but instead rapped. The director changed the role of the magic mirror specifically for this performer, spent time creating the rap and spent weeks finding the right backing track for it. These examples in no way address the balance of all the other examples and issues I’ve listed but hopefully show that if effort and care is put into this issue then it is something than can be addressed.
Just a final few observations. Many amateur societies who lack in racial diversity have said, “well we did Hairspray/Parade/Ragtime etc etc in order to improve diversity,” but yet when questioned it became clear that they did no outreach and wondered why they struggled to cast the show properly. Deciding to do a show such as the ones named above (and many others) are not a magic pill. Societies need to start addressing the lack of racial diversity on stage way before they want to do a show which requires cast members of a specific ethnicity in specific roles. Being able to put on a wider variety of shows when the racial diversity of the society improves is an added bonus of having a wonderfully diverse membership base.
Finally there is consideration about the rights holders having a duty of care. At the moment the rights holders do not (as far as I am aware) check when releasing the rights to certain shows, that they intend to cast them appropriately. Up until Thursday, the writers of Hairspray had a statement at the start of the libretto which justified White actors playing the roles of Seaweed, Little Inez, Motor Mouth and other Black roles within the show. This statement has now been withdrawn and the writers have issued a statement which says that the show must be cast to accurately reflect the characters as they were written. This is the only show I know of with this statement, and this only exists to undo some of the harm their original statement caused. Why can’t more shows state this in their licensing condition? Whilst it would not necessarily help improve the racial diversity appearing on stage in amateur theatre it may stop some of the offensive portrays of parts within shows that are taking place.
I hope this article has sparked some thought and conversation particularly among those in positions of power in amateur theatre. If your society has had success in increasing the diversity of your membership then please do drop a comment and let me know how.
Once again I would like to thank everyone that took the time to talk to me via Zoom/email me/ send me voice notes and Facebook messages. In particular I would like to thank Tasha Msanide; Joni Fearns; Jonathan Grant; Kemal Ibrahim; Sarah Jean Trevis Higginbotham; Joash Musundi and Alanna Boden. Without your input this article would not have been possible and I hope that I have done this important issue justice. This is not the end of the conversation however and I’m sure as I go about putting my own words into practise I will learn more.
Normally I finish each blog post by directing you to other posts of mine that you may find interesting but instead I want to direct you to Black Ticket Project which looks at access to theatres and providing free tickets. They are on twitter at @BTProject and a donation page can be found here.