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Color bind

Chicago theater is risk-taking, energetic-and so, so white. We take a hard look at why this community lacks diversity, and find out what it will take to change.

Photograph: Chris Strong
Anish Jethmalani, artistic director of Eclipse Theatre Company, and actor Lisa Tejero

In the beginning, there was a church. And in that church was a basement. And out of that church basement rose a scrappy group of wildly talented punks who were determined to do plays their own way. And thus was born Steppenwolf, and it was good.

These plays begat enthusiastic media coverage. And that coverage begat an audience, and that audience begat a scene. And from that scene came forth Organic, Remains, Wisdom Bridge, Lookingglass and Neo-Futurists. And these ensemble theaters’ popularity begat national attention, which begat international attention. And before long, it was pretty much conceded that, given the decline of Broadway and the rise of the Chicago storefronts, we were the best damn theater city in the country.

And with the fame came mythology: Any grubby group of college-pal actors with a little money and the right mix of talent and pluck could start a theatrical revolution. But there’s one little word that goes unspoken in this much-hyped lore. Add it in, and the story would go like this: A bunch of (white) college-buddy actors form their own (white) troupe…. Because these acting ensembles are friendship-based, they tend to also be race-based.

As a result, we get a group of college friends forming the House Theatre, which has 27 white ensemble members and one Latina member. Years later, those college pals become an established company like, say, Lookingglass, which, 18 years after its start, still doesn’t have any nonwhite ensemble members. Thirty years later, they’re a national institution like Steppenwolf, a 35-member ensemble featuring only one nonwhite member. In trying to win the coveted title of “the next Steppenwolf”—a phrase that’s become synonymous with “the next big thing”—storefront troupes inadvertently repeat the same pattern.

Why is this an issue? Does diversity even matter to theater at all? On the eve of the Goodman’s Latino Theatre Festival (see page 22), we believe it does. After all, theater practitioners want to bring their work to as many people as possible, while creating progressive art about the larger world. They think they can do both. So do we. And besides, as Jamil Khoury, cofounder of the multiethnic Silk Road Theatre Project, asks, “How many times can you hear the same story?”

The stage is whiter than the city.
Everybody, just stay calm. It’s true, some companies are attempting to address the racial divide. Chicago’s top-tier ensemble companies have all shaken things up in both literature and casting (even as the core company members stay the same). Longevity makes for wisdom, after all, which accounts for Steppenwolf’s multiculti Arts Exchange program, Lookingglass christening its swanky Michigan Avenue digs with its adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Race, the nonwhite writers on the stages of Victory Gardens and Chicago Dramatists (which, notably, aren’t actor ensembles) and the increased nontraditional casting at venues from the Court to Chicago Shakespeare to Writers’ Theatre (which, in 2003, cast an African-American actor, Ora Jones, in the lead role of Our Town).

And sure, the door is always open for nonwhite artists to pull a Gary Sinise and start their own troupes. And yup, you can’t force audiences of any color to watch plays they don’t care about.

But who are we kidding? It doesn’t take many nights sitting on the aisle to notice that as great as Chicago theater is, the companies that get the most attention—especially on the storefront scene—tend to be ensemble-based groups that pick projects to showcase themselves. And most are far whiter than the town they live in.

Take, for example, the popular House Theatre. The company’s 2004 Wild West musical San Valentino and the Melancholy Kid includes a scene between two post–Civil War cowpokes in a gay relationship. On the commentary track of the play’s DVD, writer-director Nathan Allen notes his script called for a black cowboy running from the law. But because the House has no black company members, the character was made gay both to allow for maximum dramatic conflict and to use a company actor.

Yet another Chekhov play
In talking to dozens of Chicago artists about this subject—and we spoke with artistic directors, casting associates, playwrights, literary managers and, of course, actors—it became clear that while Chicago theater is as deeply segregated as its city, it’s also flourishing within its respective ’hoods. Mostly white North Shore audiences flock to Northlight Theatre in Skokie; mostly black South Siders line up at the Arie Crown to see Tyler Perry’s touring shows; Latino audiences pack the house for Spanish-language plays at the Aguijón Theater; Polish crowds frequent the Chopin Theatre to see visiting companies from their native country; and North Side hipsters clog the lobby of the Viaduct Theater. There’s just not much crossover between the venues.

Yet it’s the ensembles that capture our imagination because they’re easy to get behind; it’s like pulling for the local ball club. And as any longtime Steppenwolf or Lookingglass subscriber knows, part of the joy of watching them is seeing their growth as artists over time.

But as these theaters preach to their respective choirs, the result is a theater scene that risks becoming disconnected from its city. Without a lifeline between the art form and its surroundings, local theater, particularly the North Side storefronts, tends to become repetitive—the same white-cast plays picked over and over again: yet another Shepard play, another Williams, Mamet, Chekhov, Durang. They’re all great writers, obviously, but they’re not writing about Chicago today. As Silk Road’s Khoury says, “The Chicago stage doesn’t really take into consideration our immediate environment.”

The dilemma for someone like Steppenwolf’s artistic director Martha Lavey, who’s no stranger to controversy surrounding Steppenwolf’s whiteness, is how to serve both her company of artists and the city that allowed them to rise. “To me, it is a very big and compelling question about what the responsibility of a theater like Steppenwolf is,” she says. “It sits in the middle of a very culturally diverse city and yet springs out of the imperatives of a group of artists.”

Of the group’s early days (long before she was on board), Lavey admits, “[The original members] were always looking for shows that had ensembles: tribes, families. Because they themselves were at that point a group of young, college, Caucasian students—very dominated by the male members—that was a big part of the aesthetic. Then there is the imperative to be representative as a Chicago voice. Could it be better? Could it be more fluid? Sure, but it’s [a matter] of keeping the identity of this group of artists who have an investment of many, many years, and finding a way to open artistic opportunities to new voices such that they gain membership in this creative relationship.”

Makes sense, but Khoury says this setup perpetuates itself.

“A bunch of people who went to DePaul or Columbia or Illinois State, they have these favorite plays and want to be in them, so they band together and form a company, which tends to be fairly homogeneous in terms of racial or ethnic composition. If you are actor-based and you’re ten Caucasian actors and you’re all in your twenties, what pieces are you going to pick?” Khoury says. “We obviously have the premier example of that in Steppenwolf. That’s the very powerful model for Chicago companies. So many people want to be the next Steppenwolf.”

The risk-taking House Theatre finds itself struggling to break the pattern. “It’s something we’re very aware of and want to change,” artistic director Allen says. But inherited habits die hard. “In all our shows, about half the actors are ensemble members, the other half are our friends who are looking for work that we want to work with,” he says. And when everyone’s in his own corner—nonwhite groups included—it can prevent cross-pollination. “Sometimes when we want to utilize our friends from [all African-American] Congo Square, they’re already tied up in projects over there,” Allen says.

It’s not as if Chicago actors starting their careers are sitting around saying, Hey, let’s put on white theater for white people. There’s a vast difference between racism, which isn’t the problem, and segregation, which is.

Yet because such companies rarely consider the racial slant of their personal and artistic relationships, an oversight perpetuated in company after company, Chicago theater drowns in a sea of sameness. As actor Ora Jones (now in Steppenwolf’s The Unmentionables) says, “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.”

It isn’t just our imagination.
If an alien landed in Chicago and only visited the city’s theater, he’d report back to HQ one central finding: The city’s inhabitants are mostly white folks. Of course, that’s far from the reality; Chicago is roughly evenly split between whites, African-Americans and Latinos. Yet we’re constantly struck by the vast canyon between the multihued Chicagoans we see on a daily basis and the mostly monochrome Chicagoans we see populating the seats of the city’s theaters. And after looking at the numbers, we realized it isn’t just our imagination. And it isn’t just Chicago.Nationally, a whopping 85 percent of theatergoers are white, according to a 2002 National Endowment for the Arts study. Locally, the League of Chicago Theatres puts that number at 72 percent. That seems to place Chicago ahead of the rest of the country, but consider this: About one third of Chicagoans are white. In that light, our audiences have a clear racial majority of whites, while our city definitely doesn’t.

Chicago is also well above the national average when it comes to African-American attendance. Nationally, roughly 7 percent of theatergoers are black; locally, it’s around 17 percent. But again, consider that 36 percent of Chicagoans are African-American. A similar gap exists for Latinos: About one in four Chicagoans is Latino, compared to one in 20 Chicago theatergoers.Notably, the local figures don’t include theaters that aren’t members of the League of Chicago Theatres. That means storefront troupes that would likely up the white percentage, but also urban-circuit shows on the South Side that attract significant numbers of African-Americans.

Any way you slice it, there’s an undeniable racial disparity between the people who make up this city and the people who attend its professional theater. Much of it comes down to three Ws—who, what and where: who’s on (and behind) the stages, what’s onstage and where the stages are. Glance at the map on this page, and the where becomes obvious. The bulk of theaters are on the North Side, where at least half the residents are white. Only a few theaters are located on the South Side, where most residents are black.

“They’re not nearly as primed when they have the opportunity.”
In 1987, the Chicago Tribune announced that “Chicago’s theatrical community gave birth to a movement,” and that movement was nontraditional casting. A League of Chicago Theatres–sponsored symposium marked the “first public attempt to address the issue,” the Tribune reported. And it led to some general auditions in the ’80s in which casting directors looked specifically at nonwhite actors.

Erica Daniels, Steppenwolf’s casting director, says that when she took up her position in 2001—14 years after the Tribune article ran—nontraditional casting “was not something that was done regularly at any of the theaters. It was still a very new thing to try color-blind casting.” She adds, “I think that’s part of the reason a lot of actors of color left Chicago, before I even got here. They felt like they couldn’t get seen at a lot of the big theaters.”

Now, large non-ensemble theaters like Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare have made great strides in nontraditional casting. But often that means they must draw from a small pool of African-American actors; sometimes it means the theaters cast actors from outside Chicago. When it comes to nonwhite, nonblack Chicago actors, the pool gets even smaller.

Or does it? Last year, when Daniels auditioned Asian actors for the Japan-set after the quake, she says about 150 Chicago-based Asian-American actors showed up. We have to ask Daniels if we heard right: 150? But before we can ask the logical follow-up question, she beats us to it: “Where are they?” she asks.

She offers this theory to explain why we’re not seeing those actors of color: “Because they’re not given the opportunity, they’re not nearly as primed when they have the opportunity. They’re not ready to be on my big stage as an actor because they haven’t been working. It’s a catch-22. I think that’s the big issue.”

The effects are tangible. Despite three days of local auditioning, none of the four adult Asian-American actors in after the quake were Chicago residents. All were from New York, including a former Chicagoan.

Anish Jethmalani of Eclipse Theatre Company backs Daniels’s theory: Actors of color are here, but they’re not being developed. “The larger companies would like them to be a little more seasoned and trained,” he says. “But the seasoning and training comes from having the opportunities at the smaller theaters.”

“I wasn’t the right flavor of Asian.”
Add to the problem of opportunity the one of typecasting, and the situation grows all the more daunting. “I don’t know how many times you have to audition for the same token Latino male,” Latino actor Ivan Vega says. Even successful nonwhite actors like Vega and Lisa Tejero (the rare regularly working Asian-American) can be overlooked for roles that aren’t race-specific. “When you are Latino, that’s actually all they see you for,” Vega says. Tejero was recently offered a part that was retracted when the playwright felt that “I wasn’t the right flavor of Asian,” she says. And Daniels notes that of the Asian-American actors she saw for after the quake, almost all had The King and I on their résumés.

But Chuck Smith, a trailblazing African-American resident director at the Goodman who’s been working in Chicago for 40 years, believes what several people told us: If you think it’s bad now, you should’ve seen it then. “It was very segregated,” Smith says of his early days. “You rarely saw black people on the stage unless they were in the role of the maid or a slave or a laborer…I’ve seen what it was like and I know what is now, and it’s much better now.”

He’s right. Seven years ago, African-American troupe Congo Square joined longtime black companies Chicago Theatre Company, eta Creative Arts Foundation and Black Ensemble Theater. South Asian–centric Rasaka Theatre Company, the multicultural UrbanTheater Company (which began as a group of Puerto Rican artists headed by Vega) and Silk Road Theatre Project (notable in that it crosses borders, representing people from East Asia to the Mediterranean) were all formed within the past five years.

These companies have taken the assumption that nonwhites just don’t go to the theater, and they’ve turned it on its head. This summer, when Silk Road did a staged reading of a play about Arab women, more than 250 people showed up—many storefronts don’t get that many people during an entire run—and not all of the patrons were Arab. Last fall, when Rasaka staged The Masrayana, featuring an all–South Asian cast, the show sold out almost every night. “We had lines; we had to turn away people,” says company member Jethmalani, who estimates that about 80 percent of the audiences were South Asian. Several told Jethmalani that if they saw more of their culture onstage, they’d attend the theater more often. “I firmly believe that if you build it, they will come,” Jethmalani says.

It’s easier than it sounds.
In what could become the next step, some white companies have opted not to leave diversity to the ethnic companies—with eye-opening results. Take Court Theatre in Hyde Park, for instance. Of 239 mainstage plays produced in 50 years (as listed on Court’s website), not one was written by an African-American. Then early this year, in season 51, Court mounted August Wilson’s Fences, helmed by African-American actor-director Ron O.J. Parson. The production brought in a new audience of African-Americans, Parson says. Indeed, many African-Americans told Parson they’d never stepped foot inside the Court: “People who live right down the street…people who can walk to the theater but had never been there,” Parson says. After Fences’ extended-run success, next season Court will mount not one but two African-American plays.

Then there’s Eclipse, which has devoted each season to one playwright for the past nine years. Next year—for the first time—that featured playwright won’t be white; it’ll be African-American author Pearl Cleage. And yet, Eclipse is a mostly white ensemble. “Our entire ensemble is taking a backseat because we are going to be hiring all African-American actors,” artistic director Jethmalani says. “It was a tough pill for everyone to swallow, but [the ensemble members] said, This is something that’s important to us.”

If people see themselves onstage, they’ll pony up.
The actor ensemble has become Chicago theater’s dominant model, but these examples make clear it doesn’t have to be. More writer-focused and community-based companies would dramatically alter the landscape. When we asked nonwhite artists what would bring more color into Chicago’s white theater, we kept hearing one thing: more writers from their communities. If you have a nonwhite play, chances are you’ll cast nonwhite actors. And companies that reach out to the city’s communities—in Court’s case, the community just outside the theater’s doors—can create lasting relationships. If people see themselves onstage, they’ll pony up for tickets.

As for the big “so what?”—why does diversity matter to theater?—Lavey reframes that question this way: “Does it make the conversation better?” Her disarmingly simple, indisputable answer: “Yeah.”

5 ways it can get better

1. Nip it in the bud. If you’re forming a theater company, you might want to consider branching outside your circle of friends now. That way, in five years, you won’t be scratching your heads over how you all got to be the same color.

2. Coproduce across the racial divide. Imagine the whizbang theatrics of the House Theatre paired with the rich cultural heritage of Silk Road Theatre Project. Then imagine the shared audiences.

3. Form more writer-focused companies. When it’s not all about the actors, thepossibilities really open up.

4. Reach out. Chicago’s full of neighborhoods; try getting out of your own. Network with community leaders. Perform outside the North Side.

5. Get outta the ’hood. The CTA works for audiences, too: If you’re a North Sider, get over to the Duncan YMCA and check out Congo Square. If you’re south of the Loop, trek up to the Mag Mile and catch a Lookingglass show.

Comments

1 comments
Kent J
Kent J

We also need more theatre programs in the Chicsgo Public Schools. Not only to fill more colleges with POC theatre majors, and then by extension more POC actors, directors, designers, etc. working in Chicago; but also to build a love of theatre in our future audiences, of all colors.