At a recent panel on diversity in Southern California theater, several of the artistic directors on the panel trotted out familiar platitudes about their commitment to diversity, their willingness to challenge their audiences with plays about people that don’t look like them and their desire to build a more diverse audience. Yet these same artistic directors run theaters that still devote the majority of their resources to plays written and directed by white men.
Given the astonishing range of theater being made by women and people of color all over the country (see here, here, here and here, to name just a few plays), the reluctance of major theaters to walk the walk they talk is increasingly at odds with the reality of American theater as a whole. Yet somehow, the argument is still being made that there just aren’t plays out there by women and people of color that are ready to be produced in the big time.
Well, I’m starting a binder. Binders of plays, binders of playwrights and binders of women and people of color currently writing and directing in the professional theater will be available to any leaders who continue to protest, “I want to produce a diverse season, I just can’t find any plays.” I’ll start the list with two–you add on in Comments.
Jennifer Berry’s After, All, which opens February 14 at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre as a guest production of The Pasadena Playhouse, explores the nature of female friendships through two women in their 40s who were brought together by circumstance and torn apart by loss. The play explores marriage, motherhood, divorce, mid-life career changes and the particular kind of intimacy that women share. Berry, who is directing the play herself, shared,
Women’s friendships are close, so I find what we tell each other, what we keep secret, what we show, really interesting to write about. Women raise their children side-by-side. If you go check out any park in Los Angeles, you’re gonna see a bunch of women sitting their with their kids talking, and usually it’s not the kids that they’re talking about. They’re usually talking about their lives and their secrets.
The play not only provides roles for two women in their 40s, it also shows us these women free of any male gaze. Though men are spoken of and are part of the characters’ lives, the audience engages directly with these women as people rather than through their husbands and children. Accordingly, they talk about much more than husbands and children. Berry again,
One of the women says things that nobody else will say: We’re just friends because of circumstances. Some of it harsh, but a lot of it is real. It’s what two women, closed in a room together, would say to each other if they knew this is the last time you were going to see this friend that you loved so much.
Though the production is taking advantage of the opportunity to market the play specifically to women and their friends (the matinee on Sunday, February 23, offers a two-for-one deal to women who come together), nothing about the play actually makes it niche. After all, the Western canon contains a number of plays about men that are not presumed to be of interest solely to men. With plays about men by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard and Edward Albee, audience members can simultaneously empathize with the characters as humans and understand the role that sex and gender play in defining them, regardless of whether they share that character’s sex, gender or ethnicity. The same is true of After, All.
Note to artistic directors: The actors in After, All could be women of any color. So go on, make it a two-fer.
On February 22, Closely Related Keys, written by Wendy Graf and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, will open at The Lounge Theatre in Hollywood. Graf’s play takes place in New York and centers around Julia, a young, successful lawyer who suddenly finds out she has a half-sister in Iraq. When that sister shows up on her doorstep, Julia and her estranged father are forced to confront their past and their own prejudices.
Graf, who is Jewish, has written a number of plays with Jewish characters and themes, but she also writes characters with cultural heritages different from her own. No Word in Guyanese for Me is about a lesbian Muslim refugee from Guyana. Leipzig features an Irish-Catholic family in Boston. Though this production has a black family at the heart of its story, with Julia being in an interracial relationship with a white man, director Finney told me,
Anybody could tell this story or play this story. The core of this family could be anyone. The biracial relationship, the betrayal of the father, the multi-cultural child and the foreign element could be told by anybody and the story would remain the same. This is not a play about the African-American experience. This story is very contemporary and is about the interconnected world we live in.
Finney’s resume is as diverse as Graf’s: She has directed plays by and about African Americans, Latinos and Japanese people:
My job as a mythmaker is to tell the emotional truth of that story—to tell a story that helps us navigate our time. Emotions see no color. Storytellers who transcend race consciousness, who transcend gender consciousness, are doing the due diligence of transformation in our artistic world.
And yet, Closely Related Keys is as firmly grounded in the details of the cultures it represents, as it is in the basic humanity of its characters. As the family drama unfolds, the truth of America’s relationship with Iraq, past and present, is illuminated, as well as what changed (and not for the better) for women in Iraq when we deposed Saddam Hussein. One moment in particular could have been pulled straight from the feminist blogosphere: When Julia attempts to get her Muslim half-sister to put on an American dress, her sister firmly rejects the idea, arguing, “I would not feel like me.”
After, All and Closely Related Keys are just two new plays by women being done in one city in one month. Others premiere all of the time in cities across the country. What new work have you seen that would refute the notion that big theaters are trying but just can’t find plays by women and people of color to produce?
The thicker our binder gets, the fewer excuses established theaters will have to produce seasons without gender parity and ethnic diversity. They claim they want their stages to look like the world we live in: Let’s hold them to it.
After, All runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. from February 14—March 16 at the Carrie Hamilton Theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Closely Related Keys runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m/ and Sundays at 4 p.m. from February 22—Mar 30 at the Lounge Theatre in Los Angeles.
Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. Related: Diversity and its Discontents in Southern California Theater.