Report: A 2% gain for minority actors on NYC's major stages last season

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press, 2/12/13

The percentage of minority actors working on Broadway and at the top 16 not-for-profit theater companies in New York City rose to 23% during the 2011-2012 season, but whites continue to be overrepresented, according to a new report. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition released its second annual look at ethnic representation on New York stages and found that minority actors overall saw a 2% increase from the previous season. It found that African-American actors were cast in 16% of all roles, Hispanics in 3% and Asian-American actors in 3%. Caucasians filled 77% of all roles, far outweighing their respective population size in the metro and tri-state areas. According to 2010 U.S. Census numbers, blacks make up 23% of the city's population and 17% of the tri-state area; Hispanics made up 28.6% of the city and 22% of the tri-state area; and Asian-Americans comprised 13% of the city and 9% of the tri-state area. Whites are 33% of the city and almost 62% of the tri-state's population. Black actors increased their representation by 2% compared to last season, while Hispanics stayed the same as last season, and Asian-Americans saw their numbers tick up by 1%. For the second year in a row, the not-for-profit sector lagged behind the commercial sector when it came to hiring minorities. Minority employment for the non-profit companies fell below 20% for the second year in a row. While the numbers of black and Latino actors on non-profit stages increased, the number of Asian-American actors hasn't budged from the 2% mark for the past three years. By comparison, five years ago Asian-Americans represented 7% of working actors.


As Actors Equity turns 100, a look back at its push for racial equality

Robert Simonson, Playbill magazine, 2/13/13

Almost from its inception in 1913, Actors' Equity Association was ahead of the nation on the issue of race. Black actors were actors, in the union's view, and black theatregoers were theatregoers. Equity came to life in the Jim Crow era, when theatres and hotels were often segregated or barred blacks altogether, and many producers -- eyes on the bottom line -- couldn't bring themselves to cast black actors in roles other than butlers, maids and field hands. In the 1943-44 season, Paul Robeson became the first black man to play Othello on Broadway, but when [he] toured with the show, hotels that admitted his [white] co-stars would not take him or any African-American. In 1944 Equity formed the Hotel Accommodations Committee, whose main purpose was finding quality, fair lodging for the union's African-American members. Equity made headlines in 1947, when it tried to convince the management of DC's National Theater to alter its policy of segregating its audience. The union said it would withdraw the services of its members if discrimination against black theatre patrons at the National did not end. It intended that the League of New York Theatres acknowledge the new policy when the union's contract came up for negotiation. The union's stand made headlines and alarmed producers. Against all odds, the union won the battle. Equity also fought for integration on the stage [and] featured integrated casts in its own Equity Library Theatre as early as 1945. And it dreamed up a series of Integrated Showcase Demonstrations featuring mixed casts performing scenes from shows that had previously been produced with white actors.


Commentary: U.S. culture is responsible for perpetuating the concept of race

Justin E. H. Smith, The New York Times' Opinionator blog, 2/10/13

The question for us today is why we have chosen to stick with categories inherited from the 18th century, the century of the so-called Enlightenment, which witnessed the development of the slave trade into the very foundation of the global economy, and at the same time saw racial classifications congeal into pseudo-biological kinds, piggy-backing on the divisions folk science had always made across the natural world of plants and animals. Many who are fully prepared to acknowledge that there are no significant natural differences between races nonetheless argue that there are certain respects in which it is worth retaining the concept of race: for instance in talking about issues like social inequality or access to health care. There is, they argue, a certain pragmatic utility in retaining it, even if they acknowledge that racial categories result from social and historical legacies, rather than being dictated by nature. It is American culture that is principally responsible for the perpetuation of the concept of race well after its loss of scientific respectability by the mid-20th century. Even the most well-meaning attempts to grapple with the persistence of inequality between "blacks" and "whites" in American society take it for granted at the outset that racial categories adequately capture the relevant differences under investigation (see, for example: Thomas B. Edsall's recent column, "The Persistence of Racial Resentment")


Commentary: "I'm having trouble with the idea that art is universal lately"

Clayton Lord, ArtsJournal blog New Beans, 2/12/13

Over on Facebook, my co-worker Sam Hurwitt reports an audition listing that requests "No obvious ethnicity" for a role. His friends, when asked, guessed that statement meant everything from "mixed" to "white" to my favorite: "'whitable' or 'passable' or 'non-threatening ethnic looking person'."  Is it truly possible to avoid depicting any particular ethnic group?  I'm having trouble with the idea that art is universal lately.  "Universalism" in its theoretical form is about celebrating the essential humanness of all of us, the idealized harmony in which we could all function if we recognized how close we are to each other, really, and not how far.  The issue then becomes whether, as a practical matter, universalism simply disintegrates into something much more minor, which is the representation of the dominant culture as the universal culture.  In response to my recent posts, Ian David Moss (along with Diane Ragsdale and Barry Hessenius) [wrote his own blog post].  Ian makes an interesting argument that my earlier comments about considering requirements that arts organizations in diverse communities cultivate more diverse audiences are "weirdly paternalistic."  He points out that "educated white people in the U.S." is a cultural group, and asks what efforts to "change patterns of cultural participation" really accomplish except to attempt to sustain specific institutions.  He goes on:

"...I worry that strong funder incentives to racially diversify audiences inadvertently encourages institutions to value people of color for their skin rather than for what's underneath, and to reinforce visible markers of diversity.... In my more subversive moments, I sometimes wonder if some of the motivation behind the drive to diversify audiences for traditional European art forms comes from a place of wanting to assimilate people of color so that we can all be one, big, happy family -- on white people's terms."

I think part of what Ian is saying here centers on a difference between true universalism and the sort of lip-service "white" universalism that most arts organizations have been operating under for a long while now.  We present the individual story on stage as artifice in order to talk about the universal story.  And for the most part, the fact that those individual stories have largely been performed by a certain type of folks for a similar certain type of folks hasn't been a hugely addressed issue.  In part, I think, because of our strong philanthropic base, relatively weak governmental funding base and the inherent, longstanding inequalities in the whole social fabric of America (and our ability to pay lip service to them without really addressing the underlying disparities), American arts and cultural institutions are only now feeling some of the pressure that has been felt by similar institutions in England and Australia for more than a decade.  We have not been truly seeking universalism -- the universal truth for all - any more than we have been truly seeking multiculturalism.  What might have once been telling the truth of our world has somehow turned into something less than that.  We have responded to the pressures of this world by making our circle smaller, clustering our planets close around our sun and assuming that meant we were warming all the bodies in the galaxy.

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