We See You, White American Theater
Reflecting on the Collective’s Progress, Purpose, and Potential
American theater cannot avoid its duplicitousness. The art of theater is composed of what is most natural—breath, bodies, and belief—while the business is built on the man-made—caste, capital, and colonialism. So much so, the word itself is subject to orthographic dispute: the adoption of the high-brow, British “theatre” versus the American-birthed “theater.” Who do we empower with the swapping of letters? It is this contention between power, balance, and ownership inherent to the theatre industry that drove the We See You, White American Theater (WSYWAT) collective to action.
WSYWAT is the formidable alliance of arts workers—all of whom are people of color. On June 8, 2020, WSYWAT launched a crusade against the racism and erasure pervasive in American theater. What started as a conversation between a few theater-makers turned into a coalition, and now, an industry-wide movement even as theaters across the nation remain shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization’s opening tenet states, “We acknowledge the legacy and history of justice-driven movements that came before us.” Therefore, it would be irresponsible to write about WSYWAT without remembering April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite condemnation-turned-campaign that upheaved Hollywood in 2015. Of course, there are notable differences between the movements. The major one, aside from industry, is there is no founder of WSYWAT to point to. Embracing the collaborative ethos of theater work, the organization has no leader, no spokesperson, no hero—a public fact that was only reaffirmed in my private attempt to reach out to the organization for a quote. Instead, the group identifies as a body of global majority playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, designers, administrators—the list goes on.
Rather than simply advocating for the dismantlement of hierarchy that plagues white American theater, WSYWAT is showing us how. In fact, they wrote the book on it. “This is a living document,” preamble the WSYWAT coalition’s list of demands, published one month after their official launch. The 29-page manifesto is broken down into nine main sections: cultural competency, working conditions and hiring practices, artistic and curatorial practices, transparency, compensation, accountability and boards, funding and resource demands from BIPOC theatre organizations, commercial theatre and Broadway, unions, press, and academic and professional training programs. If WSYWAT is demanding theatre’s reconstruction post-pandemic, then the list of demands is the manual. The onus is on leaders and gatekeepers of predominantly white institutions to dip into their toolboxes and get to work.
While industry movements across the globe spent their 2020 calling for change, WSYWAT was demanding action. The theater creatives who crafted this detailed document were not suggesting or proposing, but requiring and even threatening it. In this list of demands, WSYWAT asks for: land acknowledgment practices to be ingrained in the rehearsal process; design teams to be composed of more than 50 percent creatives of color; and Actors Equity Association, the labor union representing live performers and stage managers, to provide mandatory anti-racism training for its 50,000-plus members. Organizations were given a deadline of six months to acknowledge the manifesto and assure that the work being demanded of them was in progress. 21 days later on July 29, Baltimore Center Stage—a popular regional theater helmed by Latinx Artistic Director and co-founder of the Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition, Stephanie Ybarra—became the first in a public statement that read:
We hear that you have experienced erasure, harm, silencing, and exclusion by the predominantly white institutions that control much of the American theater, and we understand Baltimore Center Stage has been complicit in, and the beneficiary of, this culture of white supremacy … We acknowledge that the #WeSeeYouWAT demands outlined by BIPOC artists from across the country are born of decades steeped in centuries of racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. Eradicating these ills may seem impossible, but we will not let a failure of imagination keep us from doing our part in fulfilling our highest ideals.
Slowly and then all at once, statements were circulating on social media and flooding the email inboxes of anyone who has ever subscribed to a mailing list. Some of the oldest and largest theater arts institutions across the nation including Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Alley Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Guthrie Theater, and more responded. Even higher learning institutions and conservatories such as Sarah Lawrence College, Yale Dramatic Association, and University of North Carolina at Greensboro picked up the baton, vowing to do better in the education of upcoming generations.
While over 100 arts organizations, public relations companies, training programs, or troupes obliged, there are a select few who still have not. Most notably, The Broadway League. Originally founded in 1930, the League was formed “when Broadway theatre operators came together to promote their common interests and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with theatrical unions and guilds.” In other words, the League assumed responsibility for formalizing the commercial theater industry and bringing the blinding lights, and at that time blinding whiteness, of Broadway to the world. According to the League’s website, today their cohort has grown to over 700-plus industry members (mostly producers, venue operators, and general managers) and has expanded Broadway’s reach “to more than 30 million people in New York and more than 200 cities across the US and Canada.”
With influence this monumental, it is no wonder why the association is one of the only to be assigned a specific to-do list in the demands that includes making League entry more accessible and apolitical, providing scholarship and mentorship opportunities for budding commercial producers of color, and hiring “a permanent staff member who will focus solely on EDI issues and Equity/Diversity Training.” As of today, there has been no response, even after repeated call-outs by the WSYWAT collective and its followers on social media. In December 2020, the League did make headlines, however, with the appointing of Lauren Reid—a white woman with an impressive resume as former COO of leading theater development company, the John Gore Organization—as the newest replacement Chair. In an interview with Broadway News, Reid clarified that aside from reopening Broadway, equity, diversity, and inclusion work was a priority for her team.
What our nation is facing around those issues now has just laid bare how urgent that work is. So, we want to be more aggressive about delivering ethical opportunities for a more diverse workforce … and lend a hand wherever we can and to be more purposeful about reaching and providing access to and for more diverse audiences.
Although the demands are never mentioned or alluded to in the interview, Reid shared that the League hired two board members of color (rounding out the total to 4 out of 50), offered unconscious bias training (with an anti-racism training offer set to come), and launched that search for a permanent, staffed EDI Director. It is not shocking that the interview proved disappointing in its outlining of tangible policy change—a fact that the collective did not hesitate to draw attention to.
Ironically enough, it was WSYWAT’s adoption of this brand of “call-out culture” that turned some members of the arts community off. The list and corresponding desire for public acknowledgment came on the heels of the chaotic corporate rush to publish statements in support of Black Lives Matter which the theater industry was slow to respond to, but not completely spared of. Folks questioned if the same carelessness and performative allyship that rampaged social media after the compounded murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd would be applied by predominantly white theaters responding to WSYWAT. Once again, institutions were “showing support” without sacrificing much more than a page on their website. It was the same amount of risk—or lack thereof—that went into posting a #BlackoutTuesday black square. Industry titan Tonya Pinkins felt similarly and made it known in a damning Medium article titled “Why I am Fed Up with Performative Activism from White and Black Theater Makers.” In it, Pinkins writes:
So the Performative Activism of professed apology and righteous condemnation by White and Black theater makers respectively, while poetic and forceful, land on me as sound and fury signifying nothing … What is the action plan White and Black theater makers: a 31 page list? … Not one organization, Black or White, risked anything by writing these emails or creating these committees … We don’t need another committee, organization, group. We don’t need another set of rules. We need individuals taking action in the moment.
Pinkins is no stranger to individual risk. In 2015, she quit a Classic Stage Company adaptation of Mother Courage citing creative differences with the company’s then Artistic Director, Brian Kulick. The move was followed by a now-notorious public letter penned by Pinkins stating that her perspective as a Black woman was dismissed by Kulick and other creatives throughout the play’s development process. While her talent as an actor, director, and writer remains unimpeachable, this move reignited a label of being “difficult”—a reputation particularly damaging for Black women in the workplace—one which is still a shadow over her iconic career.
“What are you as an individual going to do the next time a producer, director, authority figure suggests or demands something from you which you find offensive, oppressive, racist, down right abusive?” If you’re going to run to the group and the rules and the plans, history has no use for you.
Enough time scrolling through the @weseeyouwat Instagram comments will show that Pinkins is not the only one to hold this opinion. There is safety in the group’s collective anonymity and humor in their colloquial call-outs, but there is also avoidance and many of these comments critique the same secrecy that WSYWAT holds dear. The group is solely composed of people of color, but how many are specifically committed to eradicating anti-Blackness and racial discrimination in their independent lives? The group is composed of theater workers, but how many of them are "established" artists actively benefiting from the systems they are trying to dismantle? While it is easier to “amplify, protect and support those who are most vulnerable” when no one is named, it is also easier to avoid accountability whenever the group is publicly challenged.
Throughout the 29 pages of demands singular pronouns are never used, only “our,” “we,” and “us.” Their third tenet reads, “This is about service over everything. Not personal agenda or individual passion. Collectivity over individualism.” However, it does not hurt that the individuals that support this collective are an impressive bunch. On June 8, 2020, a month before the specific demands were released, WSYWAT launched with a public letter addressed to “White American Theater” signed by over 300 theater veterans of color including Viola Davis, Sandra Oh, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Anika Noni Rose. Alongside this letter was a Change.org petition that, as of today, has amassed 105,000 signatures and counting. That reach is significant. Did Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o sign and share it? Yes. Did the usher at your last in-person performance sign it? Probably! The organization has accrued over 27,000 social followers and uses its platforms to post anger-inducing testimonials from artists of color trapezing elitist theater spaces, FAQs, definitions of anti-racist phrases, short biographies of trailblazing Black artists, and, most alarmingly, face cards of the homogeneous leadership teams of major arts organizations like Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center Theater.
Before and certainly since the founding of WSYWAT, there have been an endless array of conversations about the required changes white American theater needs to enact. The capitalistic model is elitist and underserving. Artistic programming needs to radically invest in new voices. Critics, the majority of whom are published are white, must learn to check their racial biases and cultural stereotypes at the door. All of which are unequivocally true, but inspire certain questions: How did we get here? What has gone so systematically wrong that a legion of artists had to self-organize and perform free labor? How did an industry repute for its liberalism and acceptance inflict so much damage on its workers of color?
Statistics from The Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s annual Visibility Report might bring us closer to the answers. This annual audit “covers employment statistics by race for actors, playwrights, composers, librettists, and directors … for all of Broadway and the 18 largest non-profit theater companies in New York City,” and found that during the 2017–18 theatrical season, 61.5 percent of roles went to white actors, a number much larger than the population percentage of white people in New York City. 79.1 percent of produced playwrights were white, nearly four times more often than their auteuring counterparts of color. 84.6 percent of directors off-Broadway were white, and 93.8 percent of directors on Broadway were white. All of this in the multicultural, theater trend-setting hub of New York City. This data gives a better sense of just how unbalanced scales were and the atmosphere that led up to the reckoning of 2020. But even when these numbers skew in favor of artists of color, it will be dangerous to rely on this alone as a measure of success. As Ralph B. Peña shares,
Counting the number of BIPOC plays and performers is a necessary metric because it tells us who’s getting jobs, but it can’t tell us about agency or whether the BIPOC artists felt safe and welcomed throughout the entire process. Tallies don’t tell us if a theatre engaged with the community being portrayed before, during, and long after the production, and it definitely doesn’t reveal the genuineness behind a theatre’s diversity programming.
In addition to being a playwright, Peña is the co-founder and current Artistic Director of Ma-Yi Theater Company—a leading venue for Asian American art and the first theater of color to respond to WSYWAT’s demands.
The truth is, although the list was published in the summer of 2020—a season that will live in infamy—these demands have been long-sought and homegrown. They have festered in the mouths and minds of theater-makers of color for decades. Broadway Advocacy Coalition was founded in 2016 and is the spearheading force behind Broadway for Black Lives Matter (#BwayforBLM). Nicole Brewer, one of the original signatories, has been refining her inclusive method of Conscientious Theatre Training for the last seven years. That aforementioned June 8 letter launching WSYWAT invoked the legacy of August Wilson’s 1996 “The Ground on Which I Stand” speech. Culturally specific theaters like Harlem’s National Black Theatre, the Twin Cities’ New Native Theatre, and Los Angeles’ East West Players have nurtured generations of talent in their communities since the 1900s.
Just as the work of artistic progressives has been done in the past, so it must continue. Although little has been publicly stated about the future of the WSYWAT collective, their movement—or should I say, ours—will be memorialized in history. It will be studied, analyzed, debated, challenged, and ridiculed, such is the nature of revolution. But as opinions about the collective’s success a year post become fodder for debate, it is essential that the collective’s message does not.
The message of We See You, White American Theater is not up for grabs nor can it be subject to misinterpretation. The most important word in the organization’s moniker is “we.” We as arts laborers, we as the global majority, we as the overlooked, overworked, and underappreciated, we as the essential, we all see you, white American theater. And we have opted to take on a revolution within ourselves which can only result in a revolution upon you. It is written that Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, a titan of the Black Arts Movement and visionary founder of Harlem’s historic National Black Theatre, often led her team of artistic liberators in a chant, “I love myself so much, that I can love you so much, that you can love you so much, that you can start loving me.” As generations of underserved arts workers—inherently, arts lovers—rise up and mobilize, white American theater ought to take Teer’s words not as a rally, but as a warning.