With the COVID virus so pervasive in Palm Beach County, surviving the shutdown dictated by the pandemic is foremost on the minds of area theaters. But the next priority, artistic directors say, is putting an added emphasis on diversity – in their programming and casting.
Most theaters think they have done a pretty good job at diversity, but agree there is still room for improvement. As Florida Atlantic University’s Matt Stabile puts it, “I’m proud of our work, but there’s a lot more for us to be doing. We’ve made mistakes in the past, I think, in terms of what we chose to program and what we didn’t.”
Still, he can point to Motherland, When She Had Wings and The Glass Piano as examples of productions that featured performers of color, even though the playwrights did not specify racial characters.
The same goes for Palm Beach Dramaworks, which recently gave Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond a new look by making the central aged married couple bi-racial.
“I’m not trying to be color-blind here,” notes PBD’s producing artistic director Bill Hayes. “There’s nothing in the play that making it a mixed marriage won’t work. I wanted to say, ‘This is a play about family and love and the complications that go along with them,’” a theme that he felt was relevant regardless of race. “And it will demonstrate that we have more in common than differences. Still, I called the playwright, because I wanted his blessing.”
Diversity casting may be easier in new works or in the classics, but The Wick Theatre is proud of its efforts in mainstream musicals. “We are so color-blind here,” says executive managing producer Marilynn Wick. “We meet great people and if they’re talented, they get cast. If you’re talented, no matter what color you are – you can be purple – you’ll be on my stage. When we did ‘Evita,’ we had like six cast members that were African-American in that show alone.”
Although the production had its difficulties, Wick is also proud of having cast Leslie Uggams in Mame, which she believes is the first time a black performer ever played that title role. And when you factor in gender among the ways a production can be diverse, she also makes a point of mentioning another first her theater had with a Jerry Herman show – Lee Roy Reams as the meddlesome matchmaker in Hello, Dolly!
Across town in Boca Raton, intimate Primal Forces feels that it is naturally drawn to plays with built-in diversity. “I like to do plays about how baby boomers have lost their ideals,” says artistic director Keith Garsson.
“Y’know, the folks from the ’60s and ’70s, where are they now? Well, if that’s what I like to do, a huge percentage of those plays are racially themed. Genie (Croft, Primal’s resident director) and I realized that we don’t think about it, because we just naturally gravitate to these themes anyway.”
And even if such a play did not originally have a diverse cast, it probably will at Primal Forces. Consider Lanford Wilson’s post-Vietnam drama, Redwood Curtain. “The part of the disillusioned war vet was originally played by Jeff Daniels and we cast (African-American) Ethan Henry,” says Garsson. “That gave it a whole different spin.”
Still, while these artistic directors agree that diversity productions are relatively rare in the area, they say the problem is not a lack of worthy material.
“It’s not the lack of plays. We don’t have much of a diversified community of artists, particularly in Palm Beach,” answers Hayes. “Even when I made the decision to do (August Wilson’s) ‘Fences’ because I thought it was an important play to do right now, I had to do a national search to be able to cast the show. And that’s the kind of effort you need to put into it. And not make excuses. You have to commit to the work and do what it takes to cast it.”
Dramaworks has been producing race-themed plays like Master Harold… and the Boys and A Raisin in the Sun since 2012, which Hayes concedes is coming late to the party.
“A number of years ago, I realized that everything I was putting onstage was by an old white male. That was not intentional,” Hayes insists. “It’s not that there aren’t great plays written by women, but I was more focused on the play and the theme rather than all the other things that as an artistic director I should have been focused on. I should have been focused on diversity long ago.”
Stabile, whose Theatre Lab produces new and nearly-new plays, says there are plenty of scripts dealing in racial themes. The challenge comes for theaters that stick to “the classical American canon.”
“But the majority of productions that we see around town are based on titles that we think are going to draw an audience. It probably gets assumed that an audience will be resistant to this kind of (race-based) material. I think that sometimes is a discredit to our audience, not having enough faith in them.
“I think there’s a problematic equation that people tend to do, that a play about this kind of stuff is a heavy play, something that’s going to be uncomfortable. I don’t always think that’s true,” says Stabile. “We did a play at our last play festival of Jahna Ferron-Smith’s brilliant ‘Woods,’ a hilarious comedy about African-Americans’ access to national parks. It works incredibly well, because you spend 95 minutes laughing or being uncomfortable, but it’s a humorous uncomfortable.”
When Primal Forces was producing at Delray Beach’s Arts Garage, diversity programming was a requirement of several grants that the umbrella organization received. Nevertheless, having that mandate was hardly a hardship. “The Bessie Smith show (which starred area favorite Avery Sommers) could probably still be running,” Garsson says of the show’s ticket demand. “So I’m kind of confused as to why more theaters don’t embrace black history, because it’s a sure-fire seller. Why? Because we often can’t cast it.”
Stabile believes he has an obligation to find the actors he needs for a production. “As to your question of whether the actors are out there, sometimes you have to go on a little bit more intense of a search than just putting out a casting call,” he says. “What I’ve seen happen with actors of color, they tend to work at one or two theaters and that’s where they feel safe and respected and valued and those are the only places they go. They don’t audition at other theaters because they figure, ‘Oh, I’m not going to get cast anyway.’ So we have to encourage them to come out to theaters they are not familiar with, but the talent exists here.”
Most artistic directors agree that their traditional — as in “white” — theatergoers will attend plays with African-American themes. “Absolutely, positively,” says Hayes. “We have the best audience. They’re mostly liberals. They’re very passionate about the things we stand for as an organization, for the things that we are clearly messaging. They care about society and doing the right thing and standing up for the right causes.”
Theatre Lab’s Stabile points to the company’s production of Motherland – a multi-cultural version of Mother Courage – as one of the best-selling shows of his first season as artistic director. Still, he emphasizes the importance of “getting our existing audience to understand that this was a show for them too. You never want to have a show where it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the show they’re doing to reach out to an audience of color. That means we don’t have to go to this one.’”
More of a challenge can be attracting theatergoers of color to plays that are not specifically about racial themes. Once they feel comfortable attending a play with African-American characters, Hayes believes that will show up for the rest of the programming. “I think so, once they realize we’re not just doing it as a one-time deal,” he says.
The Wick, however, says it has been unsuccessful at drawing a black audience. “I’ve had a lot of black entertainers in one-off evenings and it always is amazing to me that I never get any black audience,” says executive managing producer Wick. “I advertise in all the right places. I don’t understand it.”
The future remains cloudy as to when area theaters will be able to reopen, but when they do, most expect to double down on productions of diversity. Primal Forces has on its season schedule a Civil War play, Ben Butler, about “an escaped slave who lands at a Northern fort, seeking asylum.”
Palm Beach Dramaworks plans to produce two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, a play of undergarments and emotions in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. As Hayes says of Nottage, “I think she’s one of the great contemporary playwrights.”
Fresh off a reading at its New Play Festival, Theatre Lab’s Stabile is eager to produce Andrew Rosendorf and Satya Chavez’s Refuge, a bilingual, multi-cultural drama of life at the U.S.-Mexico border. To attract a diverse audience, he plans on “connecting with outside organizations, so that we can bring in audiences who haven’t, until now, known about us or felt welcome here.”
And The Wick expects to produce Smokey Joe’s Café, a review of pop songs from the ’50s and ’60s by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, tailored to a diverse cast.
Dramaworks’ Hayes sums up the generally held attitude towards diversity when he says, “I think it’s my job as artistic director to find more opportunities for different ethnic groups, different age groups and that’s something I’ve vowed to work harder on once we reopen.”