“If we were getting directing jobs, this wouldn’t be an issue. But it’s so hard for us to get a job, overall, and now we can’t even direct plays of our own milieu,” argues actor/producer Wendell Pierce who was a producer on “Radio Golf” and who starred on Broadway in “The Piano Lesson“. In addressing why the general Broadway hurdle exists, some attribute it to old-fashioned biases: “It’s racism. You hear the same argument that ‘we don’t know any black directors,’” says Pierce.
Of course, there have breakthrough exceptions to Broadway’s walls. George C. Wolfe, for example, has directed a range of work including the 2003 Tony winner for best play Take Me Out and 1996’s “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk,” for which he won the Tony for best direction of a musical.
And while many see Wilson’s work as sacred, cultural masterpieces, which must be handled deftly by a director of any ethnicity, few suggest that race should be a deciding factor when it comes to directors equipped to direct his work or that of any playwright. “The world of the arts is a world where cultural barriers should not exist,” argues Allen, who cites her production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof as an example of artistic freedom.
“The arts should not be wrapped in a ball and chain with cultural divisions, restrictions, or limitations,” she adds.
One group that must play a critical role in theater diversity going forward is the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC), the union representing nearly 2,000 theater directors and choreographers. To date, the 50 year-old organization has, unfortunately, not found it necessary to collect any racial demographic information of its members; hence, the percentage of African American members is unknown. “I can’t say right now that we are doing work in diversity, “ says Laura Penn, SSDC’s executive director.
“But I would say that we are creating a vision and some imperatives for ourselves. There’s a lot of work to do,” adds Penn who acknowledges that anecdotally the membership of the union is largely male and Caucasian. Penn sees the collecting of empirical demographic data on its membership as a critical first step in addressing the diversity issue. Penn is also optimistic their initiatives will create access points to directors of varying backgrounds.
Equal opportunity for blacks ultimately rests with the theaters and producers who have the power to stage productions and hire directors. In a largely clubby, collaborative and subjective business where relationships and word-of-mouth play a principal role in who gets hired, black directors frequently find themselves locked out of the network as demonstrated by their absence this season.
Furthermore, theater directors of every hue must compete in a field, which like other artistic careers, lacks any clearly defined career path. For theater directors—particularly for directors of color—- some see the field as the most impenetrable of the theater crafts. “Theater is extremely hard for everybody, but there are access points for the other crafts. Actors have auditions, designers have portfolios and writers have scripts they can submit. But directors only have their ideas and visions,” explains Penn.