Migdalia Cruz (1994)

The whole trouble with cultural diversity in the theater as I’ve experienced it is that there doesn’t seem to be real follow-through. The commitment to different cultures as a whole is not yet there. It is still limited to people of color having to enter a white world and that white world making room for them. It’s about having to share space and give up space and people aren’t doing that.

These limitations have a lot to do with economics. But it’s more than that. I think white people want to protect their cultures as much as people of color want to protect theirs. In fact, I would say it’s not really about money at all. It’s about perceptions of what is good and what is art and who our artists are and who gets to say who our artists are. It is about the purpose of culture itself.

People of color are different and I think our differences are important. It is those differences I like to see portrayed in the theater. But to do that, you have to involve — in a meaningful way — artists of color, especially writers. If theaters want to address people of color and include representations of them in their work, then they should be presenting the work of people of color.

So, far that hasn’t happened extensively. Instead, the burden of diversity has been carried by casting, putting actors of color in roles that aren’t written for them. This doesn’t make much sense to me. First, these are usually the generic parts, secondary roles that anyone could play, so what exactly does that say? Second, it can interfere with the cultural specifics of the world of a play. For instance, to cast people of color in an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter I saw recently would be saying something very different from the story, which is about a repressive, white society.

Third and last, I don’t think it works without a commitment at all levels to expanding our understanding of each other. It’s not that something like non-traditional casting is wrong; somehow all of these efforts are good. But it’s not enough unto itself. Diversity for the sake of diversity is just a band-aid, a substitute for deeper considerations of culture, for actually committing to making a bigger world for ourselves.

Most of the support for my writing has come from Latino theaters. The theater that’s my home now is Latino Chicago, which is currently doing a season of my work — three plays, including the premiere of a work they commissioned. That’s an incredible sign of support! I have received a number of commissions from non-Latino theaters in the last few years, but none of them have come with any real commitment to production. I’ve written the plays, but they haven’t been produced.

What those commissions have done for me is buy some time to write. For the theaters, perhaps they are a way of indicating a commitment to diversity, which it is to an extent. Money is a certain kind of commitment, but without a production, the final commitment isn’t there. I have yet to find a non-Latino theater that is willing to take that step and I think that is really unfortunate.

I don’t take it personally, however. To be a person of color in this country you have to learn to accept a certain kind of disinterest from the majority. They’re probably not that interested in the stories of Puerto Rican women. But that doesn’t change the fact that I write about them. That doesn’t change the fact that I am a Puerto Rican woman and I write. It’s not going to stop me.

I don’t know where all these efforts at diversity are going, but I think the bottom line is respect — self-respect and respect for other cultures. Until artists of color genuinely feel that respect, nothing is going to change. You can give money to organizations of color, you can have as many actors of color on your stage as you like, but if you don’t really believe in their work and in them, if this is just your one production a year to demonstrate your commitment to diversity — in other words, if artists of color aren’t given the same kinds of opportunities on a regular basis as white directors, writers, and actors — then true diversity will not be achieved.

I would like it to be. I would like to see diversity be part of a commitment to expanding our knowledge of each other. I am constantly surprised by how little we know about each other. I would like it to be part of an effort to invent a new space together culturally, rather than fighting over the space that exists. I would like to see it be about exploration, not integration.

In thinking about it, if you didn’t have colorblind casting practices at theaters, then maybe you would never see any people of color on those stages. But would that matter? In the audience is there anyone of color? Why is the theater doing it then? Who are they doing it for? How is it making the world more beautiful?

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