Featured image © Joan Marcus
Originally, this blog post was going to be a long exposé on how theatre is racist and in what forms it manifests in the industry. In fact, I already have almost 2,000 words written for said blog post.
While that post may (or may not) see the light of day eventually, I wanted to share some of the online resources and specific social media posts I was utilizing to educate myself more on this issue. I believe that the words of people of color who actually work in the industry speak volumes more than I ever could, and for that reason, they will be the ones featured in this post.
Before reading on, please note that like my other posts, this is not intended to be a comprehensive list.
1. zapiartists on Instagram
This Instagram account was formed this year by three Asian/Pacific Islander artists in the industry: Cindy Tsai, Sofia Khwaja, and Christine Heesun Hwang. They use their ever-growing platform to spread facts on important BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) in the theatre industry in addition to sharing the experience of people of color in theatre, among other important items. Overall, I’ve been finding their posts to be super informative, particularly in the way they highlight experiences and artists I may never have known about otherwise.
2. broadwaydiversityproject on Instagram
This Instagram account doesn’t post too much original content, but they share a wide variety of news updates on diversity, representation, and racism in theatre and other forms of media. All in all, it’s a great account to follow in order to begin your research journey.
3. weseeyouwat on Instagram
This account takes no prisoners when it comes to calling out racism in the theatre industry. They post several times a week on informative subjects intended to educate and inform, not just on theatre but on racism and discrimination as a whole. I’ve already learned a lot from them and I intend to keep doing so.
For more information on what they do, you can also see their website at weseeyouwat.com.
4. Montana Levi Blanco’s Instagram Video Essay
Upon Blanco publishing this video essay back in June, I was inspired to write my original blog post on racism in the theatre industry. It’s truly heartbreaking to listen to his firsthand account of being treated as lesser-than by a white theatre director who is highly regarded in the industry as a recent Tony Award winner. (Do a couple minutes of research and you’ll figure out who this director is.)
Here you have someone, Blanco, who is clearly talented in his field, and yet he still wasn’t given the full opportunities and respect he deserved by the aforementioned director. And no, he didn’t just deserve respect because of his achievements; clearly, he is an innocent human being. Someone shouldn’t have to have several awards and widespread recognition in order to receive respect from others, and that goes for all industries and situations.
5. Charnette Batey’s Instagram Video Essay
One recent night (morning?) at 2 a.m., I spent 52 minutes watching Batey’s heart-wrenching video essay, though “watching” is hardly the right word for it; my eyes, ears, and brain were completely glued to my phone for the entirety of her talk. For that hour, nothing could distract me.
Batey spent the bulk of the 52 minutes speaking on her time as “Woman 5” in the first national tour of Hamilton, a show pretty much everyone knows now. She talks about her experience as the only dark-skinned Black woman in her cast, and consequently, how she was treated differently than her lighter-skinned castmates. Firstly, for no good reason she would get passed up on the chance to play the three lead roles she covered. Secondly, once her year as “Woman 5” came to a close and she had more than proven her talent, she was outright denied the opportunity to be the full-time lead in favor of a lighter-skinned actress.
Further, her track as “Woman 5” was most certainly treated as unimportant in the grand scheme of the show. She pointed out how this specific ensemble track was too-often cast as a dark-skinned Black woman in most productions of Hamilton. At the same time there really isn’t a large variety of people of varying hues cast in this global phenomenon of a show, which makes you question its message of inclusivity that they’ve been preaching for five years. You can read another example of colorism in Hamilton in one of former Hamilton star Denée Benton’s Instagram posts from awhile back.
There is so much more she says in this clip, and someone could talk for hours about the intricacies of her impassioned words and delivery. So regardless of your background or your race, this is the kind of video that you need to make a point to watch from start to finish if you care about educating yourself on racism in theatre. It will most certainly change the way you think about this show that so many people love blindly.
6. Aisha Jackson’s “Reality as a POC in Theater” Post
I’ve been following Jackson on Instagram for years now, initially because I loved seeing her excitement and behind-the-scenes clips when she got to perform as Anna in Frozen on Broadway.
Back in June, many actors of color posted about what it was like to be a person of color on Broadway. In Jackson’s post specifically, she touched upon her time as the standby Anna and what it was like to be on the receiving end of racist backlash from people who didn’t think a Norwegian princess could be played by a Black woman. She mentions how Disney didn’t protect her from any of this backlash, which is something I see time and time again in all aspects of the entertainment industry; most specifically, in comic book and Disney adaptations. This backlash exists because Disney and other entertainment giants like Marvel and DC Comics tend to put people of color into a box. If they happen to play any role outside of that box, racists are appalled, confused, infuriated. These racist audience members will then take their anger out on the actors and not on the institutions that perpetuate these dangerous stereotypes and do nothing when their talent is harassed endlessly.
Hers is a shorter clip than the previous two, but exactly like Batey and Blanco she speaks from firsthand experience. If we want to be more educated on racism in the entertainment industry, hearing and truly listening to firsthand accounts is one significant way to do so.
You can watch her videos below by hitting the right arrow on the side. For another post from the same “My Reality as a POC in Theater” series, please see former Waitress actress Jessie Hooker-Bailey’s video.
7. Brittney Johnson’s Instagram Post About Her Experience as a Black Actress on Broadway
In case you’re not familiar with Johnson, she was the very first Black Glinda in the history of Wicked. And that’s not just on Broadway – before her Glinda debut in January 2019, there had been no Black Glinda in any production of this show since the year 2003. It’s important to note that just before the COVID shutdown she had been promoted from a Glinda understudy to the principal Glinda standby.
Not only was Johnson the first Black Glinda, but something else you’ll learn from her post is that she is “the first and only Black woman to have played both Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables on Broadway, and the only woman ever to play both roles on the same day.”
In early June she posted this 10-slide Instagram essay about the racism she faces being Black on Broadway. Since her post is already written out and relatively brief, I think you should read it yourself rather than read a brief overview written by me. Much like the other firsthand accounts I’ve linked already, Johnson’s words speak for themselves.
And the stories continue and continue. It’s an unfortunate statement to come to terms with, but for every actor of color in the entertainment industry, there’s a story of racism: it could be racist backlash from audience members, rude and demeaning behavior coming from superiors, both of these, or perhaps something else entirely. But something really needs to change, not just in the theatre, but in all forms of entertainment and media.
Hopefully when the theatre shutdown ends, whether that’s in 2021 or 2022 or sometime afterwards, Broadway producers, directors, and bank-rollers learn some important lessons from stories like the ones above. In all likelihood things will take years or decades to improve, but we can only hope that the current political climate forces change sooner rather than later.
As mentioned, these were some of the sources I was intending on using in my original blog post. If you have any further firsthand accounts either from yourself or from an actor, please share them in the comments below.
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