Black Lives Matter.
When the community calls out so loudly to bring attention to an issue, as our community has in recent days, that call deserves an answer.
My name is Kyle Murphy, and I’m the owner and founder of Broadway Olympia Productions. I am a white man. As such, I do not feel it’s appropriate for me to speak on behalf of the black community regarding the current civil rights issue being brought to the public eye. I do feel that it’s my responsibility to condemn the systemic racism in our country that lead to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer. George Floyd, and countless thousands of others over the years.
I also feel like this is the perfect time to talk openly about how systemic racism manifests in community theater. This is something that I do feel I can speak to, in the sense that I can relay the message that has been communicated to me repeatedly by black actors that I’ve worked with and listened to.
I wade carefully into this subject because I’m relatively new to this side of theater, and because I’m sharing what I’ve learned and observed from others, rather than my first hand experience. But I feel the stories are worth telling, and this is the time to do so. Because I have the platform, and others don’t, I feel compelled to share what I’ve heard.
Because I opened this company with a background business, but not specifically related to theater, I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last 3 years listening to what others had to say about their experiences… what they liked, what they wanted to see change, and why they think and feel some of the negative experiences are happening. I reached out not only to the local theater community, but the broader Western Washington community as well. Among the various topics I came across, one recurring theme from actors of color, but specifically black actors/directors, was a lack of opportunity as a direct result of their appearance. Additionally, many of the people I spoke to felt that theater leadership across the country, both at the community and professional level, did not understand why this was problematic, or what was causing it.
This is not a new issue, and has been talked about for quite some time. However, for decades, the narrative was around the limited number of roles being written for non-white performers. The resulting reaction of many theaters across the country was to adopt a “color-blind-casting” policy. While this sounds good in theory, the implementation often involved some of the few roles that had been written for actors of color being given to white actors. Believe it or not, relatively large scale productions are still being mounted across the country that have no white characters, and all white actors. Never mind that this prolonged the normalization of white people presenting themselves as an accurate depiction of a race and culture that they knew nothing about. It ignored 3 issues:
The overall lack of opportunity available for actors of color, specifically in leading/featured roles
The overt lack of cultural representation that most non-white communities feel on both stage and screen
The core, systemic reasons that these opportunities don’t exist in the first place
What I have been told by those who have graciously taken time to share their stories with me, is that even in 2020, black actors are frequently told that they weren’t cast because “audiences won’t accept it,” or “It wouldn’t fit the story.” So much so that many of the people I spoke to said they felt their community had drifted away from theater as an artistic outlet because they neither felt represented in what they saw, nor felt like the opportunities were available to them.
These casting decisions, across the country, frequently come from white directors. White directors are frequently hired by white leadership… boards of directors, Artistic Directors, and owners (like me).
Most roles that are presumed to have been written for white performers don’t actually specify that the performer is white, except in cases where the story specifically centers around race. Yet it’s generally accepted that an audience who can suspend disbelief enough to buy into the concept that people erupt into song and dance randomly throughout their day, somehow can’t wrap their heads around a black Curly in Oklahoma, or a black Elle Woods (which, incidentally, was recently done in Seattle to rave reviews).
We are fortunate that here in the PNW, we have more progressive minds than most leading our theaters, and in recent years we’ve started to see some change in attitudes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t echo the message I heard repeatedly… as a family of theaters, and as individual companies, WE aren’t doing good enough. We aren’t trying hard enough. The results aren’t there, and the proof is in the participation.
The purpose of writing these words is to draw attention to the stories I’ve been told by many people over the last 3 years, in hopes that it sparks more open conversation, and a serious look in the mirror by all of us who hope to go back to creating theater soon.
As companies, what can we be doing better, or doing more frequently?
Diversify our board of directors
Hire non-white artistic directors
Select content that was written by non-white playwrights
Market to different segments of the community than their traditional audience
At BOP we have taken many steps to address these issues within our organization, but we have failed to execute at what I consider to be an acceptable level, and that responsibility lies with me. With the help of recent additions to our board of leadership, we are in the process of crafting a comprehensive strategy to address this issue. Unfortunately, COVID-19 halted all operations, including the discussions around this topic. As such, I will not take up space with empty promises, other than to say that our commitments, when they come, will come in writing, and for everyone to see, and for us to be held accountable to.
Thank you for your time and consideration, be safe, be healthy, and please, take this time to reflect.