Though she’s overjoyed at the return of in-person theatre, one of our writers, Asia is still desperate to see further change both on and off stage. Here, she talks about the need for more people of colour at every level of a production and for them to be creating stories that aren’t just about race.
For myself and many others, the realisation of how much theatre has been missed, and therefore the simultaneous realisation of its importance to society, has been propagated by the pandemic. Theatre has always been a powerful tool: it can single-handedly examine and pass judgement upon contemporary issues; increase representation and visibility of various groups; and disseminate beliefs and ideas to its audiences. It can change minds and touch souls. Grasping theatre’s potential through its absence, however, elevates this pre-existing power and creates an exciting, limitless milieu for new productions. As theatres gradually reopen and more people flock to the stage with renewed vigour, there is real potential to create and stage productions which seek to make a difference and become a force for positive change.
Theatre which excites me, theatre which I believe is vital, is that which amplifies the voices of the marginalised and seeks to increase and support representation of them. As a mixed-race woman, I have rarely been able to see myself onscreen, onstage, or on a page, and this lack of representation has followed me my entire life. It became such a normal way of living that I was not even wholly aware of it… it was more of an uncomfortable sensation I could just about feel but never shake.
I first discovered theatre during my undergraduate degree and throughout those three years, this quickly blossomed into the passionate relationship I now have with it. However, as I became more aware of my own identity I also began to critically assess my experiences. Whilst filled with joy and excitement, it also dawned on me that most of them did not feel relatable or applicable to my own situation, something that I believe is often taken for granted by people who aren’t of colour.
In the wake of the pandemic, theatres have an opportunity to revitalise and reimagine the way that they operate, the statements they wish to make, and the movements they wish to stand by. There has been a lot of talk over the past year about people and industries ‘educating themselves’, ‘learning’, and ‘questioning’. This is of course extremely important, and a vital first step towards being anti-racist, but what is even more important is that this new knowledge is followed up by tangible, pragmatic steps to support those who identify as BIPOC. Theatres can put on plays that prioritise and support marginalised voices, those which have been unheard for so long.
But it’s not just about what is seen onstage. A favourite saying of mine goes: “no stories about us without us”. Theatre has a chance to support this by employing BIPOC at every level of production. Not just onstage but backstage, within direction and within writing. This helps to create full, rich, realistic characters. Not just sidekicks or best-friends, and definitely not stereotypes.
A production which I am extraordinarily excited to see and which I believe will uphold these values, is the Bridge Theatre’s White Noise. It promises to take an “unflinching look at race in the 21st century from both a black and white perspective.” Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, who was the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002, this play will showcase the talent of BIPOC writers and actors, and will provide important discourse on race (discourse even more needed now, following the events of 2020 into this year). Behind the scenes, Natalie Pryce is working on costume design, with Donato Wharton on sound. Whilst it could be argued that more can be done backstage to support BIPOC representation, I believe that Pryce and Wharton’s fantastic contributions alongside the theme of Parks’ play will come together and create a powerful show that can inform, uplift, and engender solidarity. Importantly, having BIPOC at every level of production does not mean that I want to see every role filled by those who identify and taken away from others who do not; rather, it is about including voices alongside the ones we already have, which serves to begin to correct lifetimes of silence.
Now, I am as much of an escapist as the next person. I love going to the theatre and being able to journey into another world, forgetting about often unpleasant realities. But shows that take up contemporary issues surrounding race do not need to lose this aspect. Productions aren’t binary – they don’t have to be totally steeped in the real or abstract. Whilst White Noise seems to take a direct approach to race, I would love to see other productions reacting to contemporary issues in a more implicit, subversive way, which makes the audience subconsciously question the status quo whilst also allowing them to escape. Perhaps a show such as this could prioritise BIPOC onstage and offstage representation whilst keeping the main discourse of the plot to something other than race. This would also allow the labour and burden of speaking about race, often heaped upon BIPOC, to be lessened. Or, perhaps a play actively discussing race could be based in another reality, a dream-world, or a fantasy realm, through which we could draw parallels to our own.
As I argue for all the above, I want to make something clear. My stance is categorically not an eradication of the white voice, which is and always will be valued. However, my stance is about levelling the playing field. The underrepresentation of BIPOC voices and bodies throughout history can only begin to be corrected if we take active steps to amplify them, support them, and ensure they are heard. Such an addition to the industry would only serve to enrich and make it even more accessible and appealing to a diverse audience.
And so, whilst I am overjoyed at the return of in-person theatre, and absolutely cannot wait to get back out there and see hundreds and hundreds of shows, I will be doing so with scrutiny. I will be looking to see how theatres are making a change, what they are prioritising, and whether they really are committed to amplifying BIPOC creatives and changing the way that we are represented both onstage and offstage. From what I have seen so far, I am hopeful.