The Complacency of White Liberal Theatre

Sometimes, you read an article someone posts, and you just want to write something up. A friend of mine, who is very active in the social justice arena, with a particular sensitivity to marginalized voices and communities, and commitment to ensuring those voices are heard, posted a link to a very interesting article titled: “Les Miserables, Black Lives Matter, and the Complacency of White Liberal Theatre Communities“.

The article related the story of an actor in tech for Les Miserables in Baltimore at the time of the Baltimore riots. The story pointed out the complacency of the typical white liberal theatre audience, as the author noted:

It suddenly occurred to me that I was in a musical about a group of young students who – after years of enduring inequality, poverty, and police brutality – resort to violence. The heroes of this story stage a revolution, aiming their guns and animosity towards abusive police officers.

And this musical is revered by white people.

The article noted this was acceptable revolution: Poor whites rising up against rich whites. But if they were people of color? A different story. As the author wrote:

You watch Javert mistreat and brutalize innocent French citizens, and you despise him. You watch Jean Valjean – a criminal swept up in the effects of mass incarceration and an unjust prison system – amend his ways, and you forgive him. You watch the people of Paris struggling to survive, bearing the burden of uneven distribution of wealth, and you empathize with them. You watch students rise up – violently – against these forces of oppression, and you cheer them on. When they are killed by militarized police forces, you mourn for them. Not once do you utter, “Well, they should have formed a peaceful demonstration if they didn’t want to be killed,” or “Javert was just trying to do his job,” or, “These young men were dangerous criminals,” or even, “You can’t fight hate with hate!”

But if their bodies were black, if they were wearing hoodies, if the setting were not 19th century France, but rather 21st century America…you would find ways to justify Javert’s actions. You would call these young men thugs. You would start quoting Martin Luther King jr. in a vacuum, to invalidate their struggle. Or you’d refrain from saying anything at all.

This made me wonder — as a theatregoer — how the audience would react to a reinterpretation of Les Miserables — preserving the music, but translating the story to any urban inner city, and the revolutionaries, criminals, and prostitutes as people of color. We do these translations all the time to Shakespeare. What would the audience reaction be? Would a director have the temerity to try it?

Theatre is supposed to be one of the true venues that speaks to power. But the majority of live musicals fail to do so. This is often due to safety and cost: the people that are supposed to be able to hear can’t shell out the funds. Even when you have a musical that speaks the vernacular — a Hamilton — the audience that needs to see it can’t afford it. I’ve long bemoaned the fact that the only time I see people of color in an audience is when the corresponding color is one stage — and when the color is on the stage, the white folks in the audience often disappear. Don’t believe me? Attend a performance of The Color Purple. I saw this regularly at the Pasadena Playhouse when they put on African-American themed shows.

And actors of color? The lack of diversity in the audience is often a mirror of the lack of diversity on stage. Only recently have musicals about Asians cast Asians in the roles. This is largely due to efforts of folks like David Henry Hwang, and the recent casting of things like Flower Drum Song, The King and I, and Allegiance.  But jobs for actors of color are much harder these days.

There are places where these voices are heard and cast: in the small intimate theatre scene. I see and hear about innovative and questioning theatre all the time from the 99 seat community here in Los Angeles. But as you move up to the larger theatres, that largely disappears. Venues such as the Pasadena Playhouse have made attempts to broaden the audience, but it is unclear if they have been successful in the long term.

What are your thoughts? What should the theatre community due to ensure that the concerns of the marginalized are heard? That the stories tell what is happening? That there is diversity on stage and in the audience?

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One Reply to “The Complacency of White Liberal Theatre”

  1. I’ve made the same observation about theatre demographics. On the other hand, fringe shows get a more diverse audience. And, out here, we have an Hispanic theatre company that does quite well.

    One thing I find interesting is the prevalence of color-blind casting in opera, vs. conventional musical theatre. I suspect this is just because there are so many fewer appropriately trained voices. Similarly, ballet seems pretty diverse to me these days.

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