In For A Penny: Accepting New Membership

Charles Lewis III, on long term goals and short term contributions.

teen-movie-token-black-guy-copy

“What is true of creed is no less true of nationality. There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, Address to the Knights of Columbus (1915)

Now that the cat’s outta the bag, I thought about following up Meg, Tonya, & Stuart’s recent entry with my own reminiscence about what the ‘Pub has meant to me and what I think will happen when it’s gone. I’m going to hold off on that for three specific reasons: 1 – with a few more months to go, it hasn’t actually ended yet; 2 – I wrote a good-bye piece the first time the ‘Pub “died”, and the new one I’m thinking of shouldn’t be repetitive (which it won’t – I’ve already started it and it’s a bit heartbreaking); and 3 – I’ve also been thinking about just precisely how the ‘Pub has made a positive change for the Bay Area theatre scene.

Specifically, I’m thinking about the ‘Pub’s inconspicuous sibling, the Olympians Festival. We held auditions for the latter last week, and are officially cast as of three days ago. As usual, it was an embarrassment of local acting riches. As we pored over more than 100 headshots, resumes, and scheduling calendars, several of us noted just how diverse was this year’s talent pool. I’m pretty sure no year of the fest has been 100% White (especially since I’ve been acting in it since its first year), but there was a noticeable uptick in the number of Black, Latina, and Trans actors auditioning this time. (So much so with the latter that a gender-specific direction had to be modified halfway through auditions.) And yes, we were all delighted by this.

Yet we’d have been remiss not to mention how we wished for it be even more diverse and to see such casting all over the Bay Area. I’ve mentioned before in this column that I once had to use an Indian actor in my play because there were no young Black actors auditioning; well, this year there were still no (young) Black male actors auditioning. I’ve done lots of work with the SF Opera, whose technical crew has recently added lots of younger members, many of them women and people of color. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been as much diversity with the faces on-stage, much of it quite noticeable (at age 35, I may be the youngest regular supernumerary and one of the few Black faces).

Yes, yes, it’s that “diversity problem” we all notice and lament, but none of us seem to know how to solve. It’s the sort of thing that makes powerful people declare “There’s no talent in the Bay Area” as they walk past the very folks who just want an opportunity to prove themselves.

By why is it so damn hard to connect talented folks with the people who need them most? One of this year’s Olympians writers mentioned having a difficult time casting for a recent production because the role required a young Black actor to play a Gay character. He said he was unable to find an actor comfortable with the physical affection needed. I understand both sides of that. The first time I had to kiss a guy on stage, it was the result of the director insisting on it and me being caught off-guard before I could object. In hindsight, I’m glad I did it, but I understand the hesitation of a young Black actor – most likely from a Christian household – not wanting to be seen that way in front of friends and family.

On the other hand, I think of all the young Black actors who already have the fearlessness I had to work on to get. I also frequently find myself frustrated with the Black actors I know who are incredibly talented and fearless, save for one area: they won’t leave the comfort zone of Black theatre. I know this because I’m constantly egging them on to audition for Olympians, see shows at Theater Pub, and just get to know the good folks who put on shows at The EXIT and The Flight Deck. Contrary to popular belief, the dearth of noticeable Black actors in the Bay Area theatre scene isn’t entirely the result of them “go[ing] equity so quickly” (What work do you think they did before they went equity?), nor is it solely a result of them migrating out of the pricey Bay Area (if that’s not true for ALL people, it’s not true for just Black people). Part of the blame also lies at the feet of Black actors not wanting to take the leap outside the Black theatre bubble.

And I understand why. Black theatre offers them something they rarely get outside of it: substantive roles. Why would a Black actor audition for a company that only casts him in a play where he only appears in two scenes, when a Black theatre would likely make him the lead? Why would a Black actress settle for constantly being cast as, at best, the best friend of the young ingénue when a Black theatre would make her the love interest? Why would anyone want to be a company’s token attempt to make their diversity quota when they can just work with a company full of people with similar backgrounds, experiences… and complexions? Even if that company has a notoriously dodgy reputation.

Theatre Bay Area’s 2013 exposé of the Berkeley Black Rep

Theatre Bay Area’s 2013 exposé of the Berkeley Black Rep

I’ve also seen this with Latinx actors who only wanted to work with companies like Campo Santo (whose work was great) and LGBTQ actors who only audition for New Conservatory or Theatre Rhino. It doesn’t mean those theatres should stop putting on shows with these talented performers, but I really wish I didn’t have to go to a specifically themed theatre to find these folks.

At this point you’re probably wondering what this look at the greater Bay Area theatre scene has to do specifically with Theater Pub or Olympians. Simple: exposure. The great thing about Theater Pub performances being free (though the people who donate find a special place in Heaven) is that anyone can show up, and everyone has. Both the show performed and the networking afterward have connected talented folks who may never have even seen one other through regular channels. So many recent grads have gotten their names out through Olympians that I personally think of it as a rite of passage (but that’s just me). These methods work. These methods have been adopted by other local theatre companies. These are valid, legitimate ways to create diversity.

But, at the same time, it’s also up to the people begging for those opportunities to not expect them to simply fall out of the sky. I say that not as a criticism, but from personal experience. Just as I encourage non-PoC to take in shows at Af-Am Shakes, so too do I encourage PoC (and women, LGBTQ, and other such performers) to take that one step forward to getting yourselves seen.

At the very least, you can say you took a chance.

Charles Lewis III will be directing two shows – one of which he wrote – for this year’s SF Olympians Fest. He hopes you’ll come see both of them, as well as the final four Theater Pub shows.

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2 comments on “In For A Penny: Accepting New Membership

  1. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    In which I encourage people on BOTH SIDES of the “diversity” debate to think beyond mere tokenism.

  2. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart here: it is worth noting that the San Francisco Olympians Festival has never been 100% white, and not just because of Charles’s presence as an actor. Actors of color have been present since the beginning- Charles may even recall having shared the stage with several in year one. Additionally, writers of color and fine artists of color have been present in the festival from year one, and directors, stage managers, and other administrators who are people of color have been present in the festival from year two, with diversity increasing on all fronts over the years. Could it stand to increase more? Undoubtedly. But from the beginning it’s been an inclusive, equal opportunity event. The writer is certainly a valued part of that, but has never had a monopoly on it.

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