‘Dear White American Theater’: Over 300 theater artists call out white privilege in industry

‘Dear White American Theater’: Over 300 theater artists call out white privilege in industry

In 1996, August Wilson took to the McCarter Theatre Center’s stage at Princeton University to deliver “The Ground on Which I Stand” — a touchstone speech that addressed issues of race, diversity and white privilege within the theater industry.

Referencing Wilson’s work, more than 300 multi-generational theater artists from the Black, Indigenous and People of Color community (BIPOC) released a letter Monday urging presenting institutions, executive leaders, critics, casting directors, agents and more to address racism.

“You are all a part of this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy,” organizers wrote. “And this is a house that will not stand.”

In their statement, titled “Dear White American Theater,” the signatories outline ways that they have witnessed injustice, from external programming choices to internal leadership decisions. Written as a collective, the letter is signed by playwrights, choreographers, designers, directors, actors and more — including Lynn Nottage, Camille A. Brown, Viola Davis, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Ty Defoe, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Suzan-Lori Parks, Leslie Odom Jr., Sandra Oh, Billy Porter and Issa Rae, among others.

“We stand on this ground as BIPOC theatremakers, multi-generational, at varied stages in our careers, but fiercely in love with the Theatre,” organizers wrote in the statement. “Too much to continue it under abuse. We will wrap the least privileged among us in protection, and fearlessly share our many truths.”

Laid out on the website “We See You, White American Theater,” the full letter repeats the phrase “We have watched” at the top of a majority of the paragraphs and “We see you” at each statement’s conclusion — stitching the claims from past to present tense throughout the duration of the piece.

One paragraph reads: “We have watched you amplify our voices when we are heralded by the press, but refuse to defend our aesthetic when we are not, allowing our livelihoods to be destroyed by a monolithic and racist critical culture. We see you.”

Another: “We have watched you program play after play, written, directed, cast, choreographed, designed, acted, dramaturged and produced by your rosters of white theatermakers for white audiences, while relegating a token, if any, slot for a BIPOC play. We see you.”

At the end of the letter, the organizers finish the repeating phrase structure with two lines that state, “We have always seen you. And now you will see us.”

The “About” section of the website chronicles how the petition came together, citing the “civic unrest” across the country. The letter arrives amid global protests, which have erupted after the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and others.

“We all recognize that while our country is full of protests against racial injustice, we must also protest it in our own field,” organizers wrote. “We are demanding a more equitable and safe space for all BIPOC communities in our nation and inside of the American Theatre.”

In addition to the website, where the full statement can be read, organizers also created a petition on change.org, which at the time of this publication has 61,902 signatures.

Sign up for our newsletter

“I have benefitted mightily from the deep-rooted systems that make up the white American Theater,” Celia Keenan-Bolger said on a Facebook post. “There are artists who signed this letter who represent the very best of our industry. I am trying to imagine what our business would look like if everyone on this list had the opportunities I’ve had.”

On Twitter, several of the original signatories shared posts pointing to the statement.

“The American narrative is shaped by storytellers, but for too long the white theater community has negated, censored or prevented our stories from being fully told,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage wrote in a Twitter post accompanying the statement. “We must protect, support and amplify the voices of our truth tellers and change seekers.”