When A Facebook Comment Says More Than a Long Blog Post About Diversity

October 16th, 2015 § 7 comments

HESherman Facebook home page“Is there a link for this so I can read the whole thing if there’s more?”

“Maybe this wants to grow up and become a blog post?”

“I’ve been encouraging him to do so!!!!”

“This, I feel, is not just a statement for theater folk, but a life statement, a ‘how are you living in the world’ statement.”

The quotes above have all been written in the past 24 hours or so in response to a comment I made on Facebook – not a blog post, not an essay, but a comment, although admittedly not a short one. The response is gratifying, even as I feel awkward about repeating some of the positive remarks it engendered.

I share them because there’s been a lot of likes and shares and comments for a short burst I essentially blurted out on Wednesday afternoon, after seeing an array of responses to American Theatre editor Rob Weinert-Kendt’s apology for aspects of his Monday post about The Mikado and the heinous practice of yellowface. My comment was not about either of Rob’s pieces, but rather some of the defenses of yellowface that they elicited, and outright attacks on those who seek to abolish it. I stand, as I made clear several weeks ago in my own blog post, with the latter group.

Much as I stare at my comment, I don’t see how I can expand it. It addresses multiple issues on which I speak and write frequently, composed directly in one of those Facebook comment boxes, borne of anger and empathy, effective in its terseness. I feel that trying to elaborate upon it will only reduce it, though I appreciate the appeals of those who would like there to be more. I have to thank my friend and colleague Jacqueline Lawton, who lifted it out of the comments section and reiterated it as a Facebook post on her timeline, for getting it more attention that it would have otherwise received.

Because the Facebook algorithm is a mercurial beast, and it’s impossible to know who may have seen the comment, or how long it will be floating around in people’s feeds, I share it now, unedited, primarily as a means of preserving a relatively off-the-cuff cri de coeur – despite my concerns, that in my haste, I did not properly differentiate between my use of the terms “race” and “ethnicity,” even though I should know better.

“One of the great fallacies employed by those who resist making the American theatre more diverse is that when opening up traditionally or even specifically white roles to people of color, it should be a two way street – that if black, API, Latino, and Native Americans can play Willy Loman or Hedda Gabler, white actors should be able to perform in the works of August Wilson. That’s nonsense. The whole point of diversifying our theatre is not to give white artists yet more opportunities, but to try to address the systemic imbalance, and indeed exclusion, that artists of color, artists with disabilities and even non-male artists have experienced. Of course, when it comes to roles specifically written for POC, those roles should be played by actors of that race or ethnicity – and again, not reducing it to the level of only Italians should play Italians and only Jews should plays Jews, but that no one should be painting their faces to pretend to an ethnicity which is obviously not theirs, while denying that opportunity to people of that race. To those who would claim that our theatre isn’t centered around white men, look no further than the results of the Dramatists Guild’s The Count, which shows that four out of every five plays produced in America is by a white man. As for those who charge racism on the part of people striving for equality in the 21st century, I would suggest you don’t fully appreciate the racial struggles that have been part of this country’s original sin since Europeans began eradicating Native Americans and forcibly bringing Africans to these shores as slaves. Perhaps those in theatre can’t ever hope to directly redress this history, but we can at least seek to model a better world in our work and on our stages. And certainly we can do better than to engage in ad hominem attacks and threats against others in our field who seek equality.”

Will I say more on this subject? Absolutely. It’s become very central to my belief about the world of the arts, and the world at large. But as someone who usually goes on too long about just about everything, I’d like to stick with atypical brevity, hoping it provokes more conversation, more writing, more thinking about how we can all do better at embracing everyone who seeks a role in the arts. And if my few sentences above prove at all useful, they’re yours to employ in the good fight for diversity and inclusion.

P.S. Because advocates can have a tendency to become single-minded and even humorless in their pursuits, I must share with you my favorite response to my squib of a doctrine, among the many I read, courtesy of the dreaded auto-correct: “Wow! That’s it in a buttshell!!”

Howard Sherman is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.


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  • WonderZimms

    I…guess? I have no problem with most of the above, and I applaud Sherman for writing this. The problem that I have is with the tone of diversity in theatre being a zero-sum game here. I think intent matters, as it has always mattered. Should productions like The Mikado, referenced above, happen? No, of course not: they are both offensive and insensitive. But to make a blanket observation that diversifying theatre is always more important than putting an engaging, thoughtful product on stage is short-sighted, at best. I’d point to Patrick Stewart playing Othello, surrounded by an otherwise all African-American cast, as a single example of how effective casting can be…well, effective.


    • blackjac5000

      I seem to remember The Mikado being a satiricial indictment of Britain in general through the use of a different society and culture just like how the average sci-fi project is used to discuss contemporary social issues.

      • secretaustinman

        Yes it was intended as so; most of their works were set in foreign or wholly fictionalized places to make the satire more palatable. And/but what’s important to note is that back in that time, Japan was basically a fictional sci-fi place. Gilbert and Sullivan did not actually visit Japan, or have much real research to draw on — Japanese culture was new and all the rage at that time in Europe and they were simply capitalizing on that trend. Nowadays, however, we know Japan as a real place and people. There is no reason to misuse a real people and culture for the sake of being a comical backdrop, especially in this day and age — the comedy is supposed to be in the satire of Government, not in laughing at people playing Japanese with bad accents and makeup. If someone wants to do a revival they can just re-set it in a fictionalized place, or in another country that they can do without being insensitive (as Lamplighters recently did in response to concerns of yellowface), or do the research/work with a cultural consultant to make sure it is a culturally accurate Japan (including trying to cast Asian/Asian American actors).

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