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American Players artists discuss how to make theater that 'represents the evolving America'

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DIVERSITY IN THEATER

Patrick Sims, deputy vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at UW-Madison, speaks on a panel about how classical theater companies can tell more diverse stories. From left are Cap Times theater critic Lindsay Christians, actor David Alan Anderson, Sims, American Players Theatre artistic director Brenda DeVita and actor Gavin Lawrence. 

American Players Theatre, the renowned Spring Green company, is entering its fifth decade. On Tuesday, the company’s first black core acting company member said he would like to set the record straight about what "classic" theater really means. 

It’s not all about “white writers and white plays and white men,” Gavin Lawrence said at a Cap Times Talk. “Classical theater started in ancient Egypt before Alexander the so-called Great took it."

At Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Madison’s south side, a panel including Lawrence and other professional theater artists and educators discussed how established theater companies like APT might tell more diverse stories. 

Cap Times theater critic Lindsay Christians, who moderated the discussion, noted at the start that “diversity is about so much more than ethnicity, skin color and cultural background,” but that the panel would focus on “stories that come out of the African American experience.”

Other talks at next month’s Cap Times Idea Fest will address other aspects of onstage diversity.

Some theater companies talk about increasing diversity and apply for grants to fund those efforts but “aren't really doing it,” Lawrence said. “Bringing in one black play or playwright or writer of color per season is not diversifying. It's tokenism."

By contrast, Lawrence said, APT is “looking to create a company of actors and theater professionals, as well as an audience, that represents the evolving America that we are all a part of.” 

In his more than 30 years as an actor, Lawrence said he's found no other theater company working toward that goal.

“That's my passion,” Lawrence said. “I am an artist who happens to be a man of color, and the things that I'm passionate about have to do with my people, have to do with my children, have to do with them seeing their images reflected back to them.”

Having the hard conversations

That passion, Lawrence said, is why he accepted APT's offer last year to become a core member. For an actor of color, that role came with extra challenges. APT artistic director Brenda DeVita said it's her responsibility to recognize what the theater is asking of its actors.

Spring Green is the kind of town where people see a teenager's car and ask his parents the next day about his whereabouts, DeVita said, so just spending six months of each year living there “is a very different commitment” for a person of color.

“That is not a small gesture of generosity,” DeVita said of Lawrence's choice. “That is a commitment to a lifestyle of being an other.”

It's not just the locale that might feel like a strange fit. Most roles in the classical company’s plays are not written for actors of color.

“The plays we do are inherently inequitable for people of color to do,” DeVita said. The job of an actor is to become someone else, she said, and actors of color face an added task as they play their roles. “It wasn't written with you in mind, so be authentic,” she joked of the challenge these actors take on.

“Color-blind casting is an illusion,” Lawrence said. “When you see me playing Hamlet onstage, you see a black actor playing Hamlet, initially.”

He criticized directors who cast actors of color in historically white roles without addressing the surrounding issues.

“If you're gonna go there, you've gotta go all the way or don't go there at all,” Lawrence said. Some theater companies resist discussing these tough questions.

“There's this mistaken belief that because it's art and theater and sensitive people who are tolerant and left-of-center that they cannot also be guilty of white privilege and racism,” Lawrence said. “They're not immune to it.”

For APT, DeVita said, such conversations are “a no-brainer,” essential to APT's long-term relevance.

“It's too late to have started this work," she said. "We should have started a long time ago, but we started now.”

Lawrence called APT's willingness to take on race issues “courageous,” and called on the country to follow suit. 

“As a nation, we have yet to willingly and openly and honestly and vulnerably have a conversation about the legacy of slavery and how free labor on the backs of our ancestors is what made this country the most powerful nation on earth," he said.

Choosing whose stories to tell

Diversifying APT also means diversifying the plays performed by the company. Currently in the APT lineup is “Fences” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning African American playwright August Wilson.

For David Alan Anderson, who plays Troy in the production, Wilson tells “the stories of my ancestors ... people who were constantly being challenged to climb mountains.”

Patrick Sims, founding director of Theatre for Cultural and Social Awareness, said it's important that wider audiences engage with the work of playwrights of color.

“You can go through lists of amazing artists, playwrights, storytellers who have captured the experience of their people, and yet those experiences don't reach the masses... the way they have the potential to,” said Sims, the deputy vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion and the Elzie Higginbottom vice provost & chief diversity officer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

When Sims was an acting instructor, he said, he had female actors practice black roles such as that of Mama in “A Raisin in the Sun,” even if white actors wouldn't be cast for such a role.

“Having that experience of mouthing those words and tapping into the human experience that informs that character's journey” can help white actors “walk a mile in our shoes,” he said.

“That's what the theater does. It enables us to understand ... and why that character or individual is doing the things they do,” Sims said. “And in engaging in that process, not only do you learn about the other individual, you also learn about yourself.”

Anderson agreed.

“We’re past the age of, ‘That's not my story so I'm not that interested in it,’” Anderson said.

Anderson said theater professionals need to knock down barriers.

“And once we knock those walls down, you're able to see something with fresh eyes and appreciate and celebrate the differences," he said. "And once that happens, we find out how much more alike we are.”

Not just ‘if you build it, they will come’

Asked what can be done to cultivate more racial diversity among theater audiences, the panelists pointed to a need for thoughtful, sustained community engagement and re-investment in arts programs in schools.

“It takes resources to get to APT. It takes resources to purchase the tickets. It takes resources to be exposed to the arts while you're in school,” Sims said, adding that it is now rare for students to be exposed to plays.

“That is the result of a political dynamic that has other ramifications,” Sims said, and one must “unpeel the whole onion” to understand the issue.

Anderson emphasized the value of building a love of theater from an early age. A person might not be an audience member at age 20, he said, “but because I was an audience member at eight, I'm gonna be an audience member at 25.”

DeVita said theater companies have a responsibility to reach out to diverse communities, which can be a special challenge for a theater “in the middle of nowhere. The ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality isn’t enough," DeVita said. “I say, ‘If you build it, you work really hard, you stay vigilant, you sacrifice and you do good work, they will come.’"

Transforming the art form will be a long process, but Lawrence said the pay-off will extend beyond any of their lifetimes.

As the father of African American children, "this is what I want to be a part of,” Lawrence said, “because I feel like I'm starting to pave the way and leave something that is more than the burden of our people and our history for my children to pick up and carry.”

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