MARK ANTONY ROSSI
THE STRUGGLE FOR MINORITY CHARACTERIZATION IN MODERN AMERICAN THEATRE
When I wrote the play "Cross" which dealt with two young hispanics who allow their bitter experiences with racism to interfere with a belief in God--I ran into a hard reality: plays containing minority characters face an uphill battle to be produced since most theatre companies do not have minority actors in their troupe.
That difficult fact can have (and sometimes does) a devastating censoring effect on plays written with minority characters. Does the playwright invest a great amount of time writing such characters knowing full well that it may be years to find a theatre capable of producing the work? Or does the writer take the chance knowing the odds?
"Cross" from creation to production took three and one half years to see a stage. It was rejected numerous times, mostly due to lack of minority actors to play the three minority roles needed. In all cases, theatres also did not have actors above the age of thirty in their troupe. Imagine the difficulty of finding a theatre that employed a black woman over the age of forty to play the role of God in my work!
Lurking in the mix of rejection reasons can be found unspoken feeling revolving around either naked racial prejudice or a form of paternalization suggesting "minority" characters are only warranted when sorting out racial problems or civil rights matters. In such situations people of colour are regarded as "issues" rather than human beings.
The material itself is often considered "issue-oriented" by the mere presence of minorities. In other cases the dramatics of racial dialogue or conflict suddenly becomes a convenient excuse to label a script "didactic," meaning intended for instruction or sermonizing. The problem remains so acute that any script these days may be labeled "didactic" because the term is misapplied by those unwilling to confront uncomfortable subject matter.
The dodging of racial subject matter might be readily expected coming from the white community, unfortunately it does not stop there. A wave of "Cosbyization" has taken place in many theatres owned and operated by blacks, hispanics and asians. In such theatres the urban-view and the reality-based view are sacrificed for a middle-class minority who problems in life strangely reflect that of other whites. A dash of race conflict and race pride is usually thrown in for good measure. But sadly, these productions lack the true grit and reality necessary to sustain a three-dimensional racial identity.
A "Dances With Wolves" mentality has gripped too many of these culture-fixed theatres and it promises to do grave damage to portraying minority characters as human beings susceptible to sin and temptation like any other person. When every oppressed person is seen as saintly and every unoppressed person cast down as a devil, the dramatic soul is shackled. It is unallowed to live free and make mistakes. It can only hit home runs and never strike out. This "good-guy/bad-guy" routine might be laughable when reviewing the hordes of terrible westerns filmed in the 1950's, but as a construct for latter 20th century society and theatre, it becomes a hindrance to honest minority characterization and an indictment against blind tribalism and ugly myth-making.
The obstacles to minority players in stage productions continue even after a suitable theatre is located. Market forces usually reign supreme. Minority actors, like any other actors, make more money in commercials or small parts in film than theatre work. Thus it is not uncommon for actors to suddenly leave rehearsals never to be seen again. This fact of theatre life has happened to me a number of instances during the pre-production of both Off-Broadway plays "Cross" and "Thief in the Night."
The difference in minority actor departures is not as simple as grabbing another player from the acting company. The older black woman in "Cross" was irreplaceable. If for some reason she had left, that play could not be produced. The same goes for the older black man in "Thief in the Night." A unique set of circumstances making final production that much special and burdensome.
Roadblocks still remain beyond a successful production of a play with minority characters. If the playwright entertains the notion of a second production at another theatre, he must again seek out a place with all the right elements to reproduce it. And he must again hope the cast remains intact. On the world scene, with the exception of England and Canada, chances are he may never seen a staging of his work in foreign countries that do not have black, hispanic or asian communities.
The playwright need not be a member of a minority group or a raving liberal to realize these limitations constitute a raw deal. If the playwright were to solely concentrate his efforts on writing plays about minorities, his options and future are nearly certain to be less fruitful than his peers who strictly stock their plays with white characters.
No doubt remains that one solution to this dilemma lies in a concerted effort to heighten public awareness about the disparity and recruit more minority actors and writers--with a serious emphasis on writing and theatre work. Without greater participation from within the minority community the hardships playwrights face when delving into minority characterization will only continue and minority characters like their true-life counterparts will be rendered second class treatment in a society supposedly founded on equality for all people.