Exactly a week prior to President Barack Obama accepting the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, Mitt Romney had done the same for the Republican Party. I watched both the Democratic and Republican conventions. But something that I saw at the Republican convention was quite disturbing and haunting; something that has become the perfect metaphor for the racial dynamic in America today. What was intriguing was that this is something that we see almost everyday of our lives, but do not recognize it’s political meaning: an empty chair.
Last week, the Republicans gathered in Tampa to present their case to America. While I have qualms with their vision of America, this is not meant to be a political blog post. Instead, I would like to focus on the performance of Oscar-winning director and actor Clint Eastwood who ended up being the mystery guest at the Republican convention. Eastwood is someone that I admire as a director. He has made beautiful movies and he has also presented a body of work that questions the idea of traditional Americana and American figures. He has accomplished so much in American cinema and has a definitive directing style.
And then he appeared in Tampa. I was not like so many surprised at Eastwood’s political leanings, although they have been traditionally hard to pin down. I could see where Eastwood would be a break and wonderful warm up act for Mitt Romney’s speech. Suddenly all those who had no interest in watching the convention would flock to watch what the Hollywood icon would say. However, this suddenly took a turn for the worse. Mr. Eastwood announced that he was going to interview our President and ask the President why he had broken all of the glorious promises that he made four years ago. The President, our first Black President, was not there to answer any of the said questions that Mr. Eastwood would ask or any of the hilarious accusations that Mr. Eastwood wielded toward the President (Mr. Eastwood commented that he didn’t think that attorneys should be President, not knowing that Romney has a law degree from Harvard). The President was simply represented by an empty chair.
Eastwood continued to ramble and badly improvise a conversation with the President. He was the delightful entertainment of the Republican Convention which political commentator Alex Castellanos of CNN stated, “He (Eastwood) did something that had never been done. He got people to laugh at Barack Obama.” This is mostly true in the eyes of Republicans. Eastwood had some interesting one-liners. However, people could not laugh at Barack Obama because President Obama was not there. He was not there to lend his voice or even his body. Our first Black President was in that moment rendered completely invisible.
This is problematic on a variety of levels. There are many ways in which the office of the President was disrespected. But allow me to turn away from politics and use this in a much larger context and apply this to American theater, which also has an empty chair of its own.
American theater has come to face a slow and growing reality: that diversity is the only way that our field can survive. There are two demographics that American theaters have had problems attracting: a younger crowd and a diverse, multicultural crowd. The problem of diversity has plagued theaters big and small. There are many in the field that are willing to have the conversation around diversifying theaters with both their staffs and their audiences. However, there is a bleak picture of diversity in theaters. Currently in the field, there is not a person of color who serves as a Managing or Executive Director of a major regional or LORT theater and there are very few who are Artistic Directors. There are few theaters that have persons of color in senior staff positions. Theaters as a whole hardly have people of color who hold full-time positions. Where I currently work, I am one of 5 people of color on the administrative staff. Production staffs have an even larger problem with diversity as theaters come up short with the number of people of color who work as full-time or full-time seasonal staff. This is not to say that progress has not been made. Clearly many of my colleagues who work in theaters across the country are where they are for a reason.
But the above description of the lack of people of color in leadership and overall staff positions shows the danger of the empty chair. In many theaters there are empty chairs that are lacking people of color and younger people that theaters so desperately want to reach out to. As conversations around events that surround the theater or shows that will be produced in the season, the chairs that could occupy people of color remain empty. Despite the efforts to reach this demographic and while theaters consider diverse work in their season, there are many questions that artistic staffs discuss about plays by people of color who are not given the space or the chair to answer. I am sure that we are all familiar with these questions:
1. Who is going to come see that?
2. Is that going to sell?
3. Aren’t we excluding people by doing a show about a specific culture?
4. Why does everything have to be about race?
5. Will they come to theater?
The danger of these questions is that in an administrative sphere where there are hardly people of color to participate in the question asking, the questions also are not answered or confronted to people of color. Instead, the questions about minority plays fall on deaf ears. The person of color who could respond to the question is not able to because the chair is empty. What Eastwood demonstrated in his tirade about the President becomes a perfect metaphor about the problem that American theater faces: the chairs are not being filled. Instead, artistic leaders ask questions to invisible people of color about plays simply because they are not there. Unless that staff member is an ally of color, the chair remains empty. The larger problem is that in this country race is treated as something that no one should talk about, acknowledge, or address and when it does people of color are not there to speak or answer questions. The converse can also happen when people of color want to talk about race in theater; there are hardly any white people to fill the seats to talk with other people of color about race. But the danger of the invisibility of people of color is the silence that increasingly fills a room that wants answers.
So what is the answer to the empty chair? How do we fill the empty chair? How do we make the invisible become visible? Here are a few ways that I have observed or heard of:
1. When hiring a position, do not end the search until a person who identifies as a person of color applies.
It can be easy when you are looking for a position to overlook this simple gesture. But it is important. I have heard of this from Oregon Shakespeare and have heard it works wonders. Don’t end the search until a person of color applies that has clear qualifications for the position.
This might sound simple, but if there are questions about plays that involve race it is ok to ask a person of color who works in the theater or somewhere else. Ask them to read the play you are considering. Even if they are not an “artistic” person this does not stop them from having an opinion. Ask them if that would speak to their community or another community. Ask them if it is good.
3. Go to the community
Find a way to reach out to the communities about plays or issues that are facing people of color. These can be communal forums that are held by the theater. Invite people from everywhere to come and listen to the stories that they are interested in. Invite them into the theater for a conversation that happens before seeing the play and not just when the season is announced and you have to put it in front of their faces. Involve them in the process and allow them to understand what it takes to make a good and marketable season.
4. Have the hard conversation
I have hardly seen a theater that will publicly admit their faults. Sometimes, simply admitting and acknowledging the institutional racism that exists is what starts the breakdown of barriers. The first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one. Once you do, you can take the steps to work with people to help solve that problem.
There are many other solutions that can be discussed, but these are a few that I would offer that I have heard and/or seen work. The empty chair in American theater is in almost every American theater. We see it ourselves and wonder, “Why is no one sitting in that chair”? The challenge now is to fill those empty chairs with bodies that will use their voice and expertise to help. If theaters don’t realize this, they could end up looking like Clint Eastwood. Any theater that is willing to challenge the notion of the empty chair I say this to: Go ahead. Make my day.
Solly Two Kings