George C. Wolfe (1995)
I hate the word diversity. The need to come up with a term to express the inclusion of people is based on the absurd fact that in America, European culture is held up as the only true legitimate culture. Consequently, when cultural institutions decide to invite people of color or what I like to call the “others,” to the party, a word needs to be crafted and that word has become diversity.
Point of fact, the whole scenario should be reversed. Cultural institutions should be forced to explain why they are excluding people. I would love to hear theaters explain why, in their whole histories, they haven’t presented stories of people of color from this country — and not “Negroes” from somewhere else. I’d really like to hear why. How do you rationalize that in a city like New York? Because if you are not telling my story, not telling the stories of all the different people in this country, then you can’t call yourself an American theater. You are an elitist white institution and should hang a banner outside calling yourself that.
I think, by and large, people in the theater are liberal. But liberal intentions or not, they don’t want to share the power. There has been a long history of white artists extolling the cultures of non-whites. But, ultimately, when you strip it down, it’s cultural colonization. Until the people from those cultures are involved in making decisions as directors, writers, producers, artistic directors — and there are very few of them — there will be no substantial change.
As a person of color with power in the American theater, I am a rare creature. I’ve been successful, I’ve been applauded. (Though I still can’t get a cab in New York.) The fact that I am a rare thing is a reflection of how rigid the systems are and how much more rigid they are becoming.
When I became head of the Public Theater, it was very interesting to be exposed to certain reactionary thought processes. There was the presumption that once I got into power, I would “kill off all the white people.” That I would create my own world of exclusion in reverse. But that’s the kind of structure I have always rebelled against. I want to see a world where differences are celebrated, explored, examined, smashed up against each other. It is the range of those voices that makes the Public Theater what it is; that makes America what it is. To have only one voice — of any kind — is creating an artificial reality.
I don’t know where all this will lead. People in the theater are searching, which is good. They are asking questions, trying to form new relationships. At the same time, intolerance and fear are intensifying in society. There’s also, within the theater community, so-called “liberal intellectuals” who are using their mental prowess to dismantle and discredit so-called multicultural programming, which they dismiss as social work and not real art, i.e. not European. Ultimately, it’s all about sharing the power. And for a large number of white Americans, this is a very frightening prospect. That’s what this past election was about. Power equals comfort and for many, comfort, not freedom, is an inalienable right. But in the end, they will have to give it up because the opening of the doors is not noble — it’s inevitable.
Return to: Looking Back: Contributors