Oni Faida Lampley – Playwright/Actor (2003)
I am pleased to participate in this National Diversity Forum.
I have never experienced the challenges that go along with being “disabled” in theatre. I have a lot to learn about diversity myself. I do struggle with racism, ageism, and sexism.
When I fell in love with theatre I thought it promised a place where your “package” was your vehicle to transformation, not a box in which you were confined. (What can I say? I was young.) In Conservatory, in the late 80’s, white actors weren’t asked to play non-white characters, but as actors of color, it was clear that our artistry, and our theatrical careers, depended on our ability to “transcend race.” Fine. Racist. And a great opportunity for creative growth. Business-wise, however, it often makes less than a damn bit of difference. Many of us are trained to play lead roles in modern classics, Chekhov, for example, for which we are never seriously considered. Especially if there’s no “experiment” or “all-colored-people’s version of…” going on.
America is still using Barbie and Ken to carry most of “its” stories, and a lot of its stories exclude the rest of us. Theatre has become more like television and film in many ways, including casting. Looking the part is often a big deal. What kind of fan base do you have? And now, there are plays being performed in a “reading” format. While these presentations may involve great material, read by talented actors, the rehearsal process has been usurped or, at best, truncated. Weeks of process are eliminated along with the development of a community of artists.
Of course, as an actor, most of the time I don’t get the job, and I’ll never know what aspect of my “package” the folks weren’t buying. (Skin, hair length or color, weight, age, the “class vibe” I give off, skill?)
The changes I’ve witnessed do include more “surface” diversity: a wider variety of races at auditions, though usually for supporting roles, not leads. Sometimes it’s as if someone said on their way out the door, “Oh, and make sure you get some people of color in here, you know, Asian, Latino, Black, some color in the background.”
More theatres seem to be doing a “people of color” play in their seasons, though there’s a small circle of pieces which get done. I don’t know if this is true for “gay” plays. Can’t imagine that it’s true for plays including the experiences of people with disabilities.
Off stage, staffs seem more integrated, but I still haven’t encountered a real increase in Black directors, (maybe for Shakespeare and the Greeks, but not Shaw or contemporary work) or lighting, costume, sound designers, artistic directors, or producers.
It’s hard to assess how this stuff has affected my own work. Creativity is often difficult for everybody. What is because of what? My response to the lack of diversity in the literature being performed has been to write. But I don’t write, primarily, for political reasons. I write because I have to.
The most concrete barriers to achieving inclusion I can name are cynicism, exhaustion, fear of the unknown, and a lack of curiosity about folks who don’t look like you. Non-funding never helps- people gotta eat, pay babysitters.
Institutions and organizations help when they hire people outside of the same old loop; when they trust their constituencies to listen to one or two new voices a season; when they stimulate discussions like these, and then ACT on them; when they help people like Michael Wiggins fund and develop organizations like Mud Bone, which is committed to providing opportunities for artists of color to work in classical and contemporary material, and to developing new plays.
By the way, communicating with you all has affected my approach to things. I wrote a draft response to this forum and lost it in the computer, (don’t ask). Between drafts one and two, I was working on a new play. As I wrote, I thought about this discussion and began to take more risks with double casting, gender bending, etc. I am writing a world very much like present day New York, so the story automatically includes diversity. In the process of developing it, I can push for diversity too. Goodness, more than anything, I wanna write a good play.
Commitment on all levels matters. Political actions, fighting for audience diversity, more writing, more writing, and actors not giving up-faith or foolishness, I don’t care, as long as we don’t give up.
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