Editorial – Racial Diversity in London Theater Audiences

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In the heat of the Christmas season – with eight performances booked per week and five reviews due on top – I didn’t have time to respond meaningfully to Janet Suzman’s jaw-dropping statement about race in theatre. But the issues raised still need to be thrashed through. I did it on Twitter with Naima Khan (her response here); I did it on the Tube with Antonia Kemi Coker (I’d just seen her in Beauty and the Beast); but it’s time to do it in print.

First, though, you have to look at Suzman’s statement. The easy one to shoot down is this bit: that “theatre is a white invention” and is not “in the DNA” of people from ethnic minorities. This is too easy to slap down, but I’ll give it a little love tap with a few theater traditions I enjoy: Peking opera, Kabuki, and Bunraku puppetry. I realise Chinese and Japanese people are ethnic minorities in the UK, but there they are in their own countries, making theater. It’s laughable to think there is any sort of theater gene and this statement isn’t worth a deeper analysis as if the DNA comment were meant literally.

So let’s look at what she might have been talking about more deeply, because I think there are some genuine concerns that she’s raised clumsily. In context, she was being asked why more can’t be done to attract Asian audiences to the theater, and her response was as follows: “I’ve just done a South African play. My co-star is a young black man from the slums of Cape Town. Totally brilliant actor. I saw one black face in the room, at the Print Room. I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states?And they don’t bloody come. They’re not interested. It’s not in their culture, that’s why.”

I want to unpick this statement. She’s already said theater going is a culture thing, and I accept that, because I come from America, where we do NOT have a theater going culture. And look, she’s noticed that there aren’t black people in the audience, and that bothers her, and she’s thinking about it. I think this is a good thing, because I too have noticed rather an excess of white faces at the theater and thought to myself that the balance doesn’t appear to be right.

But there are problems in her conclusion, which is to give up. And I think this is because she’s not doing empirical research about what drives different groups of British people to go or not go to the theater. From her position, a play about South Africa should be intrinsically appealing to black audiences. I think she’s made a mistake. I have seen theaters brimming with black British audiences, and they have been for plays by black American playwrights (August Wilson at the Young Vic and James Baldwin at the National); about the American civil rights movement (Scottsboro Boys); and about a truly inspired black African leader (A Season in the Congo). And of course, I see them doing the panto thing with their kids (but mostly at the Hackney Empire and Theater Royal Stratford East).

I do think about why people go to the theater, because I come from a culture that isn’t playgoing the way Britain is; and I’ve noticed a lot of time it’s a lot of white faces out there and not what I’d consider a representative slice of the London population at the London theaters I attend. I don’t have demographic information about London theater goers, but I know there are some barriers to getting people to attend, most strongly around child care (keeps the middle aged people out) and cost of tickets. I suspect the cost issue is very relevant to this population, if poverty lines follow race as strongly in the UK as they do in the US; fortunately, both The Young Vic and The National have strong programs in place to mitigate this problem and make theater accessible to people of all incomes.

I’m going to propose, then, that there’s a problem of content, specifically a lack of engagement with putting on shows that appeal to non-white audiences. I don’t think it’s about racism, though: I think most theaters just don’t care because they don’t need their audiences to be any different than they are now. Did a lack of people of color keep any show in London from selling out, ever? With record high attendance levels, it’s clear that reaching out to a different audience than the one they already have isn’t something theater producers are worried about. They’ve got customers. They produce things they like. End of story.

But I think the big cities in the UK could be doing better than this. I think they could be doing research about what is interesting to the communities that don’t regularly attend them. I do believe the Young Vic and the National both have a bit of a concern with getting more racially diverse audiences in their doors: but is any theater in town doing proper (potential) audience interviews about what kind of shows will get their attention? Once you work out what they want to see, then it’s a pretty simple matter to get it written and get it on stage. I have no fear of this being “pandering” or “lowering standards:” this country produces great theater and new topics just makes it better. But I’ve got this idea, see: I want the hobby I’m passionate about to reach more people so it stays alive and vibrant. And I think there’s some really exciting stories that haven’t been told. Here’s what I’m imagining: Zora Neal Hurston’s They Eyes Were Watching God done as an opera. It’s an amazing story set in the Black American community of Florida around 1910 or so that tells about a young woman “coming into her own,” but with really big dramatic moments (like a hurricane) – not to mention some serious passion – that I think would really work as an opera. And something I like to think of when I fantasize about this happening is that some little girl will see an amazing black singer on stage and go, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” And me, I want to be there to see a fantastic novel brought to life, and to see non-white performers getting leading roles, and to, just maybe, see people coming to see a show that might not have come before, because finally it was something they were interested in.

So: theaters of Britain, the glove has been thrown down. You know it’s not a problem with DNA. You know how to do audience research and you know how to make new works happen. You’re choosing to ignore a big percentage of the UK population when you do your programming. I accuse you of not caring enough to do anything differently to change what you’re doing to pull in non-white audiences. Now go prove me wrong.

(Hyperbole aside: I care. I want things to be different. I know some theaters are trying to serve a more racially diverse audience but it’s not enough. Write me if you take up the gauntlet and tell me about how you’re going to improve the situation.)

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2 Responses to “Editorial – Racial Diversity in London Theater Audiences”

  1. Preview review – Dara – National Theater | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] my rant about the lack of cultural diversity in London theater programming, I was thrilled to pieces to see that the National Theater had picked up a play from Pakistan to […]

  2. Mini-review – Les Blancs – National Theatre | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] audience the night I went. This programming choice makes me think the National got the gist of my point about the lack of diversity in UK theater audiences: it’s about subject matter and (possibly) casting. Does this show speak to the black […]

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