Marvin L. Sims (1948-2003) – President – Black Theatre Network (2002)
It’s not easy to assess accurately, epistemologically, whether or not there has been a drastic change over the last five years with respect to diversity and inclusion in American theatre, both professionally and academically. But I can say, empirically, there has been little to no change. And if I were pressed to acknowledge some kind of change, I would have to say inclusion and diversity has regressed somewhat in this country to the climate of the Reagan/Bush years. During the latter part of William Jefferson Clinton’s second term of office, socio-political advances favoring inclusion and diversity were either adjusted to a more palatable conservative offering or they were eliminated altogether.
Presently, I find myself in a position where, hopefully, I will be able to influence more attitudes and therefore change some behavior when it comes to inclusion and diversity. For the past twenty-five years, I have been actively involved in the activities of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF), serving as a regional respondent, a member of the regional executive committee, a regional vice chair, a regional chair, a regional judge for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship, a member of the KCACTF National Executive Committee, and a member of a KCACTF National Selection Team (I traveled over 12,000 miles around the US conducting acting workshops and viewing college/university productions). A year ago, I was elected to serve as president of Black Theatre Network, Incorporated (BTN), of which I am one of its original-founding members (I begin my duties as President of BTN on October 01, 2002). This organization is going into its seventeenth year of supporting and promoting Black Theatre on all levels throughout the Diaspora. Historically, BTN has held its annual conference in the odd years in tandem with the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This provides BTN an opportunity to promote its goals and mission statement as well as an opportunity to conduct plenary sessions focused on some aspect of the future of professional black theatre in America. Adding to this list of opportunities to influence national attitudes, I was elected President-elect of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) in May–I begin my duties as president in 2004. ATHE is the primary academic theatre organization in the US. I have been an active member of this organization since its reincarnation seventeen years ago from the remnants of the American Theatre Association (ATA). I was very actively involved in the leadership and also served as a conference planner for the Black Theatre Program (BTP) for several ATA conferences. BTP was an umbrella group under the governance of ATA. So, I have been around for a while and I do have a huge opportunity ahead of me in the next four to six years to “make a difference”.
Looking at what’s happening in the professional theatre, especially on and off Broadway; most everything remains the same. There are very few, if any, non-European actors, directors, designers or assistant directors visible. This means the majority of the plays being produced were written by or adapted by whites. There were more women involved in directing, choreographing, designing and performing over these past five years than the previous ten years. This is a welcome change. But what remains a constant is the lack of non-traditional casting. Our regional theatres are way ahead of the New York scene when it comes to practicing a non-traditional casting policy. Our regional theatres have become the lifeblood of the American Theatre. More and more Broadway hits were first seen and polished in a regional theatre before being transferred to New York. Wouldn’t it be exciting if more playwrights of color had the opportunity to see their work in a regional theatre and receive the option to transfer the creation to a Broadway house? A high percentage of our most prominent professional black theatre companies are broke, closed or are barely making ends meet. This is due to their inability to raise the necessary funds needed to maintain a fully operable equity house and produce a season of plays written by black playwrights. The African Grove Institute for the Arts (AGIA) had a fantastic vision for remedying this tragedy, but even the founders of this organization have not been able to rectify this situation as of this writing. Crossroads Theatre Company is a Tony Award winning professional black theatre company whose doors are virtually closed. Why?
When I look around the country at what’s happening in academia in respect to diversity and inclusion, I feel there is much more to be done. After traveling across the country as an ambassador of sorts for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and after participating as a respondent for Ming Cho Lee’s Clambake for the last eight years, I observed there are very few faculty of color teaching in theatre programs across this great nation. I asked myself, “Are we truly that few in number or are we so sparse in numbers across the country it seems as if there are very few of us?” Does this affect students of color pursuing careers in this discipline? I was appalled this past year at Ming Cho Lee’s Clambake because of the small number of students of color graduating from the top MFA Design programs in any of the design areas. Why?
Before I ceased attending the University/Resident Theatre Association auditions, I competed each year against my colleagues from other professional training programs for the ‘top’ students of color. It was always a really intense crapshoot. The majority of the time, the programs offering the most lucrative financial package to the students usually won the competition. It did not necessarily mean the student attended and/or chose the best program for the student. Nor did it mean there would be someone available to assist the student in adapting to “foreign” turf, let alone the isolation accompanying the student’s transition into a predominately white environment. Very few programs offer opportunities for students of color to ‘tell their own stories’ during their course of study. Many students of color graduate from these programs without ever having created or developed a role for stage demonstrating their “own” ethnicity. Some may not have done so even in the studio/classroom environment. Too many programs ‘assume’ the student is capable of creating a credible “character of color” because of the student’s visible ethnicity. When many of these students seek performance opportunities requiring them to portray characters of color they are unable to do so effectively, because they lack the necessary familiarization and comfort in telling ‘their own stories’. Why?
I am not saying there has been no change over the last five years, but most have been cosmetic in essence. Even my own accomplishments within the structures of these predominately white organizations have been minimal at best. But, at least I know I have changed the attitudes of some of my colleagues regarding some of the above diversity/inclusion issues. I have witnessed some change in the behavior of some colleagues in relation to these issues. There is always more that can be done. I plan on doing more. Everything happens for a reason, it is up to us to figure out why. I have been honored with two very high profile positions, the presidencies of two very influential national organizations. The challenge is mine; the opportunity is mine.
Marvin L. Sims
Head of Performance, Department of Theatre
President-elect, Association for Theatre in Higher Education
(1948 – 2003)
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