New theater coalition wants end to racial, ethnic stereotypes

Scottsboro Boys
While "The Scottsboro Boys" featured a number of black actors on stage, it was created and directed by a white production team, and some moments upset black audience members.
Courtesy Guthrie Theater

Five Twin Cities theaters of color are forming a coalition to ensure that their communities are respected on stage.

By joining forces, Penumbra Theatre, Mu Performing Arts, New Native Theater, Teatro del Pueblo and Pangea, aim to broaden cultural perspectives in the local theater scene.

The move comes as theaters nationwide are struggling to adjust to changing demographics.

It's important for theaters to consider the impact of their productions on the whole community, said Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of Penumbra Theatre, which specializes in staging stories on the African-American experience.

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"There's a difference between black theater, and plays with black people in them," Bellamy said. "One has a social justice imperative that deals directly with the community. The other uses those people -- or representatives of that community -- in ways that are not necessarily beneficial to that community."

Penumbra Theatre has a close working relationship with the Guthrie Theater, which regularly presents Penumbra productions on its stages. But a few years ago the Guthrie hosted a pre-Broadway run of the musical "The Scottsboro Boys" in which a young black man was depicted tap dancing while being electrocuted. The show's playwright, composer, lyricist and director all were white.

Bellamy said if Penumbra Theatre had been informed, it would have urged the Guthrie to think about how black people in the audience would be affected.

"It's really important that people of color are consulted about the ways in which our cultures are being represented on American stages," she said. "The stakes are too high right now. Any little bit of misrepresentation or mis-characterization of who we are has so much leverage in this very vitriolic impassioned environment where we're just grappling with our national history, and we're doing so quite poorly."

Bellamy points to the increased racial tensions nationwide since the election of President Barack Obama.

The changing population in the Twin Cities also signals a need for theaters to better connect with communities of color.

According to the state demographer's office, in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, people of color make up about 25 percent of the population. By 2025, that segment likely will grow to 30 percent.

But the increase in diversity doesn't necessarily translate to an equal increase in representation on stage.

When stories about a culture are only told occasionally, it's important those stories are accurate and respectful, not trafficking in stereotypes, said Randy Reyes, Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts, a theater specializes in stories by and about Asian Americans.

Ordway Center's production of Miss Saigon
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts' production of Miss Saigon angered many Twin Cities Asian-Americans for its portrayal of Vietnamese men and women.
Courtesy of the Ordway

Last fall the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts co-produced "Miss Saigon," a popular 1989 musical about the Vietnam era that depicts Asian-American men as conniving and angry and Asian-American women as either prostitutes or exotic virgins. The production drew an extensive local protest.

"I see the negative effects on my community and on the community at large," Reyes said. "It's painful for everyone. It breaks my heart that the very thing that should be the catalyst for conversation and change becomes the issue. That doesn't have to do with the art so much as the people making the decisions around the art."

Reyes said the Twin Cities theater community needs to help Minnesotans to frankly discuss race, rather than simply react to difficult situations as they arise.

But a new coalition of theaters of color might not have much of an effect on an organization like the Ordway. President and CEO Patricia Mitchell said the Ordway regularly presents diverse companies in its World Music and Dance series, but when it comes to theater, she's restricted almost entirely to what Broadway touring productions are available.

"Just look at the ad page in the New York Times -- that is -- in a year from now," she said. "Some of that we will have to choose from. In terms of influencing what "makes it" to Broadway, which is what makes it to the touring circuit, frankly we have very little influence."

Even when it co-produces a show, Mitchell said, that often translates to financial support, not artistic input.

However, the Ordway may have a financial incentive to re-evaluate its theater season.

Funding priorities of foundations across the country are changing in recognition of increasing diversity, said Vicki Benson, arts program director for the McKnight Foundation.

Benson said foundations are increasingly attracted to organizations who view diversity as an asset, than they are by those who view diversity as something that needs to be "managed."

"I think that time will tell whether or not the organizations remain relevant or not, and in a community that is changing, being relevant means listening to the entire community, and responding -- unless you don't care about being relevant," she said.

Remaining relevant will keep Twin Cities arts organizations -- large and small -- strong in the future, Benson said.

Bellamy, the co-artistic director of Penumbra Theatre, hopes that the new coalition will help facilitate a necessary and difficult conversation about race.

"I think people are scared to be collaborative, scared to let other people in and I think we need to do whatever we can to change that for the future," she said. "We have to talk to each other."