Clinton Turner Davis (1993)

Very little has changed regarding the employment of directors of color. We are still called upon primarily to direct productions specific to our cultures. For African Americans this usually falls on or around Black Hysterical Month — a euphemism that is quite appropriate. From mid-December through February, artistic directors hysterically call, interview, and solicit the talents of African American directors for productions that will run during the shortest, coldest month of the year. In a recent eighteen month period, I directed four productions of Fences and had to turn down offers to direct three others! And, yes, they were all scheduled to run in February.

The limited and limiting choice of scripts that the African American director is considered to direct points to a greater problem in the American theater: the lack of vision and creativity of many artistic directors in their selection of directors and scripts, as well as the continued blatant, occasionally sophisticated, conscious and unconscious racism inherent in the overall selection process. A new stereotype has been created — the African American director as monolith. We are thought of as only being capable of directing work by or about our specific ethnic group; the vision each of us employs is viewed as encompassing the aspirations and visions of all African Americans.

Few artistic directors make the effort or take the time to see the work of African American or other directors of color. The artistic directors who do hire us, do so only after extensive personality and “political correctness” checks. If you are too vocal an advocate of fair and equal employment and non-discrimination, you may have difficulty ever finding employment in some theaters in this country. Instead, the “let’s-do-lunch-and-talk-about-what-you-have-been-doing,” or “your-resume-is-on-file,” or “let’s-start-dialoguing” treadmills are as close to working in those theaters as you will get. The lip service and doublespeak that many artistic directors use to avoid hiring directors of color is egregious and apparent.

Many do not understand why directors of color are not excited about celebrating the “firsts” so often heralded by theaters: the hiring of the first director of color, the first presentation of a Black (or Latino or Asian American or Native American) production, and other pseudo-liberal and enlightened events and ideas. What is there to celebrate! The 21st Century is just around the corner! What’s taken American theater so long?

Upon inquiring what plays were being considered for the upcoming theater season and only being offered to direct the “black play,” a colleague of mine was told recently by a “well-respected” artistic director of a prominent American theater, “We just couldn’t hire another African American to direct the Wilson play and you to do the Moliere or Shakespeare or Overmyer because then we’d have two black directors in a season . . .” In other words, there is a quota system at work that no one will admit to.

In the theaters that claim to have embraced cultural diversity and multiculturalism, don’t artistic directors and senior artistic staffs find it odd as they discuss upcoming seasons, projects, and productions when every seat at the table is occupied by a white face? Obviously not. What would really be newsworthy, a definite first and cause for celebration would be a company’s entire season of plays directed by directors of color. Not in my lifetime, I bet. However, the reverse happens continuously. Season after season directed entirely by white directors.

As I think of the effects and changes multi-culturalism and cultural diversity have had on me and the theater, I hear my father’s voice, “When are you going to get a good job? Any job other than one in the theater?” Often I have seriously considered doing so. Then, I remember that my ten-year-old niece with increasing regularity has told me she wants to be a director when she grows up. So I continue to work. I hope by the time she enters the American professional theater aren

Return to: Looking Back: Contributorsa, she will be considered for her talent alone.