Towards Accessibility: A Very Brief History of Racism and Elitism in the American Theater

For a global, ancient, community-based art form with potentially nil overhead costs, theater sure has a snooty rep. The art of drama began thousands, perhaps millions, of years ago, probably right around the first cave paintings and the first cave-people humming a jaunty tune. This art is old. And that begs the question; what even constitutes the true moment of theatre’s conception – the first narrative ever memorized and performed? Or earlier still, perhaps, with the first performative act consumed by a captive audience?

More than likely, the evolution of theater arts began in Africa a couple million years ago with the appearance of the earliest known Homo Erectus. I just know human beings didn’t go more than a couple generations without realizing how fun it is to watch worlds unfold before your eyes; to observe the small miracle that is the human body in motion.

But, the Western canon abides (at least it gave us the Dude, amen) and white guys will tell you they invented anything. So, the formal practice and study of theatre begins in Ancient Greece, and the practice evolves into what we know as modern drama. Throughout the ages, dramatic practices have mirrored cultural hierarchy and bias. In many classical traditions, including Shakespearean and Ancient Greek theatre, men played all onstage roles, even when the character in question was written female. During the United States’ despicable period of ‘legally’ holding African(American) people hostage in slavery, and for many years after slavery’s abolition, Black characters were portrayed by white actors in blackface.

Going beyond the proscenium arch and snaking through the dimly lit corridors of arts production, we can find an even more deeply entrenched history of institutional bias. The price of Broadway tickets is truly outrageous, costing the un-savvy audience member more for a night at the theatre than a ticket to Adele’s upcoming tour or a one-way ticket to Florida (looked those tix up more than once last winter am I right?). Keeping in line with the audience they’re looking to attract, the Fall 2015 Broadway season included no new plays by women or non-white playwrights.

So of course, when I read Dominique Morisseau’s recent account of her experience with micro aggressions and unchecked white privilege in the theatre, I was moved but unsurprised. Theatre, especially professional theatre, is fraught with aggressive displays of identity politics offstage and on, and white privilege imbues white theatergoers and producers with the false notion that their particular identity expression reigns supreme.

For example, frequent theatergoers working from an elitist framework place a premium on ’theatre etiquette,’ like Ms. Morisseau’s foil, ‘Jane’. This, however, prevents audience members from engaging with the work at their discretion. While some prefer to sit in silence at the theater, others will interact with the work as their tradition and body move them; laughing joyously, crying openly, agreeing audibly. Both paths are valid, but as Ms. Morisseau notes in her article, prejudice and a blind adherence to traditional values incite some theatergoers (typically white, typically wealthy) to chastise others’ perceived lack of propriety.

The problem is not simple, nor easy to address. Frequent theatergoers tend to be white, wealthy, and more conservative in behavior and ideology because tickets are so damn expensive. Executives want to sell tickets, so they market their product to their audience, hence why the material produced by ‘important’ theaters tends to be so damn white. So where is the weak link in this chain of inaccessibility?

At the end of her piece, Dominique Morisseau proposes best practices towards defeating theatre’s culture of elitism and supremacy: “Institutional leaders have to be the ones to set the tone for this kind of environment. We need to say it with our plays. With our programming. With the overall culture we set in the theatre.” The possibilities are endless; we simply have to constantly ask ourselves the question: “What is necessary to make this experience accessible, relevant, and moving to the greatest amount of people?”

For a start, we need more women, people of color, queer and trans folks, elderly people, and immigrants telling their stories; more of us handling the money and setting the prices. We need more roles written for brown bodies, disabled bodies, fat bodies, gender non-conforming bodies. We need more audience members ready to plant their butt in a chair and get hip to the radical power of unprejudiced love, and the moving (sometimes literally) experience of surrounding your body with theatre.

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