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?


A Swinging Good Time | Doc Severinsen at VPAC

Doc Severinsen and his Big Band (VPAC)If you haven’t figured it out by now, I like music and live performance. As I’ve gotten older, I find a read less, but treasure music and performance more. As for what type of music, the answer is simple: all. I can find performers in almost every musical genre that I love (yes, even rap). I go to theatre seasons and plays and musicals to fulfill my need as an audience member to see stories on stage. I go to venues such as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB),  McCabes (FB),  and the Hollywood Bowl to satisfy my musical live performance needs.

Thursday night saw us at VPAC for the penultimate show of our mini subscription: A celebration of Doc Severinsen and his Big Band on the occasion of his upcoming 90th birthday. For the youngsters out there, Doc Severinson was the long time band leader on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, from 1962 until the show ended in 1992. No, not the version with Jimmy Fallon. Not the version before that with Conan O’Brian. Not the version before that with Jay Leno. The long running version that actually had a big band.

Doc actually opened VPAC in… well, whenever it opened. It was Doc that did the first show and helped them tune the hall.

Thursday nights show was pure big band and swing. Doc was joined on a few songs by his vocalist, Vanessa Thomas. He was also joined, at times, by a violinist who was not listed in the program. His band consisted of:

I’ll note that a number of these musicians are also involved with Gordin Goodwin’s Big Phat Band (Goodwin is also a graduate of CSUN’s jazz program).

The program was straightforward big band jazz:

  • The Johnny Carson Theme
  • I Want To Be Happy
  • September Song
  • Singing in the Rain
  • When You’re Smiling
  • Georgia on My Mind
  • Isn’t She Lovely?
  • Jumping at the Woodside


  • [Song I didn’t recognize]
  • Things Aren’t The Way They Used To Be
  • Happy Birthday Papa Doc
  • Mood Indigo
  • Secret Love
  • Every Day I Have the Blues
  • 1 O’Clock Jump

I’ll note this is very similar to their 2016 program on the website. This means the song I didn’t recognize was likely Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.”

This was truly an enjoyable program. It is also remarkable to see Severinsen still doing this — touring and blasting away with his trumpet — at age 90.

 🎩 🎩 🎩

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Tonight brings Animaniacs Live at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center (FB). That will be followed on the penultimate weekend of April with Sister Act at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The last weekend of April brings the Renaissance Pleasure Faire on Saturday, and the new musical The Theory of Relativity at Harter Hall/Charles Stuart Howard Playhouse (FB) on Sunday. Lastly, looking to May, the schedule shows that it starts with My Bodyguard at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the first weekend. It continues with Martha Graham Dance and American Music at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The third weekend brings the last show of the Actors Co-op (FB) season, Lucky Stiff, at Actors Co-op (FB). May concludes with Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB), and hopefully Five Guys Named Moe at Ebony Repertory Theatre (FB).  As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). That, barring something spectacular cropping up, should be the first half of 2017.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.