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Why is theater in Chicago (still) so white?

A new generation of artists weighs in on Chicago theater’s continuing color bind

Photographs: Andrew Nawrocki

In July 2006, this very magazine asked a provocative question on its cover: Why is theater in Chicago so white?

I didn’t have a hand in that story—it was written by then-staffers Christopher Piatt and Novid Parsi—but as Time Out Chicago’s chief theater critic for nearly eight years now, the question is never far from my thoughts. And how could it not be on my mind, when people bring it up all the time in private conversations, on social media, at conferences or over drinks at the bar, telling me how much it meant to them to see Chicago theater’s segregation problem addressed so directly.

And the piece had some immediate impact (or immediate by theater standards, anyway). Piatt and Parsi identified the prevalence of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble model (and its self-selecting nature) as one of the drivers of homogeneity in many Chicago troupes, noting that Steppenwolf itself had just one nonwhite member in its 35-person ensemble. Within six months of the article’s publication, Steppenwolf held a rare press event to introduce six new ensemble members, four of them artists of color. (The company now has seven nonwhite ensemble members out of 46 total).

Ten years later, diversity and inclusion are topics of constant conversation in theater circles in Chicago and across the country. But is it more than just conversation? Chicago’s population is somewhere between 55 and 60 percent nonwhite; why is nonwhite representation in the city’s theater still lagging, no matter how continuously we talk about it?

Just as it was a decade ago, some of the structural problems in Chicago can be traced back to the Steppenwolf-based ensemble company model. The group of friends from Illinois State University who performed in the church basement in Highland Park became Chicago theater’s Off-Loop creation myth, and it still inspires new generations of aspiring postgrads who set up companies geared to showcase and serve the needs of their ensemble members.

But it took Steppenwolf 30 years to make its ensemble more than 3 percent nonwhite, and many of the ensembles that followed have exhibited a similar self-selecting sameness. “I still think we’re too white, everywhere in our organization,” says Anna D. Shapiro, who took the reins as Steppenwolf’s artistic director in 2015. “It’s a huge part of what we’re thinking about and what the ensemble and I talk about every day. I can tell you it’s on our minds and we’re working to address it—we’re doing the best we can, but I wouldn’t defend how long it’s taking.”

One thing that has changed over the past decade is the provenance and the public nature of the conversation. No longer do audiences or artists need to wait for gatekeepers—artistic directors or magazine writers or whomever else—to amplify discussion. Among other factors, the rise of social media has empowered members of the theater community to speak up when they see a season announcement with no writers of color and instances of “whitewashed” casting.

“Social media has helped the cause. Full stop. There is no argument to the contrary,” says actor Bear Bellinger, who has been among the most outspoken voices on these topics. “The fact that we can be instantly connected with so many other artists in this city and raise an issue is an undeniably good thing if you’re looking for progress.” Bellinger has been active largely in the musical theater scene over the past several years, recently in the Hypocrites’ Adding Machine: A Musical and Griffin Theatre’s Bat Boy. “The voices that at one time would have had to try and break through the glass ceiling of white oversight now have the ability to be heard and proliferate on their own.”

Two acts of whitewashing made waves in Chicago in 2016, with the Marriott Theatre’s predominantly white Evita (the cast had one actor of Latin descent) and Porchlight Music Theatre’s casting a white actor as the Dominican-American lead character in In the Heights.

Marriott artistic director Terry James told the Chicago Tribune at the time of the Evita controversy in March, “It’s not a conscious choice. We can only cast the actors that audition for us.”

That lack of consciousness echoes something actor Ora Jones said in these pages in 2006 (six months before she became one of those new inductees into Steppenwolf’s ensemble): “Most of the time, the reason that people don’t consider diversity in their projects is because they quite frankly just don’t think about it.” A decade later, and nearly 40 years since the Goodman Theatre first cast an African-American Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (despite the objections of angry subscribers and some critics), why are some of us still content to just not think about it?

“In the past year, I’ve sat down with maybe 30 directors, artistic directors and casting people, discussing their companies and the state of our community now, in terms of representation,” says Emjoy Gavino, an actor and casting director who founded an initiative called the Chicago Inclusion Project to address these issues head-on. “I found that many were afraid to talk about it; they didn’t know how,” she says.

Some longer-standing institutions have made incremental gains; others have not. Griffin Theatre Company, which reported 11 white ensemble members in 2006, now has 16 members, still all white. The Gift Theatre Company in Jefferson Park has doubled its ensemble from 15 to 30 in the intervening decade, but it still includes no people of color.

It’s important to note that ensemble makeup doesn’t necessarily reflect the level of diversity onstage. Gavino helped cast the Gift Theatre’s thoroughly, thoughtfully inclusive production of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath last summer, led by an African-American actor, Namir Smallwood, as Tom Joad. Raven Theatre, which counts just one nonwhite member among its ensemble of 15, had one of its biggest hits recently with the all-black Direct from Death Row the Scottsboro Boys.

And some of the city’s nonensemble-based institutions have established stronger track records. Ten years ago, Hyde Park’s Court Theatre had just mounted its first production by an African-American writer, August Wilson’s Fences, and found itself attracting black theatergoers who’d never attended a production in its 50-year history. In the seasons since, Court has produced five more of Wilson’s 10 plays, along with new adaptations of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Native Son as well as stagings of Samuel Beckett and Molière with multiethnic casts. The theater’s audiences these days look a lot more like its neighborhood.

The Goodman Theatre, too, has made efforts to live up to its legacy of losing subscribers over a multiracial Cratchett family all those years ago. The Goodman’s 2015–16 season featured five out of nine plays by writers of color, along with a production of The Matchmaker that suggested not just Dickens and Shakespeare but also Thornton Wilder can stand up to nontraditional casting.

Yet as long as the artistic directors and leadership of many of the city’s most prominent theaters remain white people of a certain generation, some artists of color wonder if adding a couple of nonwhite members to long-standing ensembles is anything more than tokenism.

“No matter what, it’s going to be tokenism,” says director Monty Cole, whose storefront reconceiving of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape for an all-black male cast cleaned up at 2016’s Jeff Awards and Time Out Chicago Theater Awards. “Even if Steppenwolf added 15 POC artists to their ensemble, it’d be tokenism. You’re still always gonna feel like the one person of color in an AP American History class that’s called on to respond to questions on slavery.”

Gavino experienced “being the only one in the room” in her two years as the only nonwhite ensemble member at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, with which she parted ways in 2016. “When a company adds a person from one of these communities, they must ask themselves why they are doing it. Intention is so important,” she says. “Is it out of guilt? Is it for grant money? And when members of these companies don’t actually know the answer, that’s a problem, especially for the minorities ushered into their situation.”

But if it is tokenism, some suggest, it might just be a necessary step on the way to changing the cultures of these companies. “Tokenism was a first step of progress,” says Bellinger. “People of color joined these companies on the vanguard of progress and are used as tokens while attempting to do the insider work we need to move forward.”

Cole concurs. “If taking in new ensemble members means a variety of voices on your stage? A variety of stories? A variety of styles and perspectives? That’s progress,” He adds, “It’s tokenism and it’s progress.”

And lest we forget, onstage and backstage aren’t the only places experiencing a limited variety of perspectives. “Why are there still almost no reviewers of color?” asks Coya Paz, cofounder of Latina-centric theater company Teatro Luna and current artistic director of Free Street Theater, the multigenerational, multiethnic collective founded nearly five decades ago. “Because I don’t always trust critics to understand the cultural context that shapes the work we make.” So the conversation continues—the more voices, the better.

In their own words

Four artists of color give first-person perspectives on the scene.

Emjoy Gavino

Emjoy Gavino

Actor, casting director and founder of the Chicago Inclusion Project

“When I was first approached to join Remy Bumppo [Theatre Company], a few of my friends questioned it: ‘Wouldn’t that make you a token? Is this just for show? Didn’t they just cast you as a lizard?’ But I believed in their mission, I was honored they’d want to include me and I saw that the artistic staff and ensemble were excited to make changes and move forward. I got to help cast an entire season that according to company stats achieved a “46 percent increase of diversity.” I got to do Caryl Churchill.  I got to do Noël Coward. I understand how lucky I was.

“But the fact is, I had no idea what it would cost me—that being the one voice to represent all minority voices in a company is not only exhausting, it’s lonely. I reached a point where I just wanted to be an actor, like the other ensemble members, but I turned into a symbol and ‘educator.’ And I can’t necessarily trust the work I do in that state.

“Most actors just want work. They don’t always feel safe enough to speak up, especially when they are new to the room, especially when people like them hadn't been invited before. There’s not one true solution to any of this. But hiring directors, playwrights, staff members and people in production and administration to add new perspectives is key to truly having the conversations that will change that company, inside and out.

Ike Holter

Ike Holter

Playwright

“I started working at a very small level. It was literally doing shows in people’s living rooms. I had a really strong group of peers and people my age of all races, etc. So when I finally started working with people who, you know, paid [laughs], I think people were more comfortable talking with me about, ‘How can I get more diverse directors in here? How can I get more diverse writers in here?’

“I became that person who can connect other people, but I think it's because I started in a much smaller capacity than I think other writers do, that people still see me as a weird outsider, even though we live in the city of Chicago, which is about 60 percent nonwhite people. It’s actually not hard to find dancers of color, directors of color, writers of color.

“And I just keep telling people that, encouraging them to make those awkward steps of sitting down with someone that you don’t know. It's really easy to do: You do a show that has race not even being mentioned, and you cast the best people for the parts. Well, if you're in a city that's majority people of color, then your cast is going to look like the city that you live in, and their friends will come, and those people will have more friends come, and suddenly you have an audience base that's much more diverse than it was a year ago.”

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Lavina Jadhwani

Lavina Jadhwani

Director

“It’s tough when the conversation doesn’t go further than the artists represented onstage. I understand why there’s a lot of energy around that—you can look at a cast that you might not agree with and point at that, right? But for me, it’s also about facilitating the conversation in the room. Whose words are you discussing? Who’s at the helm as a director?

“The thing is, as an Asian-American artist, there are fewer Asian-American plays in the American canon than there are African-American plays and Latinx plays, right? And there’s a lot of action around the anti-yellowface movement [or] #BeyondOrientalism, but as a South Asian artist, neither of those phrases actually include me.

“It feels like our community is in response to many things—in defiance of a stereotype, don't put us in that box, look beyond the ‘model minority’ label. But what is the thing we’re being proactive about? Those ‘who the heck are we’ conversations, that happens when we're all in a room together. So knowing where our community is in regards to the larger theatrical landscape, yeah, absolutely it breaks my heart that we don't have more Asian-American directors directing Asian-American plays in this town. It's a difficult place to be in.”

Isaac Gomez

Isaac Gomez

Literary manager and playwright

“When you’re talking about true equity and inclusion, it doesn’t start with the work you’re producing; it starts with the people who are producing. It’s who’s even part of the decision-making process to begin with. If and when you have a diverse array of those perspectives and it becomes a trickle-down situation, then you can have more robust conversations in artistic meetings, in production meetings, where you’re not defaulting to the societal mythical ‘norm’ that is the cisgender white male.

“I’m thinking about the article that was published 10 years ago that pretty explicitly highlighted theater companies whose ensembles are predominantly white. That was 10 years ago, and that remains true today. They’ve produced plays by and for people of color within those 10 years and there have been great plays, don’t get me wrong. But their ensembles are still white. Why? It almost feels a little bit like a facade. Folks are doing the play about people of color, producing a playwright of color, but there isn’t any institutional or organizational change to help ensure that method is sustained? Then I don’t think it’s true equity.”

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