Why people of color feel invisible at the Guthrie

Kim Hines
Kim Hines: Marketing 101 says that you don't ever want to insult your customer.
Submitted photo

Kim Hines, Minneapolis, is an actor, playwright and director, as well as a coach for artists.

After the Guthrie announced its 2012-2013 season the other morning, I logged onto Facebook and found that a theater friend had posted about her disgust and surprise. Others joined in. Where were the female directors? The female playwrights? Any people of color?

Many were surprised, shocked and in disbelief. I don't know why. The underrepresentation of women and people of color among artists has almost been a Guthrie tradition. I know that among some people, it might be considered progress to hire one person of color in a cast of 10, or to have one female director or playwright at some point during the season. But it isn't progress, not really. Not in 2012.

The Guthrie is America's largest regional theater company. For ages, it has been considered a leader in theater, both locally and nationally. I thought there was some hope in the '90s, when we started to see the Guthrie's artistic palette expand. I know because I was a part of it, as an actor. Not only were there more actors of color on stage, but there were more directors and playwrights of color. That these projects were not Eurocentric did not mean they had second-class status. They were slated for the main stage.

That sort of expansion stopped and the plans to build a new Guthrie took the front burner. There were meetings with local theaters and artists. There was a lot of talk about the new space ushering in a new era. The Guthrie was going to do more to include local actors, playwrights, directors, designers. It was also going to do more collaborative projects with local theaters. It was going to be inclusive in a way that it had never been.

I've been disappointed with the seasons at the Guthrie ever since. I was disappointed before, but that predated the big vision articulated at those meetings.

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Now, when the Guthrie uses females and artists of color, it uses the same ones over and over. This too, is not progressive. It's not a vision. It's predictable, selective, safe and lazy. This is the Twin Cities. We have a plethora of theater artists whose work is more reflective of this multicultural nation.

I used to collect black memorabilia. Such artifacts bring you in direct contact with American history. Looking at the advertisements that white corporate America used to hawk its products, you see how people of color (and many times women) were used in a thoroughly derogatory manner. Marketing 101 says that you don't ever want to insult your customer. Considering all of those outlandish insulting images of people of color, it is clear that corporate America never saw us as consumers of its products. That gave it permission to insult us.

The Guthrie is not so different from corporate America. It feels free to insult as, as it did with its productions of "The Scottsboro Boys" and "Caroline, or Change," both written by white males. But more often, the Guthrie and other theaters in town don't see us at all. We're just plain invisible, because they don't see us as audience members filling their seats. It seems funny, because females are the largest demographic of the theatergoing population. Why wouldn't you want to capitalize on that? And we have a large black population that is used to going to theaters, museums and concerts. Why is the Guthrie squandering opportunities to build a bigger audience base?

We may be tempted to think of this as a progressive time, but the headlines make clear daily that we are still fighting the battles of racism and sexism. Art reflects back to us what is going on in our world. The choices at the Big G are no different. By giving us a season like the one it has announced for 2012-2013, the Guthrie is confirming that it is still a white boys' club. It and many other theaters, locally and across the country, are run by and for white men, producing plays of interest to white men, hiring more actors who are white men. That's the way it is, and has been for a very long time.