Arts & Ideas

A series of reoccurring columns on theater by Sharon Eberson

Black Theatre United’s New Deal is a challenge for change.

Theater is on its way back and ready to greet it is a New Deal for racial justice.

Last summer, Black Theater United was formed by a coalition of stars including Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Vanessa Williams, Billy Porter in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. BTU’s mission is to combat systemic racism by “protect[ing] Black people, Black talent, and Black lives of all shapes and orientations in theatre and communities across the country. Our voices are united to empower our community through activism in the pursuit of justice and equality for the betterment of all humanity.”

The organization has been busy during the pandemic shutdown. The new song “Stand for Change,” with a starry video that features many of the co-founders, was just the beginning. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86d5GM_f0Wg

The tidal wave for reform got a massive push after the murder of George Floyd and a summer of protests calling for racial justice in all walks of life.

A pivotal moment in the movement with local ties occurred on June 2, 2020. Griffin Matthews, an actor-playwright who graduated from North Allegheny and Carnegie Mellon, posted a video titled “Dear Amy Cooper” to social media. Matthews called out Diane Paulus, the Tony-Award-winning Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), for retitling his autobiographical musical “Witness Uganda” as “Invisible Thread” for its production at the Second Stage without his consent or the approval of his partner Matt Gould.

Paulus immediately issued an apology, saying in part, “As a director, it has always been my passionate goal to create brave spaces for artists to flourish. In a process filled with creative differences, many rewrites, and heated discussions around a subject matter steeped in the pain of racial violence, it was my responsibility to create a space where those issues were handled with the deepest care. I could and should have done better.”

Matthews also called out “The Book of Mormon” as racist. It is worth noting that some changes will be made when “Mormon” returns to Broadway and on tour. According to Deadline, the creators have “agreed to discuss and possibly adjust elements of the show deemed racially problematic.” This occurred after “actors from the original and most recent Broadway casts signed their names to a letter asking the writers and producers to reevaluate aspects of the show.”

On the heels of Matthews’ video, the reckoning from within the American theater moved to a much broader stage with some of the biggest BIPOC names in entertainment creating Black Theatre United.

BTU recently hosted the three-month-long Commercial Theatre Summit from March to June, attended by representatives of all walks of American theater. In an article by Dan Meyer, BTU is ready to present a New Deal of reforms that “establishes industry-wide standards regarding equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging” according to Playbill.com

The reforms include short-term goals to be implemented as Broadway reopens, plus long-term reforms over the next three years.

Meyer said the proposals cover “artistic culture, policies and cultural training, pipeline initiatives, audience development, and community engagement.”

Another organization was formed around the same time. We See You White American Theater announced itself with an Instagram post:

“Dear White American Theater… Our DEMANDS are in. Go to weseeyouwat.com to download our full list of demands.”

Those demands included that theaters on its watch list create statements of intent to recognize systemic racism and make changes “to address the scope and pervasiveness of anti-Blackness and racism in the American theater.”

In Pittsburgh, many companies have already answered the challenge of the group. We See You White American Theater to create a public statement of their commitment to racial justice. You can find these on City TheatrePittsburgh CLOPittsburgh Public Theatre, and other companies’ websites.

It wasn’t long before professional theaters nationwide issued statements like the ones made by our local theaters.

The increased attention to the challenges of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) theatremakers were not the only seismic shifts that occurred while theaters were on hold due to the pandemic.

Indeed, the ouster of blockbuster producer Scott Rudin from the upcoming “The Music Man,” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, is one example of the fallout of bad behavior.

Likewise, Harvey Feinstein fell from grace due to the #MeToo movement. Actress Alyssa Milano retweeted a post: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

The response was in the millions, and a movement was born.

In theater, bias against works by women was laid out by The Count 1.0 and 2;0, exhaustive statistical analyses of who is being produced in American theater by gender, race, ethnicity, and education. Among the points made by the initial survey was that women make up most theater audiences nationwide yet lag far behind men in their works being produced.

Another more recent statistical analysis comes via the Asian American Performers Action Collection (AAPAC)’s annual report, released in October 2020.

Not as far-reaching as The Count, but still revealing, “The Visibility Report: Racial Representation on New York City Stages” details employment statistics by race for actors, playwrights, composers, librettists, and directors for the 2017-18 season, but only for the 18 largest nonprofit theater companies in New York City and on Broadway, according to American Theatre Magazine.

The report notes that 2017-18 included the first Asian-American woman playwright produced on Broadway, Young Jean Lee (“Straight White Men), and a story set entirely in the Middle East (the Tony-winning “The Band’s Visit”).

AAPAC stated, “Such examples often serve as the poster child of diversity for a particular season, encouraging a false sense of progress. But when we look at the season as a whole, larger patterns of inequities are revealed, deeply entrenched within the system: White actors continued to overrepresent by almost double their respective population size; writers and directors were almost exclusively white — nearly 80% of writers and 85.5% of directors. White supremacy has been so normalized that inequities aren’t even perceived as such.”

We have to wait and see the details of Black Theatre United’s New Deal and the effects, immediate and long-term. One thing we do know is that Broadway is signaling reform may be on the way: so far, every new play announced for 2021-2022 is written by a Black playwright. https://www.timeout.com/newyork/news/every-new-play-on-broadway-this-fall-is-by-a-black-playwright-070221


In Pittsburgh, the comeback continues

Prime Stage, which is in its 25th year of producing literary theater works, announced its new season on YouTube. The season begins with new adaptation of “Frankenstein” (Nov. 5-14, 2021), followed by “A Wrinkle in Time” (Mar. 4-13, 2022), “Arsenic and Old Lace” (May 6-15, 2022), and “The Amazing Lemonade Girl,” inspired by the life of Alexandra Flynn Scott (June 16-19, 2022).

All for one and one for all

Among the highlights this season are projects that represent a spirit of cooperation. Setting the pace this summer has been Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. PBT has shared its Open Air mobile stage with several companies at its Flagstaff Hill home and is currently planted in the home of the Steelers, Heinz Field, for Pittsburgh CLO’s Summer Under the Stars.

Other examples are City Theatre partnering with Point Park’s Pittsburgh Playhouse for the online series “Homegrown Stories” and the upcoming world-premiere immigration project “The Rivers Don’t Know.” The South Side theater also will host the new work “Untitled” from the CLO. Pittsburgh Public Theatre will develop a new play by Mark Clayton Southers of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

“Shawshank” on stage

“The Shawshank Redemption,” a play by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns, based on the Stephen King novella, is coming to the August Wilson African American Cultural Center for one night only. The Sept. 24 event includes a reception presented by The Griot Theater Group (“advocating for change through art”), based in South Oakland. Click here for details.

Pittsburgh Musical Theater in the spotlight

The West End theater celebrates its 30th season in its renovated space. This summer, it features the continuing Artist Spotlight series, with Quinn Patrick Shannon and Caroline Nicolian under the West End Canopy, 327 S Main St., on Aug. 4, and Lara Hayhurst Compton and Trey Compton on Oct. 2.

The season will start this fall with “The SpongeBob Musical” (Nov. 4-7, Byham Theater) and continues with the annual “A Lyrical Christmas Carol” (Dec. 16-19, Gargaro Theater). Next year brings two Young Artist Productions, “Big Fish (School Edition)” and “The Music Man Jr.”

These are followed by the return of “The Sound of Music” (March 10-20, 2022, Byham Theater) and a month-long run of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (April 7-May 1, 2022, Gargaro Theater).

Oh, and don’t overlook Broadway at the Overlook, a concert performance series. Click here for details, and watch for more season announcements as they happen on Pittsburgh in the Round.

Where have I seen them before

Victory Brinker, the 9-year-old opera sensation who wowed the judges on “America’s Got Talent,” is already a star in her hometown. Two years ago, she was part of the Pittsburgh Public Theater lineup for “Yinzer Yuletide: Pittsburgh Lights and Legends.” Eamonn McElfresh of Pittsburgh CAPA and Front Porch Theatricals’ “Fun Home” is now an award-winning actor. In the titular role of the Pittsburgh-based “Jack and the Treehouse,” McElfresh won awards for best child actor and best supporting actor at the New York International Film Festival.

And lastly

If you are heading out to see the CLO’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” at Heinz Field, all performances are rain or shine. If the weather is severe with lightning, the CLO will postpone the show to their rain date on Sunday. Don’t forget the Heinz Field Policy on requiring clear bags and purses.

Categories: Arts and Ideas

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