Jaye Austin-Williams – Writer/Theatre Artist (2003)
Certainly, the most monumental change of the last five years was the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. The war on Iraq following close on the heels of that disaster has certainly made for a tense and unhappy world. More to the point, our world is polarized because of what has happened, and let’s face it – we can’t talk about polarization without acknowledging not only the religious and cultural but also racial, gender and able-ist lines which continue to divide us. That said, what is terribly important is that America is more awake than it has ever been. Reluctantly, kicking-and-screamingly awake. The resistance to that state of consciousness is daunting, however.
While there was an admittedly perceptible shift in the late 90’s in the artistic leadership of non-profit theatres in this country — namely, an increase in the number of women heading up those institutions, and with them, fresher theatrical envisionings — things have begun to backslide again. As our country’s leadership continues to ride shotgun across a landscape of knee-jerk revenge and conformity, many regional, commercial and Off-Broadway theatres are back to doing the “tried and true”, and only those new projects which possess a high safety and anesthetic factor.
It seems we are always doing this kind of dance, straddling these almost imperceptible fences between art and finance, the personal and the global, the cogent and the vapid. It’s exhausting. And through it all, we, as artists, have to keep mindful – always – of why we do what we do and how crucial what we do really is.
The average person still does not have a conscious recognition of the profound importance of the arts, and so when the economy is dubious or in times of war like these, the arts are virtually shoved under the rug (along with children, their education and the elderly, it would appear) in favor of that which can be classified as benign — a temporary balm for those trying to escape their fear and dis-ease at the horrifying times in which we undeniably live.
What does all this add up to? Ostensibly, no significant changes in the area of diversity. Disabled artists are just as invisible and ghettoized as they ever were. African American artists are somewhat more visible, but are either in struggling African American theatres or are represented, in small numbers, in plays being produced in regional theatres. The tastes of today’s average theatre-goers still tend to gravitate toward the Euro-centric, the Celtic or that which is pure nostalgic Americana. Rarely are those who are of Color or differently-abled included in the fare which satisfies those tastes. Diversity remains, then, an idea, a hard-pressed aspiration, something abstract to continue to strive toward.
And, alas, the arts are dancing once again — cutting back on staff, on productions, fighting for ever-decreasing monies which are being redirected into a war effort the American people apparently have no say in.
My very own play, scheduled to be produced this season at an Off-Broadway theatre, is a recent casualty. The theatre which was supposed to produce it simply doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to produce a play whose central character is an African American, Deaf woman living with AIDS and trying to be a role model and support system for her orphaned nephew. These are not the faces of America which represent commercial viability on today’s main stages. And commercial viability is what keeps theatres afloat. Hence, I and many artists like me must constantly re-invent ourselves, wear many hats (director, playwright, actor, novelist, mentor, teacher, coach, consultant). While I enjoy these different facets of myself and would never deny any one of them, I fully recognize that if I didn’t wear all those hats, I wouldn’t work. My plays are always socio-political in scope because my aesthetic is a socio-political one. And that socio-politic is simply not popular, not anesthetic enough.
I am certainly not the only artist whose work has been adversely affected since the world as we know it changed forever. Many artists’ have. But there are certain things which were true before that happened and which remain so. For one, the American theatre continues to be a predominantly white, male playing field. To wit, producers and casting directors continue to view people through cold, hard, boiler plate lenses. For example, I was recently casting a show and was informed that a young man with virtually no credits on his resume had seen the sign downstairs for the show we were casting and was hoping to be seen. I said I would absolutely see him. The casting director was obviously perplexed by and unhappy with my decision. But when you live in the world as an African American, partially disabled (I am deaf in one ear) lesbian woman who spends more time than she’d care to mention being rendered invisible and unusable in the world, you make it your business to see each and every person individually, and in possession, therefore, of potential. In short, you are more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. A scant resume may be more representative of a lack of opportunity than a lack of talent or ability. Hence, the young man with the few credits was neither disposable nor dismissible in my view. He did not stay to be seen as it turned out. I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of climate he’d had to weather outside the audition room. I later witnessed something which not only gave me a clue, but which stung me to the bone. The casting director quietly and deliberately put the period on the incident by dropping the young man’s picture/resume in the trash can which stood between us as we talked at the end of the day.
It is not easy for women artists who have cogent, powerful things to say about life — things which allow theatre-going audiences as well as the professionals with whom we work to venture past their comfort zones — to express those things. Should I have taken on that battle in that instant and taught that casting director all about why I don’t have the luxury of viewing African American men — or anyone else, for that matter — as disposable? About why theatre is not a luxury to me? Why I can take absolutely nothing I do in the theatre industry for granted? Why everything that happens to me in the theatre — including that particular ugly “little” incident — affects me profoundly? Well, I didn’t. I kept breathing, slowly, deeply, and chose instead, to keep that professional relationship intact.
A particular group of artists who have been virtually invisible in the American theatre for the last twenty or more years are Deaf artists. I have been partial to Deaf artists ever since I began meeting Deaf people when I was in college in the 70’s, and began, at long last, to come to terms with my deep, dark secret: that I was deaf in one ear. Although my orientation was to the hearing world because of my one good ear, I had an undeniable affinity. I began learning American Sign Language in 1975, and went on to do a considerable amount of professional work with Deaf artists as the years went on.
It would not be difficult at all, unfortunately, to render a litany of names of those Deaf artists who have been forced into other types of work. Including them in the professional American theatre on a routine basis would involve turning a proverbial light on in a room that has been left far too dim for far too long. It would also involve maintaining a steadfast commitment, both financial and ideological, to keeping that light on. This is to say, far too many theatres, both regional and Off-Broadway, have just not managed to get their teeth around the fact that in order to include Deaf artists in the rehearsal process, the theatre must provide American Sign Language (ASL) rehearsal interpreters for each and every rehearsal a Deaf artist attends. Likewise, in order to embrace members of the Deaf community into a theatre’s constituency, regularly scheduled ASL-interpreted and open-captioned performances must be included for each and every production in the theatre’s season. This costs money; money which will never be acquired if these needs are always the afterthought, the “Oh! My goodness, that’s right. . . gee, well, we’re just not going to be able to do that this year, it’s too expensive” door which closes perpetually in the faces of Deaf artists who have been either stepping in and out of or floundering in the theatre business for the past twenty-three years since Phyllis Frelich won the Tony award for her riveting performance in Children of a Lesser God.
Deaf artists find it challenging, to say the least, to keep their toehold in the professional theatre. They work as professional sign language interpreters, university professors, run their own businesses, or freelance in many different areas. The passage of time since Ms. Frelich’s richly deserved Tony award has been sprinkled with a few other notable triumphs: Howie Seago portrayed the lead in Peter Sellars’ stunning production of Ajax at the Kennedy Center in the mid-1980’s; Monique Holt portrayed “Cordelia” three seasons ago in Michael Kahn’s production of King Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.; and the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) — a mainstay in the realm of opportunities for work and training at the professional level for Deaf actors — continued to tour the country under the leadership of its founding artistic director, David Hays. Eventually, Michael Lamitola, a years-long veteran actor with NTD, took the helm. Sadly, Michael recently died of cancer. But before his death, Michael struggled tirelessly to keep the beleaguered theatre afloat so that the visibility of professional Deaf actors would not be lost. Some Deaf artists have managed to stay more directly connected to the theatre despite the doubly-tough odds, as affiliated artists with various regional theatres. These are not small triumphs, just far too few. And, given the level and experience of the available talent pool, there should be more to report. Many more.
Phyllis Frelich returned to Broadway recently in Deaf West Theatre’s wonderful re-envisioning of Big River at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. The production will now tour the country. But I wondered, as I watched in awe and delight at this new rare occurrence, how many people in the audience understood just how special and important Ms. Frelich’s re-appearance was, nearly twenty-four years after her Broadway debut. How many were cognizant of the extent to which disabled artists continue to be shut out of the professional theatre enough to see that Ms. Frelich’s initial triumph should never have become a retrospective token event. Rather, it should have set a healthy precedent for a cascade of triumphs for Deaf and differently-abled artists in the professional theatre. Instead, most Deaf and differently-disabled artists remain in the shadows and trenches because the most important element — basic awareness of and fiscal foresight about access — remains a perpetual afterthought in most non-profit and commercial theatres in America.
Over the years, I have done whatever I could to increase the visibility of Deaf and hearing-impaired actors on the stage, directing Onyx Theatre Company’s production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf utilizing a cast, half of whom were hearing and half of whom were Deaf; and writing plays which include Deaf characters and characters of Color in the story lines. When the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) asked me to direct the American Sign Language interpreters for the Broadway production of Emily Mann’s Having Our Say, I dared to suggest that the interpreters should themselves be Deaf, thereby providing a situation which in some way matched the unique and special relationship of the one hundred-plus years old African American sisters. TDF and the show’s producers agreed. And so, I hired two African American Deaf actresses: Michelle Banks and Patrice Joyner, to interpret the roles of Bessie and Sadie Delany, respectively. I also hired Lisa Weems, a certified, highly skilled hearing interpreter to sit directly in front of the actor/interpreters and, through a shorthand cueing system we devised, inform the interpreters of anything going on on-stage which affected their rendering of the script to the Deaf audience. Because they were Deaf, they’d had to memorize the script in its entirety. When things happened on-stage they couldn’t hear, Lisa would assist in keeping things moving forward smoothly. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever taken on in my life. But it was worth the sweat, for it set a terribly important precedent. Never before, in the history of interpreted theatre on Broadway, had the interpreters of a show themselves been Deaf.
The current climate is neither a good nor a new one. Freedom of speech is, alas, far more conditional than the powers-that-be will ever admit. We, as a nation, are in knee-jerk response mode. Our country was attacked, undeniably. The reaction to that attack, however, has been frightening. American citizens of Arab descent have been horribly scrutinized and harassed, the American flag waved in the spirit of revenge and superiority, the middle and working classes struggling like never before to stay afloat, and alas, regional theatres trying to do the same. How in the world could the arts possibly be a priority when they are being so painfully eclipsed by this reactionary fallout? Current attitudes are what they’ve always been in times like these. We seem to feel we must wave our nation’s flag and tow the party line against all perceived outside threats, rather than to soberly, genuinely reflect upon human-kind’s culpability in the engendering of deep-seated hatred and retribution. It is terribly reminiscent of the McCarthy mania of the 50’s.
In hard times (which these undeniably are), Broadway musicals flourish. On the one hand, playwrights long past their prime (and not necessarily because of age) are dragged sentimentally back into the limelight exhibiting little growth. On the other hand, extraordinary awakened voices (and not all of them young) are banging at the offstage doors, waiting for the opportunity to drag our professional stages kicking and screaming into the way the world really looks and is today. The persistent notion that the way the world really is is of no interest to anyone and therefore not profitable, lucrative or entertaining enough is just as insidious and maddening today as it ever was. Our American Landscape is multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-preferenced, bi- and trans-gendered, multi-denominational, multi-abled, multi-aged. Yet we are still not seeing those realities, anywhere near to the extent that we should on our stages. I once read a book called The Path of Least Resistance, by Robert Fritz. His entire thesis was based on studies which revealed that people, like cows, are inclined toward the paths with which they are most familiar because they have trod them so many times before and therefore regard them as the safest and most comfortable. The tendency to find solace in the way we remember things is one of the hardest nuts for artists to crack – especially imaginative and brave ones. It is virtually impossible for those artists to explore new and exciting takes on the breadth and depth of human existence as it continues to evolve, when our audiences cling to and therefore demand depictions of times no longer reflective of who we are in our totality.
I don’t know that I can say, in these times since our world changed so dramatically two years ago — that I see a way out or through the steadfast resistance to moving forward, to seeing the vast colors and textures of America as it really is, on our stages. As we continue to experience and interpret the world around us with a whole new set of global eyes, all we can do is to continue to do our work, look forward with vision and right-mindedness, and to live by what we know to be true in our bones as artists. For my part, I feel I have no choice but to continue to write and direct plays about people who are marginalized by/invisible to “mainstream” life, whose stories are not considered lucrative or profitable, particularly in times like these. I can’t shake my commitment to those people, those stories – stories which need to be told because they are my people, they are me. And they, in some way, shine much needed light on the tragic and difficult inequities which persist in our world and in our American culture.
 The Path of Least Resistance, by Robert Fritz, c. 1989, Fawcett Publications, a division of Random House.
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