After a Long, Starring Run, Will Racism at Last Get the Hook?

Certainly it was weird for the Stratford Festival, in Ontario, where a three-headed directorship failed almost immediately in 2008, victim of a leadership style best summed up as “the buck stops nowhere.” Still, Ijames isn’t sure disagreement is always the enemy (“it encourages deeper thinking”) or certitude a supreme value. “Theater prepandemic was very much obsessed with trying to get things perfect, and not very interested in making the industry a good place to work. Something that looks great can be rotten underneath.

“And anyway,” he continued, “what’s the virtue of the singular vision? When we think of great movements, like the civil rights movement, we may think of Martin Luther King, but the number of lay folks, women and young people who were actively involved in petitioning, marching and driving people to the polls is how the world got changed.”

Ah, but one still wants a King. I am sentimental enough to enjoy my memories of great directors and their signatures, great companies and their sweet spots. One result of these leadership shifts is that theaters will develop unfamiliar house styles, or multiple house styles, as decision-making becomes more distributed and diverse. That’s an obvious plus for those who will now get a seat at the table, and for the health of the system overall, even if it may be disorienting to those who expect, every time out, to see and love what they’ve seen and loved before. Yet how can change happen without letting go of the past?

For me, meeting new people and new worlds through plays has always been the point. In a way, the further from my experience they were, the more meaningful the exercise; to find something familiar in violent Jud Fry or reckless Walter Lee Younger or donkey-struck Titania was to triangulate my own geography by distant stars.

More recently there have been more stars to go by. Even with a 15-month hiatus, I have seen more work by Black authors on Broadway since 2019 than in the 10 years preceding it. But Broadway is fickle, and that burst of diversity will end if the plays don’t start turning a profit — which they probably won’t, if the industry doesn’t learn how to make theatergoing more inviting to diverse audiences.

In any case, the real work of serving communities often marginalized by the mainstream falls to what Ralph B. Peña calls “culturally specific” theaters. Peña is the artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater, whose mission is to develop and produce new plays by Asian American writers. In the last few years I’ve seen many excellent results of that mission, including “Vancouver,” Peña’s gorgeous puppet play about cultural displacement, and “The Chinese Lady,” by Lloyd Suh, which is now being staged around the country.

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