Diversity in theatre – It sure is white-bred around here

By Megan Mooney

Today I learned something new that has got my mind kind of reeling. Richard Ouzounian had a write-up on Philip Akin in today’s Toronto Star. The write up had one part that left me agog.  To my horror I read the following paragraph:

Akin is a considerable figure on the Canadian theatre scene, a respected actor and director, one of whose most impressive credits is actually a little embarrassing: in 2007, he was the first black Canadian to play the title role in Othello at the Stratford Festival, something that took 55 seasons to happen.

So, wait a minute…

What we’re saying is that a black character in plays done at arguably Canada’s most famous theatre, were, until last year, until 7 years into the 21st century, were not played by black actors?!?!?  (***UPDATE*** I misunderstood, Richard informs me that “Black actors (and alas, some white ones) had played Othello at Stratford before Phil, but they were American.”  So, I just wanted to clarify that)

Part of me is so embarrassed by this that I want to dig a very very deep hole and bury it where no one can find it, and part of me is so horrified and disgusted I want to scream it from rooftops so that everyone can know and hopefully make it so these things don’t happen any more.

Before I go on I think I should put a caveat out, these are just my musings, and only based on observation.  I haven’t done interviews or research or anything like that.  I’m just trying to get my thoughts on the page.  So, if I’m wrong about stuff I encourage you to let me know in the comments so I can correct it.  And now, back to our regularly scheduled program…

Race has been a hot issue in the last couple months (well, way more than that, but you know) with the dialogue between Andrew Moodie (a Canadian playwright and actor) and Jackie Maxwell (the Artistic Director of Shaw Festival) about the lack of diversity, specifically actors of colour, at the Shaw Festival.  There is a website called Share the Stage where you can get lots of information on this.  While I was following this I couldn’t help thinking that we don’t have to go all the way to Niagara-on-the-lake to find this kind of predominantly (almost exclusively) white theatre. 

When was the last time you saw a black actor on stage at CanStage (Obsidian productions in the Berkeley excluded, since, it would seem they’re just renting the space, there is no mention of them on the CanStage website) or Soulpepper?  Oh, and, to be fair, Kevin Hanchard will be in a show at CanStage this year, he’s playing John in Miss Julie: Freedom Summer, and Soulpepper is producing Raisin in the Sun, I’m just speaking in generalities here.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the dialogue with Shaw is important, especially given the tidbit about I learned about Stratford today (they’re doing much better this season by the way…), but I hope that if we’re going to hold Shaw’s feet to the fire we don’t forget about the theatres at home.

It’s not just on the stage where there doesn’t seem to be diversity.  Take a look at the audiences.  I am ALWAYS astounded at how white the audiences are in a place like Toronto.  They certainly aren’t a representation of who you see when you walk down the street, or go to a movie.  So, I wonder, if we make more of an effort to diversify the actors on stage, will it lead to a more diversified audience?  Because, it’s not always a white-heavy audience.  It’s always fascinating for me is how audiences for plays with a ‘black-focus’ (whatever that is), have an audience filled with black people. 

During Summerworks, when I was at Rendez-Vous with Home which is set in Haiti, I was one of very few white people in the audience.  It was pretty exciting to see people at the theatre that I don’t usually see there.  But it did get me thinking…  Where are these people for other theatre pieces?  I don’t have an answer for this, I don’t know if it’s an issue of marketing (lets face it, theatre marketing is pretty terrible, which means generally you just get ‘repeat customers’ and don’t draw in new people), an issue of plays not being relevant, I have no idea, but I do wonder if it’s related to the lack of diversity on our stages. 

As is always the way with these things, I have no answers, just lots and lots of questions.  But it’s something that weighs on my mind, something that swirls around in there over and over, so I figured maybe that meant I should get it down on virtual-paper.

Also, I wanted to extended a thanks to Erin Klee for letting me rant about this to her, which helped me gather my thoughts a bit.