It is quite possible that, when the English stage was officially opened up to allow women to perform alongside men, most likely in 1660 when Margaret Hughes played Desdemona, some argued against it, on the grounds that young boys had been successfully been playing women for years, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. After all, only 30 years earlier, a French touring troupe met with disdain for daring to employ women, and even once English women were permitted to act, men did not immediately cease playing women’s roles.
When Ira Aldridge became the first black actor to find fame on the stages of Europe, having left America, which offered him no opportunity, there were at first people who took exception to the breaking of the color line, feeling that blackface had been more than sufficient for the portrayal of non-white characters and that a black man speaking the words of Shakespeare was “blasphemous.” One critic wrote that “with lips so shaped that it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English,” while another objected to his leading lady being “pawed about on the stage by a black man.”
After Phyllis Frelich won a Tony Award in 1979 for Children of a Lesser God, might some have dismissed her honor as resulting from a sympathy vote because she was a deaf woman playing a deaf woman, or that her achievement was somehow less simply because she used sign language, which was how she communicated every day? After all, one critic, praising Frelich, took note of her “affiliction.”
Invented scenarios? Only in part. And certainly none are implausible, at distances of hundreds of years or just a few decades. They are, after all, representations of the breaking of a status quo, the altering of a dominant narrative, and the much too easy ways of diminishing significant achievements at the time that they happened.
The stage remains a place where certain practices, steeped in tradition, persist. Despite being seen by many as a bastion of liberals and progressives, the arts are dominated by white Eurocentric men, whether it comes to the stories being told or the people placed in the positions of authority who are charged with making work happen. While the not-for-profit arts community has begun in recent years to explore equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives designed to give voice to a broader range of gender, race, ethnicity and disability, the field is still dominated by white structures and white professionals “opening doors” to other stories.
That’s not to be dismissive of those efforts, but only a means of contextualizing them and reflecting how nascent they still are in so many places. Let’s not forget, it was only in 2015 that the Metropolitan Opera dropped using blackface on the actor playing the title role in Otello, an original Broadway musical featured an all-Asian cast, an actor with a mobility disability in life originated a role in a Broadway production using a wheelchair. How was it possible that this hadn’t happened sooner?
The changes on our stages, the efforts to assert of a broad range of identity where it was previously denied, is reflective of society as a whole. While it has been 51 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and 26 years since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, there are still legal battles being fought to insure and protect their full and proper implementation. However, in the past decade, with the rise of social media, advocates for change have had the opportunity to make their cases ever more swiftly and directly, without adjudication by the media as to what concerns will be permitted to reach a critical mass of awareness, with people driving the story, not the story driving the people.
As efforts towards fairer and truer representations of racial and ethnic identity in theatre have resulted in particular shows becoming flashpoints – with The Mikado in Seattle and New York, with The Mountaintop at Kent State, with Evita and In The Heights in Chicago, The Prince of Egypt in the Hamptons and so many more – one of the more frequent and derisive responses has been, “It’s called acting.” That is to say, ‘Oh, it’s all make believe,’ all little more than ‘let’s pretend,’ and as such shouldn’t be held to the same scrutiny or standard as say, the make-up of juries or the population of schools. It says that since the discipline is about taking on a persona, the reality of the person doing so shouldn’t be considered, shouldn’t matter. The phrase condescends to anyone who dares think otherwise.
Those who would reduce efforts toward equity in the arts might wish to isolate them as being the result of identity politics or political correctness. The “it’s called acting” claim is, make no mistake about it, an argument for the status quo, for tradition, for the denial of opportunity, for erasing race. It expresses the thinking that gives awards to people who pretend to be disabled on stage and screen, while making it difficult for people with disabilities to attend cultural events, let alone be a participant in creating them. It is the mentality that loves West Side Story, but cries foul when songs sung by characters who speak Spanish are translated into and performed in Spanish.
“It’s called acting” is the response of those who perceive their long-held dominance, their tradition, as threatened, their own position as being at risk. “It’s called acting” sustains systemic exclusion. After all, as the saying goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality looks like oppression.” Privilege abounds in the arts, on stage, backstage and in the seats.
If we lived in a society, a country, where everyone was indeed equal in opportunity, then the arguments for paying heed to the realities of race, ethnicity, gender and disability might be concerns that could be set aside. But that’s far from the case, and if the arts are to be anything more than a palliative, they must think not just of artifice, but also about the authenticity and context of what they offer to audiences.
For the arts to survive, they must move forward, lest they become antiquated. In a society where the balance of ethnicity and race is shifting, it is incumbent upon the arts to at last fully welcome and support all voices and allow them to portray and tell their stories as well as the stories of others, instead of being forced to assimilate into some arbitrarily evolved template. There should to be an acknowledgment of how the lived experience can contribute to the arts, rather than denying its presence or validity, along the lines of the canard, “I don’t see color.”
There is no absolute in the arts, no definitive good or bad, right or wrong. The act of creation and the response to that act exist simultaneously in the eye of the creator and beholder (the audience). Consequently, the arts give rise to phalanxes of arbiters at almost every level – teachers, directors and artistic directors, and critics – who seek to guide and even control training, practice and opinion, each in their own way. When those arbiters have disproportionate influence, or in fact become gatekeepers, they assume a greater responsibility, one that goes beyond themselves into the field as a whole. How they are empowered, what they believe, becomes essential to sustaining – or diminishing – the arts.
When it comes to respect and recognition, diversity and inclusion, there is a new arts narrative being written right now. Within that process there are progressives making change, late adopters who are coming to understand, and reactionaries who want to hold on to the past. If we believe that art has value, so do the ethics and process of making it. Being unaware, or worse still, dismissive of how the arts are changing and how the arts reflect society, would keep the field trapped at a moment in time, one already mired in the past, as the world advances. That’s the road to irrelevance, which the arts cannot afford.
Howard Sherman is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.