We still don’t know when theaters will reopen. But when Broadway is able to gather again post-pandemic, we might be in the presence of a new kind of stage.
Racial equity has always been one of the issues theater can’t seem to fix. It’s barely addressed. Producers keep reviving white “classics” instead of investing in new works by artists who are Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and casting of diverse players is limited to a handful of actors. Behind the scenes, tech positions are even less diverse than what we see onstage.
This has an effect on audience members as well. Theater is an art form predominantly attended by white patrons, not necessarily due to the financial constraints of the BIPOC community, but because the experience of going to the theater constitutes the upholding of rules around outdated etiquette and racial insensitivity: “Don’t laugh too loudly! Stop talking!” and being greeted by “are you sure you came to the right place?”
For years, I used my plus-one press ticket to bring people who self-identified as people of color to shows I saw for work. As a Latino professional theatre critic, I realized too often I was a rarity in the audience. So I started going on Twitter to offer my extra ticket to anyone who wanted it, as long as they were BIPOC. I have met over 200 complete strangers who accompanied me from Broadway to immersive shows.
During the pandemic shutdown, as theater shifted to digital experiences, I couldn’t bring anyone with me anymore, so I turned to another cause close to me. I’m among a few BIPOC theater critics in the United States. Really, there aren’t that many of us. As a part of organizations like the American Theatre Critics Association, which I left in 2017, and the Drama Desk Awards, where I was the only BIPOC on the nominating committee and the board, I attempted to bring the lack of diversity to the table and execute plans to increase diverse membership.
As with many things in theater, this barely moved past the initial conversation. In June, I realized I could get the ball rolling as a one-man production, so to speak. I pulled the notes I’d collected throughout the years to put together a syllabus for what I named the BIPOC Critics Lab. My dream had always been to have professionals who identify as Black, brown and indigenous as guest instructors sharing with future critics all the things they never learned in school.
But without any funds — from March to July I made around $300 in freelance gigs — the pilot program had to run on a budget, so I taught nine out of the 10 sessions. My friend and colleague Juan Michael Porter II taught the other one. In order to find mentees, I went to Twitter, and found eight people living all over the country who signed up to decolonize criticism.
The key of the lab I envisioned was that at the end, each critic would have their first paid, published piece. Given the state of the economy, it was impossible to secure them spots in entertainment outlets, so I created strategic alliances with theater companies that agreed to sponsor critics and publish their work, therefore turning theater makers and critics into allies, rather than adversaries.
Over the next 10 weeks, the project I started in my PJs gained enough traction that I’m currently holding a second session funded by the Kennedy Center. This has allowed for 18 more critics to be trained by experts from publications like The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Reader. In six months, the lab will have accomplished what legacy media hasn’t: publishing 25 BIPOC critics who will bring cultural competence and a rarely heard perspective to the performing arts.
I was thrilled to discover that while I worked on my lab, other BIPOC theatermakers were also developing BIPOC-specific workshops: Donja R. Love’s “Write It Out” focused on playwriting, Miranda Gohh’s Theatre Producers of Color honed in on producing, and Victor Vazquez of X Casting partnered with Broadway for Racial Justice on diversifying casting.
By the time live theater returns, there will be a new wave of more diverse creators ready to answer the call of an industry that needs them. To see what we have accomplished during a moment of pause is remarkable: A reminder that we will no longer wait to be asked. We are sculpting our own future.
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