Saving The American Theatre

by Claudia Alick

BIPOC cultural producers, we can save the American Theatre.  

We already are. We have been for a while. Our practice is complex and powerful. We combine documentary, history, and the imaginary to capture what it ultimately is to be human. We train generations in the performances that reflect who we are and what we desire. 

This is how a community builds and maintains culture.  

For decades, the conversation across the sector overwhelmingly has been about how the American Theatre is dying. A solution to this existential crisis, has been to use the cultural productions of Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) to infuse new life into a “greying” audience and new relevance into the storytelling engines of predominantly white institutions (PWI).  

Black people have been saving the American Theatre for decades. 

The American Theatre consists of performances that work to maintain “supremacy culture.” Supremacy culture is white domination, heterosexism, patriarchy and ableism.  It is a set of values and goals never stated explicitly. Supremacy culture resists being named because it functions best in conditions of denial.

"The American Theatre creates the conditions under which it is financially lucrative, and ultimately, sometimes necessary for survival, to participate in performances of white dominance, ableism or heterosexism even when the performance is harmful to the producer."

We spend a lot of time focused on the concerns of white men. We spend a lot of energy repeating narratives that center the needs of white men. We spend a lot of money building empathy with a diversity of white men. We celebrate and enrich the best of these performances. We normalize and create desire for these repeated performances of white male dominance. This real life performance creates the narrative in the world that white men’s stories are the most excellent and most important.  

The replication of productions create “classics” and build cultural value. The erasure and suppression of the work of Black, Indigenous and other people of color create a misrepresentation of history and of the contemporary. The American Theatre creates the conditions under which it is financially lucrative, and ultimately, sometimes necessary for survival, to participate in performances of white dominance, ableism or heterosexism even when the performance is harmful to the producer. 

The American Theatre creates the social conditions whereby we receive positive social capital for performances of altruism, generosity, volunteerism and engagement while maintaining a positive attitude. This results in people providing a large amount of free labor and a sector that is subsidized through sweat equity. A small number of individuals in the system make a large amount of profit; some make a living wage but most must supplement their wages with outside labor. 

When you invest physical labor into improving a property you own, you’re able to profit from the improvements over time. However, in theatre, most marginalized communities exist in a subcontractor or insecure, full-time position under white management.

For instance, a Black artist might be subsidizing an institution by handling their hair care independently or acting as an uncredited script consultant or dramaturge in addition to being an actor.  They don’t profit financially from the improvements they make to the institution. And it is treated as unseemly or selfish to acknowledge this publicly. 

A basic behavioral expectation of the American Theatre is that we will invest everything for our art. The expectation is to perform “excellence” despite a deficit of compensation or resources.  

Putting in extra hours, leveraging personal connections, or using your own resources is rewarded.  Expressing anything other than affirmation for status quo is read as having a “bad attitude” or being “difficult to work with.”

"Representation is not equity. Diversity without power sharing is exploitation. None of it is moving the needle if it is still under the umbrella of white domination and supremacy culture."

One must perform enthusiastic acquiescence or face the consequences. Generational wealth, financial subsidy from family and belonging to a community on the receiving end of fewer microaggressions will make this an easier performance. 

The economic structures of the American Theatre are designed to keep most inside them in deficit. 

Ticket prices cannot fully cover costs and must be subsidized. Individuals, institutions, and the state are courted for financial donation. The donor culture performance is radically different from the performances expected from workers who subsidize.  

The donor culture performance includes the aesthetics of decadent spending to reflect class, and a tolerance for bad behavior to bestow power. The explicit performative score of a donor event is celebration and generosity, but the subtext can easily become domination, lechery and racism. 

These performances about value reveal what the institutions themselves actually value. On an even larger scale, Arts institutions often collaborate in a national performance of cleaning capital or reputation-washing for institutions and individuals who harm the community. 

For example, the Sackler family secretly made billions from their company’s invention of highly addictive OxyContin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2018, more than 200,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses involving such prescription opioids. 

During the same period, the Sackler family publicly gave large amounts to theaters, museums and schools. These donations were often tax-deductible and an act of purchasing positive publicity. This recuperative performance is much less expensive than addressing the real social costs of their actions.

Recuperation as a concept was first proposed by Guy Debord and the situationists. It’s the process by which “radical” ideas and images are commodified and incorporated within mainstream society. The act of inviting BIPOC for the least-resourced or least-powerful positions is a recuperative exercise. 

The American Theatre has co-opted, defused, and incorporated BIPOC cultural aesthetics and products. In some predominantly white institutions (PWIs), they are engaging in “inclusive casting” and including BIPOC-majority casts and creative teams. In many, there continue to be white dominant curatorial and hiring choices. The majority of the field continues to practice tokenistic representation in hiring and “colorblind casting”.  

Denying reality is not changing it. Representation is not equity. Diversity without power sharing is exploitation. None of it is moving the needle if it is still under the umbrella of white domination and supremacy culture.

"Supremacy culture is killing us."

What about Culturally Specific Theaters founded and run by BIPOC majority staff?

On a national scale, the small number of supported BIPOC theatres are performing an act of recuperation for the state. Culturally specific organizations are often individually excellent but must replicate supremacy culture aesthetics for survival.  While such institutions are of paramount importance, they are often forced to exist in austerity while the majority of funding goes to dominant-culture organizations. The culturally specific theaters become part of a larger positive narrative of diversity and create social capital for the state and dominant community.

There has always been a tradition of people creating work despite the inaccessibility or toxicity of dominant-culture institutions. PWIs are enriched and empowered by the work and artists developed inside our culturally specific theaters. The innovative practices from independent BIPOC creators are picked up by PWIs through the sheer domination of the market. 

These new practices result in institutional evolution, but also a recuperation and co-optation of them. In a very recent trend, some PWI’s have hired BIPOC artistic directors. These new leaders bring with them the ways of cultural production that survive outside the traditional structures of the failing status quo. They make curatorial and hiring choices that potentially transform the implicit mission of these institutions.  

We are making progress. We have to.

The structures required to maintain supremacy culture are destructive and unprofitable for most inside them. They require complex ways of hiding and denying their dysfunction. The supremacist culture (the culture of heterosexism, ableism, gender discrimination, racism and white domination), the aesthetic of inequity, is apocalyptic in nature. It is full of cynicism and a lack of faith in the possibilities of humanity. It is a limitation of imagination with a lens of narrowness and negativity. This supremacy culture is genocidal and suicidal in nature. It is the thing we have been not naming, denying and struggling against my entire career.  

Supremacy culture is killing us.  

BIPOC cultural producers are giving us life. 

Amid pandemic, financial crisis and the collapse of many dominant institutions, BIPOC producers are designing around concepts of reckoning with reality.  We are divesting from punitive justice to find the exponential positive returns of  transformative justice. We are decolonizing and centering anti-racist practice and disabled justice. We are discovering the new ways of making and receiving cultural productions that are necessary.  

We can save the American Theatre. 

Shall we continue?

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