I threw myself headfirst into Virginia’s performing arts community when I auditioned and was cast in my very first stage play, “Addams Family the Musical,” at Showtimers Community Theatre. I got a taste of being on stage and immediately
became hooked on the thrill that comes along with performing in front of a live audience. Since then I have continued to immerse myself as both a patron and a performer in the art community. I always have felt welcome, but as a black woman existing in creative spaces, I can’t help but to frequently look around and question, “Where are the other people who look like me?”
Lack of diversity in performing arts is not a new struggle, nor is it one that is specific to the Roanoke Valley or even Virginia. Each year the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) releases a report that documents employment statistics for performers on New York City stages. This is done in an effort to measure diversity within the city’s performing arts. The most recent report shows a 33 percent decline in roles filled by minority actors with 86.8 percent of all the shows produced that year written by white playwrights. This is a contrast to the former year, when New York theaters actually saw a record-breaking high in roles filled by actors of color. That I am sure was likely due to the success of shows such as “Hamilton,” and “On Your Feet,” both written by Latin American playwrights.
When a city as large and diverse as New York struggles to cast ethnic performers, it’s no wonder that representation in smaller cities and towns, particularly in Virginia, seems almost nonexistent and it raises the question – are actors of color simply not auditioning or are they being passed up for roles? And, if they are not auditioning, what can we do to encourage crowds that are more diverse? Curious for the answers to these questions, I reached out via social media to a group of local performers and directors, many of whom cited difficulty getting minority actors to audition as a challenge that Virginia theaters are facing.
I worked diligently, appealing to local actors I encountered…and made multiple Facebook posts about auditions I recently held for a multi-ethnic cast of teens and kids,” said local director Patrick Kennerly. “Over two days of auditions, I got three actors of color who attended auditions. Three.”
Actor Michael Johnson chimed in mirroring Kennerly’s thoughts. “We used to attempt to do a Black History Month show at Showtimers in February. Patrick directed one of those shows,” he says. “It went very well, but the next season it was very difficult to get the black actors needed to stage the show.”
AJ Brightman Moose, President of New River Stage in Christiansburg, shared similar thoughts.
“For an area that pulls so much diversity in population from Virginia Tech and Radford University, I’ve always been surprised how that same diversity does not cross over into local theatre,”
“I would love to do “Fences” or “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” but they sit on our wish list waiting for the right actors to appear.” How do we get those right actors to appear? Kendall Payne, artistic director of Adaire Theatre in Pulaski, seems to have cracked the code, as has actor and director, Ike Anderson of Charlottesville. Both black men are part of the performing arts scene.
Payne has received praise for creating diverse shows in the Pulaski area, in spite of the theatre’s rural location, and Anderson seems to have had a much different experience than other directors interviewed. Anderson says he “didn’t have trouble finding people of color” creating a diverse cast for last year’s production of Ragtime at Live Arts Theater. “We had more of a struggle finding and keeping white actors. This show was the product of the fight for representation on stage in Charlottesville,” he says. “This show gave us the chance to really begin healing after what was over a year of struggling to even begin doing so.” Anderson’s production of Ragtime took place in Charlottesville in the aftermath of a deadly white supremacist attack on the city. The show was well received, so well that an unscheduled encore weekend was added to accommodate patrons who were unable to obtain tickets.
“I don’t think a white director would have told the same story,” says Anderson. “I think people of color have a different experience with theatre.
“As a teenager, theater was completely new to me. In drama classes all the white kids knew every show and would make references to each other and I’d watch things go over my head simply because theater lacked a representation to my family that BET did not. No one in the hood was bumping “Les Misérables.”
It’s apparent minority actors are showing up when the shows are produced by people who look like them, are directed by people who look like them and when the shows resonate with them and their unique cultural experiences. In New York City, ethnic actors showed up in record-breaking numbers when people who looked like them wrote shows. So perhaps, if we want actors of color to show up, we must create an environment where actors of color feel they belong. And that means working just as hard to create diversity within the theater – on boards of directors, production teams, in the material itself – as we’re working to create diversity on the stage.