I have seen and heard this term used by theatres, production companies, and colleagues to describe their conscious effort to cast more diversely in their creative work to include more people of color. But what exactly does that mean? Color-blind indicates that the viewer does not see color or is ignoring it. Almost 100% of the time, this term is used by people who are caucasian and for whom being white has not affected their everyday lives. This is not the point of dismantling systematic racism. Ignoring race doesn't make the problem of racism go away and it also devalues and defaces a very important part of each person's identity. Race is a part of who we are, it is not something we need to pretend isn't there. I would argue that we need to be MORE aware and conscious of it, doing our damn finest to listen more than speak, primarily for us who are white.
I had a conversation over social media a few weeks ago about this subject with a few friends and fellow creatives who have black skin, brown skin, and other pigments of skin than white, as well as people from international descent like africa, asia, latin america, and the pacific islands. What I learned from asking about this on social media was that it is not my place to SAY much on this topic, but to either spend most of my time LISTENING to people who's race has affected their casting or SHARING/RETELLING people and companies that have done things to change the landscape and shift their own companies to include greater diversity in race, sexuality, gender, and other underrepresented groups, specifically those who have been successful. So I reached out to my mentor, Cassie Greer to discuss a real-time example of a company that is changing their casting habits and show selection in a historically white suburb of Oregon that is far more diverse now being next to the global Nike campus with people who are largely Indian or Latinx.
Cassie Greer is the Artistic Director of Bag & Baggage productions in Hillsboro, Oregon, a mid-sized theatre company that produces 5 mainstage shows a year. They've got a strong donor base of primarily older, white, upper-middle class folks, but a growing array of actors, playwrights, directors, and audience members of different races, genders, sexualities, incomes, and backgrounds. A key player in their effort to cast more diversely and to share stories that are of different races especially is their "Problem Play Project," which began in 2017. Here is a little info about that project and an interview I had via email with Cassie.
The Problem Play Project
Click on the image for a link to the Problem Play Project website
"Bag&Baggage is a critically acclaimed suburban theatre with a long history of adapting classical work for contemporary audiences; The Problem Play Project is an expansion of that work, with a view towards creating multicultural, diverse plays that connect to our diverse Hillsboro community. Previous/current productions of The Problem Play Project include The Island in Winter or, La Isla en Invierno by Carlos-Zenen Trujillo, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; and The Measure of Innocence by Anya Pearson, an adaptation of Measure for Measure.
We need to be 100% clear: B&B struggles with diversity and inclusion initiatives — in large part due to our suburban location in Hillsboro. Virtually all of the artists we employ live in Portland, and the distance, cost, and time of travel are enormous barriers for us in attracting the kind of diverse artists we hope will perform with us. That being said the impact of The Problem Play Project has already been felt, as we grew from employing 12% non-white artists in the 2017-18 Season to 36% non-white artists in the 2018-19 Season, with many of these artists who are new to our company working on shows other than the specifically-designated Problem Play Project show. We know this is just the beginning of this work, and are excited to continue to build momentum surrounding all of these efforts.
Of specific interest to B&B will be emerging artists from the following ethnic groups who make up the largest proportion of non-white residents of Washington County: Hispanic/Latino; African American; Asian American, South Asian American; American Indian; Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; and bi-racial. For example, a playwright of Japanese descent might approach Shakespeare’s play Measure For Measure with a view towards exploring Oregon’s history with Japanese internment camps given that one of the main themes of Measure For Measure deals with unjust imprisonment. A Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander may wish to incorporate Polynesian locations, ancient mythology, or poetry in an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, which includes elements of magical realism and rural settings.
The approach is completely up to the selected playwright, and we have no limitations on the process; however, our goal is to ultimately produce work that includes the following elements:
Interview with Artistic Director, Cassie Greer
I emailed my mentor to ask her a few questions for her take on the following questions. I will post them once I get a response this week.
How is Bag & Baggage shifting to more works that better represent people of color?
(I think this answers both of your first two questions in one...)
As a Predominantly White Institution dedicated to cracking open the classics of world literature, we have long been focused on western and European literature, just adding the "world" aspect to our mission statement within the past five years. It is important that the work we do on stage reflect our mission, and vice versa, so making this small intentional change in language has been one of the most important and basic parts of our shift, seeking to actively acknowledge that American and European classics are not the only ones that exist out there.
That being said, it is also true that as a PWI, we don't have the requisite ability and context - and quite frankly the right - to tell the stories of people of color. They are not "our" stories. This is a conundrum. Because just because the makeup of our company is 90% white does NOT mean that non-white stories are not valid. We are seeking to address this by first working with more POC actors in our shows. It has long been our ethos that classics are classic for a reason: because they speak to all human beings regardless of who you are and in what time period you're living.
If we follow this logic a little further, this leads really easily to an understanding that the color of your skin has nothing to do with your ability (or not) to tell a classic story. So we have begun to do things like have a black woman play Wendy in a Peter Pan adaptation and an API man play Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin's Deathtrap, centering POC actors in these stories that are inherently NOT about race. As a white female-identifying director, I would shy away from taking on August Wilson; but I embrace a gender-bending Much Ado About Nothing adaptation that allows me to explore sexualiy and identity with our audiences, as well as have a black woman playing Don John, and other POC actors playing Dogberry, Verges, Margaret, and Ursula. It is my (and our) hope that the more actors of color we work with, the larger our pool of artists grows, and the more we are able to, over time, put these artists at the helm of other projects that ARE able to centralize the voices and stories of people of color in a way that is far more authentic than anything I could do at this moment.
You might ask "why not just hire a black director to come in and do an August Wilson play for you?" - which is a completely valid question, and which I could spend many more paragraphs answering. I will try to keep it succinct by saying that it's important to us at Bag&Baggage that our shows have a shared artistic aesthetic - this is part of what makes our company unique from other theatre companies - and as such, we usually try to make sure that either the director or the lead actor(s) are familiar with our approach and ethos. This is challenging for us to do right now with many POC-written plays (and particularly things like August Wilson). Perhaps this is an inherently racist way of thinking...but it's something that we're continuing to grapple with on an extremely regular basis.
In the past, Bag & Baggage has a predominantly white company of actors and creatives. In the past few years, the company has been growing their plays written by and or for people of color. How has Bag & Baggage managed this process?
I will only add to the above that making systemic changes to support this process is almost as important as being more expansive in our thinking and more inclusive in our representation on stage. We have an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee on our Board of Directors. We have an Equity Statement that is part of our nondiscrimination policy. We have posted anti-discrimination public policy statements in all areas of our theatre that artists frequent, which include lists of people to contact to report concerns, observed/experienced discriminations, or abuses.
Can you talk a little about the Problem Play Project? How is Bag & Baggage using its history of doing classical plays to tell more stories that are more diverse?
Yes! This is one major initiative that attempts to bring our mission and history together with our desire to be more representative of ALL the people who live and work in our community, not just the white people of European descent. As a company, we have a history of doing "Shakespeare mash-ups" that have typically included Shakespeare's text combined with either the text from source material that Shakespeare was using, or with Restoration Era adaptations of Shakespeare. Before launching the Problem Play Project, we did a sort of cross-cultural "test case" with a Romeo & Juliet adaptation that used text from Nizami Ganjavi's 11th century Persion epic Layla & Majnun. (The tie between these two texts includes references to "star-crossed lovers", family drama, and nightingale imagery. You can posit that Shakespeare might have heard a telling of Layla & Majnun in England by the 16th century...)
This is right around the time we expanded our mission statement to include the "world literature" language. We produced Romeo&Juliet/Layla&Majnun to the largest groups of middle-eastern-identifying audience members that we had ever seen. It was clear that seeing "their" story told on stage was exciting, inspiring, and a way of growing our community at B&B. The Problem Play Project is a three-year initiative which provides a major commission to an Oregon-based playwright of color to adapt one of Shakespeare's problem plays through their own cultural lens. Thus far, the PPP has seen a Cuban-American bilingual take on The Winter's Tale examining immigration, communism/capitalism, and family dynamics, using the poetry of José Martí and Cuban Santería orisha stories in The Island in Winter or, La Isla en Invierno by Carlos-Zenen Trujillo; and a black perspective on Measure for Measure examining the systemic injustices in the American criminal justice system and prison industrial complex - specifically as experienced by black and brown men - and the deep-reaching effects this has on families and communities, using many contemporary texts and transcripts and featuring slam poetry interludes by the playwright in The Measure of Innocence by Anya Pearson.
Part of the goal of the entire project is to provide opportunities not just for playwrights of color, but also for artists of color to work alongside B&B company members - helping all of us expand our perspectives and relationships with artists of color within our community. We have a project manager specifically for the plays produced out of this initiative who does an incredible amount of outreach and relationship-building in communities of color to help support and facilitate our work. This is key. It is not enough to just put POC actors on stage and think we're "doing the work" - building relationships of trust with audiences and communities of color (not to mention artists of color themselves) is one of the most important things we can do to shift the paradigm. And this takes time and work and a whole different level of thoughtfulness and consideration. Again, I could go on and on here, but I'll leave it at that for now! (But ask me if you want more!)
How can other theatres who are trying to change their habits of choosing plays by predominantly white (male) playwrights and who continue to cast predominantly white actors learn from Bag & Baggage?
Oof. I'm pretty uncomfortable feeling like people can learn from us. We're in the thick of trying to figure it out. Authenticity is important. Relationships are important. Trying to diversify just because it's trendy or it will get you funding isn't. I think it's really key for companies to do some deep soul-searching to consider who they are, what their values are, what their mission is, and then how they are able to share identity, values, and mission in a way that is equitable and that EVERYONE will be able to connect with. Understanding that racism is systemic and pretty much all white people are inherently racist is also important. Color-conscious casting and hiring of designers is important. Providing pipelines for artists and company employees of color to be able to have influence and growth is important. Being willing to take a back seat is important. Putting in place structures within the company that prioritize equity is important. Budgeting in a way that supports EDI is important.