Tag Archives: casting

Protect Historically Accurate Casting

A black-and-white drawing of a Black man, barefoot and wearing a short white belted tunic, blowing on a musical instrument that looks like a shofar to me. He's carrying a tall staff and stands among flowers. He has a piece of cloth tied around his head that blows in the breeze around him.
Detail from the Kalender of the Shepherdes, 1490s, Paris

Well, they’re at it again! This time they want to take away our precious American and European heritage with their aggressively political casting. The snowflakes are whining about diversity (as usual). They’re insisting that historical films, TV shows, and plays be cast with no regard to historical accuracy.

They’re insisting that shows about Western history be cast with all white actors.

All jokes aside, whatever era in western history in which your production is set, I assure you that people of color were there. “Historical accuracy” is not an excuse for turning away BIPOC actors; in fact, historical accuracy should compel you to cast them.

The reason people believe there were no BIPOC in certain historical eras is because there are so few BIPOC in historical plays, films, and TV shows. Refusing to cast BIPOC, or relegating them to servant roles or stereotypes, just shows the world that the only dramaturgy you’ve done is on Netflix.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Cheddar Man. The earliest skeletal remains that have been found intact in England belong to “Cheddar Man,” a mesolithic skeleton found in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. DNA testing revealed that he had dark skin and blue eyes. Cheddar Man lived 10,000 years ago. White skin only developed about 8000 years ago, almost certainly a mutation that was likely genetically successful due to its increased ability to absorb vitamin D in areas of the world with less sunshine. Yes, white people: If Northern Europe had more sunshine, we would all still have dark skin.

Roman-occupied Britain. Many people of African descent came to Britain as Romans with the occupation. Two notable examples of the archaeological evidence are the Beachy Head Lady and the wealthy Ivory Bangle Lady.

A painting of the face of a young Black woman facing outward.
A reconstructed image of the beautiful and wealthy “Ivory Bangle Lady.” Wikipedia has images of the grave goods with which she was buried, including a hand mirror (!!!) and a blue glass jar in addition to the eponymous ivory bangles and more jewelry.

The Knights of the Round Table. One of the Knights of the Round Table was Black– Sir Morien. In the tale of Sir Morien, written in Middle Dutch in the 13th century, Sir Morien is described repeatedly as “black” of skin and hair, and repeatedly called “the Moor.” Morien’s praises are sung throughout the tale as one would expect from the genre; he’s as skilled a fighter as Lancelot, handsome, brave, and, although young, taller than all the other Knights of the Round Table. In the tale, Sir Morien is searching for his father, Sir Aglavale, who had pledged himself to Morien’s mother, an unnamed Moorish princess, and then disappeared before Morien was born. Eventually Morien locates Aglavale, who returns with him, accompanied by Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain, to “the Moorish lands” to wed Sir Morien’s mother. No one seems to find anything unusual about white Sir Aglavale marrying a Black Moorish woman in a tale written in 13th century Europe.

The head of a Black man wearing a chain mail coif. The statue's nose is slightly damaged.
Detail of a statue thought to be Sir Morien, brought to Magdenburg Dom and called Saint Maurice– also Black— in the 1220s.

Feirefiz. Another Arthurian legend written in 13th century Europe is Parzival, written in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach, in which the main character, Parzival, has a Black half-brother, Feirefiz. Feirefiz and Parzival share a white father, Gahmuret, but Feirefiz’s mother is Belacane, queen of the fictional Moorish nation of Zazamanc. Feirefiz travels to Europe with a huge Saracen army to find his father, but meets his brother instead. Feirefiz cannot see the Grail because he’s not a Christian, but only agrees to convert after determining it will help him “in love.” He marries the Grail bearer, Repanse de Schoye.

It’s not at all surprising that these 13th century Europeans would be familiar with Moors. Why?

Al-Andalus. Most of the Iberian Peninsula, which now comprises both Spain and Portugal, as well as a bit of southern France, had already been under Moorish rule for 500 years by the time the tale of Sir Morien was written. The Moorish Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula was called “Al-Andalus.” Portugal regained its independence in the mid-13th century, but most of Spain would continue to be under Moorish rule for another 200 years. For seven hundred years, most of the Iberian Peninsula and a slice of southern France were ruled by Muslim Moors. And before you jump in to claim that these were all light-skinned Amizigh, the art of the period begs to differ, showing a range of skin tones that include both light-skinned people and people who are unmistakeably Black.

Four Asian archers in armor, all facing to one side as they fire arrows at an unseen enemy.
Mongol archers painted in 1305 by Rashid al-Din.

The Mongol Invasion of Europe. This is a special valentine for the Witcher fanboys LIVID at the suggestion that Witcher 3 was too white, and LIVID that the Netflix series cast a few BIPOC actors: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. The Mongols were all over Eastern Europe in the 13th century including Poland, so your “Witcher is set in medieval Poland so diversity is solely political and unrealistic” argument dies in the dust, if it’s even still alive after everyone asked you where elves and giant spider monsters were in medieval Poland. Also for the Witcher crew: Black Madonnas.

Left: The Virgin Mary holds the baby Jesus, who raises his hand in blessing. Both Mary and Jesus have Black skin and hair. Mary holds a scepter in her right hand, and both are wearing golden crowns and golden robes. Right: The same image, but both Mary and Jesus have been repainted to look like white people.
The famous Black Madonna of Chartes Cathedral was repainted white in a controversial 2014 restoration. Most Black Madonnas have been left intact, apart from a few that were repainted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Black Madonnas of Europe. Hundreds of medieval European paintings and statues depict the Madonna and child with dark skin. One of the most famous is the Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland. Starting in the early 19th century, white people began strenuously working to “prove” that the Black Madonnas were not “intentionally” Black, an activity that continues to this day. Wikipedia flatly states that there is a “wide consensus” among scholars that the dark skin was “unintentional.” Apart from the obvious– no, there is nothing like a “wide consensus”– assumptions such as “Mary must conform to a post-medieval definition of ‘white’ to have meaning to medieval European Catholics” is preposterous. Many of the Black Madonnas are reputed to have been painted by St. Luke himself as he sat with Mary. Whether or not this is true is far less important than the fact that medieval European Catholics believed it, and venerated their Black Madonnas as faithful depictions of the Virgin and child. The face they prayed to in Church, the face they held in their hearts as they heard the words “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women,” was Black.

Islam in America. Islam was in the Americas before Protestantism even existed. Many Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were literate Muslims, including Omar ibn Said, who wrote an autobiography about his life as a slave in Arabic.

Three trumpeters, all facing left. They're all on horseback, and their trumpets bear the standard of Henry the 8th. The middle trumpeter is Black.
Scholars agree that this image from the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly depicts John Blanke.

John Blanke. Blanke was a Black trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII. He played at the funeral of Henry VII and at the coronation of Henry VIII. Records exist of his marriage and of his request for a raise. The king doubled his pay. Tudor London had a thriving Black population, many of whom married white Londoners. Click here for an article about the book Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Indians in London. There’s documented history that people from the Indian subcontinent lived in London beginning in the 16th century. A man called Suleman Noor was buried in Westminster in 1550. An Indian man named Samuel Munsur married a woman called Jane Johnson in 1613. There’s much more.

Abraham Pearse and John Pedro. Pearse was almost certainly a Black Pilgrim, and John Pedro was definitely Black. Click here to learn more about the Abraham Pearse controversy, which features white people claiming the “prestige” and “fun” of being descended from Pilgrims was “ruined” if their ancestor was Black, and subsequent DNA tests that focused only the Y chromosome, carefully avoiding tests of Pearse’s matrilineal line. Test results showed that Pearse’s father was European, and the white Pearse descendents claimed a victory for white supremacy. They seem nice. To this day no one has tested Abraham Pearse’s matrilineal line.

Lemuel Haynes. He was a Black Puritan who became the first ordained African-descended person in America. He was a Minuteman and an abolitionist as well. Read more about him in this book.

A Black man in spectacular full armor.  His helmet is off, so you can see his bearded face. He holds his sword in his left hand and a standard in his right. His body is angled away, but he looks straight out at the viewer.
This isn’t related to the text; I just really like it. “The Black Knight” by Hans Krell, 16th century Germany.

Zipporah Potter Atkins. Zipporah Potter Atkins, a free Black woman, owned land in colonial Boston. Click here to learn more about her.

Colonel Tye. The most feared and respected guerilla commander of the Revolutionary War was Colonol Tye, a Black man (formerly Titus Cornelius) who took the British Army up on its offer to enslaved men— escape slavery and come fight for the Loyalists, who will pay you and see that you remain free. The unit he commanded focused on enslavers– including his own former master. They were known for hitting hard and fast, eliminating the Patriot target and liberating the people he had enslaved. The British paid him well for this, and as the war went on, his unit was given increasingly important missions. By 1780, he was a major force in the war, raiding militias and escaping with prisoners and plunder virtually undetected and with few casualties.

The Harlem Hellfighters.The 369th Regiment of the US Army was one of several Black units in WWI. These young men first went to France in 1918, and soon distionguished themselves as fighters and as ambassadors of Black American culture; introducing jazz to the French. They saw more time on the front lines than any other American unit, and suffered horrific casualties, losing half the regiment. When they returned home in 1919, they were given a parade down Fifth Avenue to celebrate their heroic deeds.

Speakeasies. To speak to a Bay Area controversy of old, there were many people of color in speakeasies. Even in segregated clubs, they were there as employees. White New Yorkers flocked to Harlem speakeasies to see their unparalleled performers. Many speakeasies that were known as “black and tan clubs”– clubs that welcomed patrons of all races– became important centers for the development of jazz and remained open for decades, such as the Sunset Cafe in Chicago and the Black and Tan Club in Seattle. Black-and-tan clubs were in cities all over the US.

There’s so much more that I didn’t include here. I have a lot about trans and genderqueer people. I have a lot about women. I have a lot more in general. Native people fought in WWI. The most decorated unit of WWII was the 442nd, made up of Japanese Americans, and remains the most decorated unit of its size in US military history. Viking shieldmaidens were real. One third of pirates in the Caribbean were Black. The oldest human culture that left written records had transgender priestesses and taught that the goddess Inanna could bestow any one of several genders on people to match their “hearts.” The world’s first known author was an Akkadian priestess, Enheduanna. I’ve now spent about a bazillion hours on this post, and I have to force myself to stop. But there’s so much more.

If you don’t see something here, that doesn’t mean BIPOC weren’t there. BIPOC have been erased from history, both through negligence and through deliberate malice. Time to set the historical record straight.

If you need something you don’t see here, I have reasonable rates for dramaturgy. Head over to Melissa Hillman Consulting to learn more. If you’re an artist who needs evidence to take to a gatekeeper who has told you that you won’t be considered for a project because “it wouldn’t be historically accurate,” I will work pro bono to get the information you need into your hands. 

Parts of this post were originally patron-only content on Patreon. Become a Bitter Gertrude patron! Your support of my work makes posts like these possible.

“Portrait of a Moor” by Jan Mostaert, c. 1525-1530. The name and rank of this elegantly dressed nobleman have been lose to time, but we do know that he was a courtier in the court of Margaret of Austria, the Duchess of Savoy and Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. The symbol on his hat means he made a Christian pilgrimage, popular with the court at that time, to venerate the Virgin Mary.
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Black Ariel: Casting Controversy Under the Sea

 

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Halle Bailey. (Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence)

By now you’ve heard that Disney cast someone called Halle Bailey, a young singer, as Ariel in a live-action Little Mermaid. While I was stuck trying to figure out why they would cast someone in her 40s as Ariel and then discovering that it was not, in fact, Halle Berry but someone else entirely, because I am #old, don’t watch TV, and have no idea who anyone is, the rest of white America was, evidently, freaking out.

Twitter exploded in a #notmyAriel campaign/Klan rally. It’s exactly what you would expect– a lot of emotional displays about how the fictional character of Ariel is “supposed to be” white, and that “little white girls deserve to see themselves represented.”

“They’re subverting Andersen’s original intent!”

As soon as the rest of us began pointing out that this is a film about a mermaid, and therefore a fictional story about a fictional creature who isn’t “supposed to” look like anything, they switched to this– Hans Christian Andersen’s supposedly inviolable intent.

Disney made many changes to Hans Christian Andersen’s original, but the only aspect the #notmyAriel hysterics care about is the mermaid’s skin color, described in the original as “white.” Yet Disney changed the most basic aspects of the story, remaking the plot entirely into a love story. In the original, the mermaid (who isn’t named, let alone given the name of a male Shakespeare character), is far less interested in the young prince than she is in obtaining an immortal human soul so she may go to human heaven when she dies. Her grandmother gives her the idea of marrying a human as a way of obtaining a soul:

“Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars. . . . Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”

“No,” said the old woman, “unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.”

Souls being, evidently, sexually transmitted.

In the end, she doesn’t marry the prince after all, but leaves him to his bride– who is not the sea witch, but a human princess– and flings herself into the sea to die without an immortal soul. She is then carried into the sky by the “daughters of the air,” who promise her an immortal soul for her continued good deeds and self-sacrifice, and assure her– and all the children in 19th century Denmark, one assumes– that good, obedient children shorten the lives of the “daughters of the air” and therefore bring them to the “kingdom of heaven” more quickly, but bad, disobedient children add time to their “probation” on earth.

Andersen’s happy ending isn’t a wedding, but 300 years with Sky Lesbians ending in Danish Christian Heaven.

daughters-air

The original 19th century illustration of the “daughters of the air” by Vilhelm Pedersen. (Robarts Library, the Internet Archive)

Fealty to Andersen’s original is a ruse, of course. The one and only change white people care about is that, in one of the many retellings of this story, the mermaid will have dark skin.

Note that none of these white people are demanding that a Danish actress be cast in the role; just a white one. In all other respects American white people, who voted for Trump and continue to support him, despise Denmark and the entire Nordic Model. They despise democratic socialism; they despise single payer health care; they despise unions; they despise “big government” and the social safety net. They despise everything about Denmark, but they feel entitled, by virtue of their whiteness alone, to claim ownership of Andersen’s story and demand that its heroine not be representative of Denmark but representative of themselves– of white Americans.

“Little white girls deserve the see themselves represented! Does this mean we can cast white people in Black roles?!” 

It’s preposterous to say that this one casting decision is a problem because white girls “deserve to see themselves represented.” The original white Ariel will continue to exist both in the animated film and in the mountain of related merchandise. And of course, white people are dramatically overrepresented in the media in general.

White people know this. The issue is not that white girls need representation, or that the integrity of Andersen’s original needs to be preserved, or that live action Ariel needs to look identical to animated Ariel, with her inhuman proportions. The issue is that white people believe they are so much better than Black people, so different than Black people, so deeply connected to norms of representation, that it’s an affront when a Black person is cast in a “white” role. This is hardly the first time this has happened. Michael B. Jordan as Human Torch, Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, and just the consideration of Idris Elba as James Bond spring to mind. Even Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games despite her description in the books as having dark skin and hair.

“Then why can’t we cast white people in Black roles?” is right up there with “Why isn’t there a White History Month”? and “Why can’t I wear a White Pride shirt?” This is an obviously disingenuous question, but just to be clear: WE DO. All the time.

Whitewashing is one of the most common practices in Hollywood, and often entire eras and areas of the world are whitewashed. One of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Morien, was Black; one of the most feared and successful Revolutionary War fighters was Colonel Tye, an escaped slave who led an entire regiment of Black soldiers for the British, attacking Rebel slaveholders and freeing their slaves; Moses’s wife is described in Numbers 12 as a Cushite– an Ethiopian– and God punishes Miriam for complaining about it; one of Henry VIII’s best court trumpeters, John Blanke, was Black, and was so valued the king gave him a handsome raise in pay; there were Black Puritan clergy (Lemuel Haynes) and Black Puritan women who were landholders (Zipporah Atkins). I could go on. These aren’t contested stories or theories by amateur historians. This is all part of the established historical record, all routinely overlooked in film depictions.

We so deeply believe that white is the default, it’s common for white people to complain about the inclusion of characters of color at all. “But why does he have to be Black?” or “Why does she need to be Asian?” are common critiques, as if one needed a specific reason to be anything other than white. White people consider white to be “generic human,” and any other type of character must therefore be some kind of specific racial commentary. The only reason to cast a Black actor is if you’re speaking specifically about Blackness within a white context. If you include a Black character who never specifically discusses Blackness within a white context– explaining what it means to be Black in a white world, talking about the struggles of being Black, absolving white people of racism by offering easy solutions like “Just be my friend”– white people demand to know why that character is even there. 

Diversity in casting, for these people. is about white people graciously scooting over to allow people of color a small amount of space that we define for them and that exists only in relation to us. It’s therefore a massive affront and highly offensive when Black people “take” something that’s “rightfully” ours because it’s something we did not define as set aside for them to use to explain their lack of whiteness to us.

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Super cute piece by artist Alice X. Zhang of Halle Bailey as Ariel

People angry about Black Ariel are shrieking all over the internet right now, “Why don’t they just find an African story to do instead of ruining our stories?” Sure, except you get angry about that as well, Ashleighee. Apart from the fact that The Little Mermaid is not “ours” and a Black actress does not “ruin” it with her Blackness, these are the very same people who get angry when Black stories are produced by mainstream studios. Those studios are “pandering” and “too PC.” Black Panther, Dear White People, and Luke Cage were all “racist,” with too few white actors and white characters who weren’t shown “positively.” When Black films are confined to Black spaces, they’re fine, but when Black films come into the mainstream, the culture we define as “white space,” we demand that our needs, stories, and visual representations be centered.

So let’s be clear: This isn’t about one remake of The Little Mermaid with a Black American instead of a blue-eyed Dane. This is about white anger about any story being told in which white people are not the heroes, the center of the narrative, and the posited audience. They’re perfectly fine with a colonial New England, ancient Rome, or Tudor London with zero Black people on screen; they’re perfectly fine with white Europeans playing ancient Egyptians; they believe it makes perfect sense for a “galaxy far, far away” to have enough racial diversity to sustain Wookkiees and Hutts but not enough for humans to be anything under 99.77% European, yet they are absolutely livid over one Black mermaid. It’s not about character or narrative integrity and it never was. It’s about preserving the vision of a white-dominated, white supremacist world.

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Representation Matters: People with Disabilities Are Done Being Your Inspiration

 

 

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Photo of a version of the American flag with the stars configured to look like the symbol for disability. (Photo credit: money.cnn.com)

We need a long, hard examination of the way we’re representing people with disabilities on our stages and screens. We talk a lot about equity and inclusion, but almost always ignore people with disabilities in those discussions, leaving our industries far behind where they should be on this issue.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs as PwDs is controversial. Able-bodied people fight hard for their “right” to cast able-bodied actors to play us, then shut us out of every aspect of the process. Able-bodied people insist they’re doing “extensive research,” yet portrayals of PwDs are more often than not astoundingly inaccurate, more about how you see us than how we really are.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs has been called “exploitative,” as if our physical presence must always be measured by the gaze of able-bodied people. It reminds me of the way sexist writers claim women are “flaunting” their bodies by simply appearing in public. Our physical presence in the world as PwDs (or women, for that matter) is not about you. Our physical presence as PwDs is so deeply othered that any public performance is automatically suspect– it must mean something. Add to that the relentless infantilization of PwDs by able-bodied people, and our every appearance as actors results in a flurry of pearl-clutching about how we’re being “displayed,” “used,” or “exploited,” as if PwDs are children who need protecting instead of actors who need jobs.

It’s “exploitative” when we play ourselves, but ennobling when you play us.

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During preproduction for the film The Upside, released in January 2019, producers refused to consider actors with disabilities for the role of Dell Scott, a quadriplegic character, instead first casting able-bodied actor Colin Firth, and then replacing him with Bryan Cranston, drawing criticism from disability rights activists. (Photo by David Lee/The Weinstein Company depicts Cranston seated in a wheelchair on a busy city street, laughing as actor Kevin Hart stands on the wheelchair behind Cranston, leaning down and laughing.)

We’re still so far behind it’s considered a special kind of acting triumph when an able-bodied actor plays us because, like actors who gain weight or allow themselves to be made “ugly” for a role, they’re working hard at lowering themselves, appearing less glamorous, less desirable, less perfect. The actor is ennobled by their humility, by the sacrifice it took to present themselves pretending to be what we are every day of our lives. 

We’re still so far behind that the types of stories we tell about PwDs all center around our difference: inspiration porn, tragedies, the Manic Pixie Sick Girl (and as she’s lowered into her grave, he realizes he has finally learned how to live), and the DEI Sidekick (Hi. I’m here to make the producers look inclusive and the protagonist look sympathetic oops time to die to provide motivation for the protagonist). There are more (so many more) but you get the idea.

Please note that all of these are almost always played by conventionally beautiful, thin, able-bodied white people, and that these issues are intersectional. While this piece focuses on PwDs, bear in mind that people of color with disabilities are facing two major hurdles; female-identified and genderqueer people of color with disabilities are facing three, etc. Women of color are in fact the vanguard of disability rights activism.

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Writer and activist Imani Barbarin, who runs the blog Crutches and Spice, is the force behind #DisTheOscars, an advocacy campaign around disability representation in the media. (Photo by Madasyn Andrews depicts Barbarin, a Black woman with long, thin dreads, smiling in a garden setting, wearing a blue flowered dress and a black jacket, with one of her crutches visible on her arm.)

In the United States, between 13 and 19% of the population are PwDs. That’s a sizable population, yet we are aggressively shut out of every aspect of visual narrative, our stories stolen from us and told by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people.

This begs the question, “What are our stories?” It’s an important question, because the answer is: ALL OF THEM, KATIE. We’re a massively diverse population occupying every race, gender, sexuality, age, belief, and socioeconomic status. The vast majority of our stories are not “disability stories.” We are people with disabilities– people first– and the majority of our lives are spent wrapped up in the same issues everyone else has. Yet nearly every film, play, or show that hires an actor with a disability is doing so specifically to tell a “disability story”; when that narrative is over, the actor is released. We’re rarely allowed to tell any other kinds of stories. Disability is only represented when the story is about disability in some way.

Because we are hired far less frequently than able-bodied people, even with similar training and experience, we’re seldom in the room when these stories are developed, and if we are in the room, we’re one voice– often brought in late in the process as a low-ranking temporary hire (“disability consultant”). It’s no wonder that stories about PwDs are so often about the impact the PwD has on an able-bodied person.

Lack of representation is a vicious circle. Because we are so seldom represented as anything but life support for able-bodied inspiration, PwDs are almost never considered for “straight” roles. It never occurs to producers and directors to cast an actor with a disability in a story not specifically about disability, because they, like the rest of us, live in a world where PwDs are dramatically under-represented throughout all of our media and have come to see that under-representation as “normal.”

Our industries create fantastic, imaginary worlds, but we can’t imagine a Juliet with a mobility device? Our imaginations can comprehend time travel, dragons, talking animals, alien cultures, telekinesis, and 500 different kinds of afterlife, but a disabled Hedda Gabler is incomprehensible? You think that if you cast a PwD, the narrative becomes about the disability because those are the only stories we allow PwDs to tell. 

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Marilee Talkington, a brilliantly talented actor, has a long career of playing both blind and sighted characters. Talkington has played blind characters on several TV shows recently, drawing praise from the National Federation of the Blind and their #letusplayus campaign. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs depicts Talkington from the shoulders up: a white woman with curly red hair, blue eyes, and coral lipstick, wearing a wine-colored sleeveless top.)

Allow people with disabilities to tell all kinds of stories, including our own. The right to portray someone different than you is not the exclusive province of the able-bodied. Able-bodied people defend their right to play us with “It’s called ‘acting'” without ever once considering that we can do it too.

Hire people with disabilities at every level, from conceptualization to casting to audience management, not just in temporary positions meant to shield you from controversy. When you talk about “inclusion,” remember: we’re here, and we are not going away.

 

 

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“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

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Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

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Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

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Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

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“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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The “Playwright’s Intent” and the Dangers of the “Purist”

It’s always exasperating to see people scolding directors for “desecrating” a canonical play or a canonical playwright’s “intent” because they cast actors of color, cast a disabled actor, or removed something racist (or sexist, antisemitic, ableist, etc) from the work. It’s exasperating because it’s the smallest and least artistically viable point of view to have about modern stagings of canonical work.*
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Our “canon” has deliberately shut out women and people of color for a great many generations. Until fairly recently in western history, it was very difficult for women and people of color to become playwrights (lack of access to education being a significant bar), and for those who were playwrights, it was very difficult to get produced outside of certain theatres. Even if produced, the work of women and people of color was rarely considered “important” or “universal” enough to be included in the kinds of awards, articles, books, and university courses that created what we consider to be the “canon.” Plays that were considered “universal” reflected specifically white and male points of view; plays that differed from that were considered specific to a cultural subgroup rather than “universal” in the vast majority of cases. Even today, most works in a traditional survey course are written by white men while “Black theatre” is its own category, often represented by a single play. In my undergrad education, that play was the short piece “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka– we didn’t even read a full-length play. “Asian Theatre,” “Chicano Theatre,” and “Feminist Theatre” are still often brief mentions as classes move directly to more important, “mainstream” writers such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet, with Caryl Churchill the lone female voice in an otherwise very male reading list.

Scholars and theatremakers have begun the process of interrogating the formation of the canon, as well as reframing the works we consider “canonical” within their specific sociohistorical context rather than continuing to pretend these works are “universal.” This is vital work.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. Scholars and theatremakers are asking new questions about “canonical” works and the formation of the “canon.”

When we stage canonical work, we have two choices. The first is what is mistakenly referred to as the “purist” approach. This approach holds that works should be preserved untouched, performed precisely as they were first performed. There’s some educational value in performing work in historically accurate ways– at least as far as we can reconstruct that level of accuracy. Those who advocate for this approach believe they are defending the “playwright’s intent,” which means they somehow believe that their interpretation of the “playwright’s intent” is the only accurate one. These people are, in my experience, overwhelmingly white and male, and, as such, have been taught from birth that their experience of the world is universal, and their interpretation of the world and its processes and symbols is “correct,” so it’s not entirely surprising that they believe they are the only ones who understand the “playwright’s intent” and can therefore separate what is a reasonable interpretation of a work from page to stage from what is a “desecration.”

There are many problems with the purist approach. First of all, no one knows the playwright’s intent if the playwright, as is the case with most canonical plays, is dead. Even if the playwright wrote a 47-paragraph screed entitled “Here Is My Intent: Waver Not Lest Ye Be Tormented By My Restless Spirit,” no one knows what the playwright’s intent would be if he had knowledge of the cultural changes that occurred after he died. The audience for whom he wrote the play– the culture that understood the references, the jokes, the unspoken inferences; the culture that understood the underlying messages and themes; the culture to whom the playwright wished to speak– is gone, and modern audiences will interpret the play according to their own cultural context. Slang terms change meaning in months; using a 400-year old punchline that uses a slang term 90% of the audience has never heard seems closer to vandalizing the playwright’s intent than preserving it. Would Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare, masters of dialogue, insist that a line using a racial slur now considered horrific still works the way he intended? Still builds the character the way he intended? It seems dubious at best, yet this is the purist’s logic. The playwright’s intent on the day the play was written, the logic goes, could not ever possibly change.

It’s important to continue to study these works unchanged. We must not forget or attempt to rehabilitate our past. But to claim that lines written decades or even centuries in the past can still work the way the playwright originally intended is absurd.

We have begun to understand that the “canon” and its almost exclusively white male point of view is not “universal,” but is a depiction of the cultural dominance of a certain type of person and a certain way of thought. We have begun to re-evaluate those works and the “canon” as a whole as part of a larger historical narrative. This is why it is of great artistic interest to stage “canonical” work in conversation with the current cultural context.

When staging, for example, The Glass Menagerie in 2017, one must consider the current moment, the current audience. We can choose to present the work precisely as it was presented in 1944 as a way to experience a bygone era, or we can present the work in conversation with its canonical status, in conversation with our own time, in conversation with the distance between its era and our own, in conversation with the distance between the playwright’s intent and the impossibility of achieving that intent with a modern audience, simply due to the fact that too much time has passed for the original symbols, context, and themes to work the same way they once did.

What does The Glass Menagerie— or any canonical work– mean to an audience in 2017? What can it mean? What secrets can be unlocked in the work by allowing it to be interpreted and viewed from diverse perspectives? What can we learn about the work? About the canon? About the writer? About ourselves?

The meaning of any piece of art is not static. Whether the piece of art is a sculpture created in 423 BCE or a play written yesterday, the meaning of any piece of art is created in the mind of the person beholding it in the moment of beholding. The meaning of each piece changes with each viewing, just as the meaning of what we say is created in large part by the person to whom we’re saying it, which is why we can say “Meet me by the thing where we went that time” to your best friend but need to say “Meet me at the statue across from the red building on the 800 block of Dunstan” to an acquaintance. To insist that there is one “correct” meaning– always as determined by a white male– is to deny the entire purpose and function of art. You cannot create a “purist” interpretation without the play’s original audience in attendance. The closest you can come is a historical staging a modern audience views as if through a window, wondering how historical audiences might have reacted, or marveling at the words and situations historical audiences found shocking– or did not. How many audiences in 2017 understand Taming of the Shrew as a parodic response to the popularity of shrew-taming pieces? Shakespeare’s audience is gone and the cultural moment to which he was responding is gone, so the possibility of a “purist” staging is also gone.

This is 2017. Our audiences live in 2017. It’s insulting to them to present a play written generations in the past as if nothing about our culture has changed since then, as if a work of genius gave up every secret it had to give with the original staging, as if art has nothing whatsoever to do with the audience viewing it. 

We know better. Art lives in our hearts and minds, whether those hearts and minds are white and male or not.

*Of course I am only referring to interpretations that have received permission from the writer or estate, or stagings of work in the public domain. This is not– at all– an argument in favor of running roughshod over someone else’s IP.
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Disability, Expectations, and Disruption in The Glass Menagerie

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Phoebe Fico as Laura and Karen Aldridge as Amanda in Cal Shakes’ The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It was an honor to be invited to view a rehearsal of California Shakespeare Theater’s upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie and write a piece for their blog. An excerpt:

“Lisa Portes’ tight, muscular staging of Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes creates yet another layer of disruption…by using all actors of color. The actor playing Laura (Phoebe Fico) is a young woman of color with a visible mobility disability. The physical presence of the actor’s disabled body onstage as Laura disrupts the other characters’ strenuous and relentless efforts to create a ‘Laura’ that is acceptable, both to themselves and to others, paralleling our culture’s relentless efforts to contain and define women, people with disabilities, and people of color.”

Read more here.

Tickets for The Glass Menagerie, playing July 5 – 30, available here.

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Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

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Philando Castile in a yearbook photo. He worked as a nutrition services assistant for the Saint Paul Public School District.

I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.

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Charleena Lyles, in a photo released by her family.

Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?

Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:

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A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?

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Tamir Rice in a family photo taken shortly before his death.

Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?

Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?

 

Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.

It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.

When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.

My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.

When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?

We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.

Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.

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Shut up, Wesley

The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:

When we talk about police “retraining,” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives – which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before Black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better.

Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.

Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?

We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.

 

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The Albee Controversy: Throwing the Baby Out With the Racist Bathwater

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A young Edward Albee (1928 – 2016). Source: University of Houston Digital Library.

For the, oh, seven of you out there who haven’t yet heard, the Albee estate denied the rights to a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the company (Complete Works Project in Oregon) cast a Black man as Nick. 
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First, congratulations, Complete Works Project, for being the center of a national controversy, and with such a banal play choice! I did multiple new plays that drew angry conservative picketers in other cities, and I never got so much as a pissy letter. That’s Berkeley for you. Enjoy the publicity, and I hope you take the ensuing donations and do a new play by a writer of color starring that Black actor.
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The racism of the Albee estate decision is undeniable, and it’s absolutely our responsibility as a theatre community to decry it and to pressure the estate to reverse its decision.
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 HOWEVER. Playwrights need to have the right to protect their work, even when they make stupid, racist decisions that contribute to their swiftly approaching irrelevance.
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Albee’s legacy isn’t the argument here. I don’t care if Nick is described in the text as literal Hitler, the estate could have given permission to an undergrad theatre club to stage the entire Albee catalogue with mac-and-cheese-filled sock puppets singing the lines as screamo in a university housing common area filled with cats, pot, and bike parts and Albee’s legacy would have been fine. Yanking the rights over a Black actor is far more damaging to the legacy than perhaps any other possible choice the estate could have made apart from allowing Disney to make an animated Three Tall Princesses. It’s stunningly poor management.
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Racism isn’t the argument here. The estate’s decision was absolutely racist, period, the end. That’s not up for debate. It’s the kind of racism that demeans the entire industry and requires resistance.
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Neither the preservation of the legacy nor the racism are the debate here, since both are settled matters as far as I’m concerned. The debate, for me, is about the people answering “What do we do about this” by hauling out the tired old chestnut “PLAYWRIGHTS SHOULD LET ME DO WHATEVER I WANT TO THEIR WORK.”
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I believe Albee’s estate made a shortsighted, racist decision that mismanages his work and misunderstands the basics of art. I believe the estates of canonical playwrights should bestow a certain measure of freedom to companies who wish to stage these older, canonical works in ways that engage them in healthy dialogue with the current culture and with various modern points of view. Virginia Woolf is 55 years old, and the culture with which it was originally designed to engage is gone. While there is certainly artistic merit in historically accurate works as windows into bygone eras, I believe that allowing older canonical works to acquire new relevance within a modern artistic dialogue nearly always results in more interesting work.* I believe there is real value in creating places for people of color in (almost invariably white male) canonical works, just as there is real value in queering cishet work, doing all-female productions of Shakespeare, and all of the other ways people have sought to make room in canonical works for marginalized voices. I believe Albee’s estate is working studiously to make Albee, as quickly as possible, one of those unknown writers who was wildly popular in his day that grad students encounter while researching something else. He’ll be another Arthur Wing Pinero if they keep this up, and they probably will.

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Who?

I also believe that 99% of playwrights under Albee’s stature, especially women and PoC, have traditionally and historically seen their work stolen from them, been paid a pittance (or less) for the rights to their work and told they should be grateful for “the exposure,” struggle to make ends meet with their writing or struggle to write around the demands of a day job– or both (looking at you, San Francisco writers, paying the most expensive rents in the country).
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I’m worried about those playwrights– the rank and file. The 99%. Albee and his estate and every play he wrote can sink into Oblivion, but I will stand between playwrights and people who want to rob them of their ability to protect their work, especially since so often this discussion seems to be centered around white voices convinced of their primary artistic entitlement over the living playwrights they see as a hindrance. Playwrights are currently allowed legal protections over their work, and we should, as an industry, be working to preserve that. The price for that is the occasional destructive, bigoted decision by a writer or estate. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing about those destructive, bigoted decisions. Quite the opposite. My point is: Fight the bigotry head-on, not the principle of playwright IP rights. Don’t throw the baby out with the racist bathwater.
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1. We must call out bigotry when we see it. Playwrights should have the right to protect their work (either during their lifetimes or when leaving directives to an estate executor) even in objectively terrible ways, but they do not have the right to do that free from criticism. Whether we change anything regarding the way the Albee estate is handled is immaterial. We’re changing the entire culture by demonstrating that these types of decisions are not acceptable.
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2. I state above that there’s real value in creating space within white male canonical works for marginalized voices. This is because canonical works occupy a dominant cultural position that must be interrogated from multiple angles. However, we must also be staging new works by new voices. My company staged three or four new plays for every classic we did. I like that percentage; maybe a different one will work for you. But stage new work, especially work by writers whose voices have been marginalized– women, people of color, trans* people, people with disabilities, etc.
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3. Support the work you want to see with your attendance, buzz, and donations. It is wickedly hard to sell a new play, which is part of what drives companies to choose canonical work. Put your money where your mouth is. Reward companies when they program the way you like by buying tickets, spreading the word, and choosing them when/if you donate.
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We’re nothing without playwrights. Stage living playwrights and defend their right to protect their work. And Albee’s executors, if you’re reading this, you have some serious damage control to do if you want that money to keep rolling in. Just a thought.
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*With the single exception of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett’s works are little, exquisite machines. Take out a cog and replace it with a dancer — why is it always dancers?– and the wheels fall off. But on principle I support your right to try staging Not I in full light with projections of Trump rallies and even dancers, if you must. (But that proscription against cross gender casting remains bunk.)
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Theatre Resistance Plan, 2017 – 2020

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Pete Seeger’s banjo

There is no more powerful tool for changing ideas, shifting cultural zeitgeist, and resisting authoritarianism than art. While theatre is not the biggest bat artists wield, our impact on the culture is not nil, especially if you include community theatre and school plays, and we must. Resistance to the Trump regime is the most crucial political battle of our lifetimes because this regime– and the zeitgesit behind it– stands to undo progress in every area of our society. Trump, Pence, McConnell, Ryan et al are actively seeking to impoverish you to enrich themselves, roll back every civil rights and workers’ rights gain of the past 100 years,  eliminate every consumer protection, eliminate the social safety net, and pretend you begged them to do it. It’s telling that the very first appointee of the incoming administration was an amoral white nationalist, and the very first act of the new Congress was an attempt to eliminate their own ethical oversight.

One of the most dangerous aspects of this regime for us as artists is its leader’s relentless attacks on free speech. He has always attacked the freedom of expression to the fullest extent of his ability as a private citizen, and has publicly stated his desire to use the power of the office of POTUS to continue to do so.

Trump takes power in just a few days, and we must be ready. The theatre community must form a resistance to this regime and to the cultural zeitgeist that supports it. We have a very specific, very powerful tool, and we must use it effectively.

1. All artificial divisions between theatres need to be dropped. A commercial Broadway offering is no more important to this fight than a community theatre production. Every show, every company, every artist is important. Denigrating shows for being “commercial” or “community theatre” serves no one in the resistance. Brushing off a show because it’s a “college production” or a “kids’ show” demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about what we’re trying to do here. We’re prepping for a long game. This is not just a resistance to one regime; it’s a resistance to the ideas that put that regime in place. From now on, when we say “theatre,” we are consciously including everything from the smallest storefront indie show to Hamilton, from street theatre to Ashland, from the elementary school play to Roundabout. Everywhere our art is practiced is an opportunity for effective resistance.

2. Define for yourself what the goals of your resistance will be. You will not be able to resist everything all the time, and you will burn out quickly if you try. Define for yourself the specific resistance goals you wish to focus on, and understand that those goals can shift from show to show, decision to decision. Here’s a partial list: fighting racism and white nationalism, fighting sexism and misogyny, fighting bigotry against religious minorities (such as antisemitism and Islamophobia), fighting homophobia and transphobia, fighting ableism, protecting and expanding health care, protecting free speech and freedom of the press, protecting consumer protections, protecting public education, protecting workers’ rights, fighting against “post-truth” and misinformation, fighting for action to slow climate change, fighting for voters’ rights and election integrity. Are you a 501c3? You already exist to act in the public interest. Nothing about your mission needs to change in order to incorporate these goals, and “acting in the public interest” over the next four years can only mean doing whatever is in our power to resist this regime and its dangerous goals.

3. All theatre is political theatre and all art is activist art, whether you consciously know what message you’re sending or not. We must consciously consider what messages we’re sending with our art and make decisions that specifically work to further resistance goals. That doesn’t necessarily mean staging overtly political shows. It means you have a critical obligation to assess what you’re saying with the content of your work. It means, “Oh, it’s just a fun comedy” doesn’t cut it any longer, especially considering comedy is one of the most powerful tools any resistance ever has. Examine the content of the work you’re considering. What is it saying? Does it speak honestly to your audience (and to your staff) about our nation? Who we are, who we want to be, who we fear becoming? Does it work to further our goals in any way? Can it be staged to do so? Remember that some of the most effective art is subversive art. The resistance goals you’re meeting with your show need not be overtly political. Creating empathy for transgender people, immigrants, or Muslims in a small, personal show with no overtly political content would be powerful support for resistance goals, for example. You know best how to speak to your audience. Just be conscious of what you’re saying to them.

Artistic directors, the best tool at your disposal is your diverse staff. When they read the plays under consideration for your season, ask them to look at messaging and/or political and social content in addition to the usual things you ask them to look at. If you are white, believe people of color on your staff when they tell you a script is racially problematic. If you are male, believe the women on your staff when they tell you a script is misogynistic. If you are able-bodied, straight, or cis, believe the disabled, queer, or transgender people on your staff when they tell you a script is ableist, homophobic, or transphobic. Actively seek out the opinions of others and believe them. What’s at stake is too important to allow for fragile egos. When a script you love by a playwright you love is, for example, considered misogynistic by the women on your staff, set it aside. You can love the script at home. We have far more excellent scripts than we have slots within which to produce them. Believe your staff.

4. Ensure that your process supports resistance goals. This means hiring a diverse staff and treating them as well as you possibly can. We are long past the point when we can continue to discuss gender parity and diversity and still hire white men for each and every position of power. White men are 31% of the US population. Do they hold 31% of the leadership positions in your organization? They sure as hell make up more than 31% of the AD positions and director positions in the US. How many transgender or genderqueer people do you have on staff? How many disabled people? When you’re hiring, consider diversity a specific desirable characteristic. Living as, for example, a Black woman or a disabled transwoman in the US creates a certain skillset in a person that will enrich your organization in multiple ways, not the least of which is identifying and understanding politically and socially problematic content in plays you’re considering that you will otherwise miss if you do not have that same lived experience. Treat your people as well as you possibly can. I realize that your cash-strapped organization cannot always pay people what you would like to pay them. I realize funding is a massive, industry-wide problem. All I ask is that you ask yourself at every juncture, in every decision, if you are acting in accordance with your goals to the best of your ability.

5. We must set aside making compromises for financial gain. Yes, we must keep our doors open, but we do not need to pull back from our values to do that. More often than not, decisions that are presented as compromises for financial gain do not actually work to increase income; they’re decisions made out of fear of risk where no real risk exists. It’s not financially risky to do a play by a woman or cast people of color. We have a mountain of stats to prove this. There is always a way to act in accordance with your goals. Do not allow the fears of others to push you into poor decisions. Push back. We must prioritize resistance goals over financial ones, which leads me to:

6. We must re-evaluate our funding system top to bottom. Funders, you must work closer to the 501c3 ideal we all say we support. This means going back to the creation of the 501c3 as a way to fund theatres that releases them from needing to rely on ticket sales. The ultimate goal is radical hospitality– free tickets for all who need them– but of course implementing that industry-wide is a long way off. For now, we must step away from consolidating funding at the very top and work to distribute funds in a way that furthers resistance goals. We must keep our flagship theatres open, but we do not need to continue shutting out smaller theatres. Nowhere is this more vital than in initiatives to reach audiences of color. We fund large white theatres when they do an “ethnic” show to reach “under-served” audiences, while we routinely starve theatres– especially smaller theatres– run by people of color that have been serving those supposedly “under-served” communities for decades.

What does this mean in practice? It means living up to our liberal values and initiating a small redistribution of wealth by peeling a small amount of the funding currently going to the top 1% of theatres and using it to fund smaller companies who are able to reach audiences larger companies cannot. It won’t take much. A $20K grant is chump change to a $20 million dollar a year theatre, but it’s lifesaving to a small theatre. We must also re-evaluate the bizarre funding culture that funds projects instead of companies. When we do fund projects, we must look to fund more joint projects between smaller theatres and larger theatres. When you want to fund flagship theatres’ initiatives to do outreach to an “under-served” audience, make that a grant for joint projects between flagship theatres and smaller companies already reaching that target audience. Funders, you are the life-blood of our resistance. You must make your funding more effective for the health of the community as a whole. There are things smaller theatres can do that larger theatres cannot, and vice versa. Every tool at our disposal needs to be supported.

7. Think about what you can do in addition to– or in tandem with– the actual shows that furthers your resistance goals. We’re all strapped for time, money, and energy, but many of the things you can do are fairly low maintenance, and some of them you’re likely already doing. Can you hold a Q&A for audiences after the show that focuses on issues raised within the show? Can you host a panel discussion with local theatremakers about diversity in casting, about an issue discussed in your show, about gender representation? Can you allocate a certain number of tickets for radical hospitality– free tickets for teachers, for members of the local community, for students? Many companies are already doing free student matinees, a radical act that changes lives. Can you provide free workshops for actors, playwrights, designers, admins? Or, if you have a space, can you provide free space to a local theatremaker already giving workshops, enabling that workshop to offer a certain number of scholarship spaces? Can you create a staged reading series for local playwrights of color, LGBTQ playwrights, women playwrights, disabled playwrights, giving them opportunities to develop their voices? These are just a few ideas– there are limitless things you can do.

Remember, though, that self-care is crucial. Don’t take on more than you can handle. There’s no way you can do everything. Delegate– which also provides opportunities for others. We all must get our shows up, and the work we do is grueling. Do what additional things you can, and don’t waste time beating yourself up for not doing more. This is a long game. Protect yourself from burnout. Sometimes you won’t be able to do anything extra, and that’s fine– and that concept should be supported by funders as well. The work on our stages is paramount. We make theatre. That must come first. The art creates the empathy. The extras around the art are excellent and useful, but not critical. Do what you can, but prioritize the art.

8.  A lot of these action items are directed at theatre companies, but individual theatremakers are just as important. Use whatever power you have, and never stop using it. When I cast, I call in a diverse group of actors for every role unless the role calls for an actor of a specific race or ethnicity. When I work with actors on audition monologues, I make sure the monologue choices I give them are by a diverse group of writers. When I teach, I make sure my reading lists are diverse. As theatre makers, we are one of the primary audiences for theatre. See shows that are working to further resistance goals. Donate to companies that are working to further resistance goals. Even signal boosting a show on social media is a concrete action you can take that genuinely helps– buzz sells more tickets than anything else. Actors, did your show just lose an actor? Suggest an actor who is a female, of color, transgender, genderqueer, disabled. Directors, are you giving acting workshops? Can you create one scholarship spot for an actor of color, disabled actor, transgender actor, or genderqueer actor? Playwrights, when you have readings, be sure to invite people whose lived experience and intersectional identities differ from yours. Ask for their perspective and listen to them. This is just a tiny taste of what’s possible. You know far better than I do how you can use your power.

9. Listen. Listen. Listen. The artistic director of Theater MadCap here in the Bay Area, Eric Reid, often uses this hashtag: #thelisteningmovement. He’s created a facebook group (linked above) that’s “a place to speak/share/post your personal truths.” He also uses #thelisteningmovement on articles he posts as well as statuses he writes or shares. It’s something that makes me pause every time I see it– I pause and pay closer attention. Partially because I know Eric and know him to be brilliant, so the things he posts are worth my attention, and partially because of the very power of the idea: The Listening Movement. We must commit to listening– truly listening– to each other.

One of the most crucial aspects of resistance for those of us with privilege– and we all have some aspects of privilege in our intersectional identities– is listening. Listening and believing. Listening without challenge, without defensiveness, without fear. Just listening, believing, and learning. It’s not easy to do, to be honest. It takes mindful effort. But it is crucial.

It’s easy to think you understand a situation because you thoroughly understand those aspects of it that you recognize. Privilege, however, blinds you to other experiences. Privilege often means that you aren’t even aware of how much you don’t know. The only cure for this is listening. Listen to your staff. Listen to your friends. Listen to people when they share their lived experience. Listen and believe.

Theatre creates empathy. We know this. Yet we still have trouble listening empathetically to others. This is hard. But it is worth doing. It’s what we ask our audiences to do every day.

10. Your resistance as an individual citizen is also important. This piece is specifically about how we can resist as a community, but your work as an individual is powerful as well.

Read Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. It’s free to read online.

Do what you can, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for your efforts. Foolish people will condemn social media posts as “meaningless,” but they are deeply incorrect. If a post on social media is meaningless, so is a news article, so is a blog post, so is any form of human communication. Just ensure that the articles you post are accurate to the best of your ability. The list of fake news sites compiled by Professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College remains the best resource available to check the accuracy of your source. Contact your Senators and Representative to encourage them to vote in favor of your goals, or to praise them for having done so. The phone numbers for their local offices are easily found online. Call the offices in your area– not the one in Washington DC– for maximum effectiveness. Save the numbers in your phone so you can call quickly and easily. (Find your Representative here. Find your Senators here.) Donate to theatres and to other causes that further resistance goals. After the election, my family looked for an LGBTQ center in a deeply red state and began donating to them in addition to the causes we have in our regular rotation. We don’t have much money, but we do what we can. Every little bit helps.

These ten points are just the beginning. You know your audience, you know your company, you know your heart. There are surely many things I have left out, and I encourage you to comment with your ideas.

The most important takeaway is that you are not powerless. On the contrary: as artists we have immense power. And with great power, comes great responsibility. (You knew a nerd like me would not be able to resist that one.)

We’re at the beginning of a long, difficult struggle, but, as artists, our voices are critical. Art shapes culture. Art creates empathy. Art has the power to create the kinds of massive cultural shifts that change societies. We can do this. All we need to do is approach our art consciously.

Welcome to the resistance.

 

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“Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use To Defend The Indefensible

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“Leap into the Void,” Yves Klein (photographed by Harry Shunk), 1960

When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”

The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. 

The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.

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Subtle. 

This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.

The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.

The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.

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Land that I love. (Source: berkeley.edu)

So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist?  We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.

That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.

This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.

Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.

This is, of course, bunk.

For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the  church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.

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Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production. 

There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)

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Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3, who lost his husband to a Collector attack.

While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.

There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”

For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside  all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.

Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.

There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.

 

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