Theater Diversity: Stories From the Trenches
On September 13, the L.A. Theater Network is holding its (almost) monthly meeting, this one dedicated to a discussion on diversity at Bootleg, 2220 Beverly Blvd., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. – i.e. what can be done to improve ethnic and gender diversity in what’s largely been a white man’s vocation. Then on November 23, at 7:30 p.m., Stage Raw is hosting the third of three forums on arts coverage – the November 23 entry (at the 24th Street Theater, 1117 W. 24th Street) will be focused on issues surrounding diversity in arts coverage.
The cold white fact is that, for the most part, theater practitioners and theater audiences in L.A. and the U.S. are mostly Caucasian, and this chastening reality doesn’t reflect either the look or most people’s backgrounds in, say, our own highly segregated yet multi-racial city – as well as points beyond.
I have no intention here of getting into how that happened – let’s save that for the symposia — and the need for some kind of remedy should be too obvious to argue. What I have to offer are two diversity theater stories that cut to the sometimes wistful, sometimes farcical sensitivities of ethnic privileges and burdens.
Wouldn’t it be sweet if the discussion could culminate in the righteous labors of local theater companies such as Cornerstone Theatre Company, L.A. Poverty Department, Playwrights Arena and Independent Shakespeare Company — troupes that show a rainbow of skin tones on their stages and in their audiences.
But their destination is far from the end of the rainbow. The world is a murky, bigoted place, and who among us doesn’t carry at least a shard of prejudice beneath even the most enlightened façade?
The first story is just an anecdote, told to me by a local playwright who related a discussion he had with an artistic director interested in staging his play, set in medieval Europe.
“Can we cast it with actors of color?” the director asked.
The playwright reflected for a moment before asking: “We are talking Germany, right? Around 1433?”
“What difference does that make?,” the director replied.
The playwright gave it another moment’s thought and then agreed, but was vexed to read on Facebook the next day a post from that director, “White playwright persuaded to cast his play with actors of color.”
“I never thought of myself as a ‘white’ playwright,” he told me. “I always figured I was just a playwright.” As the great preacher MLK espoused, don’t we all prefer to be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character — or of our play, or our performance? How do we fix all this without twisting ourselves into even more bigoted contortions?
The second story was told by my cousin, Lew Levinson, a retired college professor who taught generations of actors (including Danny Glover) in Oakland, California. He also acted in and directed dozens of shows there. We were driving together last week back from Sonoma and Marin counties to his Berkeley home, when he narrated his tale from the front passenger seat. To tell the truth, I was laughing so hard, I almost drove us off the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge into the San Francisco Bay.
You probably need to know that Lew, now 82, has a rich, sonorous voice and is a storyteller of the first rank. From the stories he tells, describing his own productions, it’s clear he’s also deeply invested in issues of social justice, equal opportunity, and of a kind of theater that is inherently, viscerally connected to the community in which it’s performed. Lew was always a diversity kind of guy, in his friendships as well as his theater work.
It was for this reason that Lew cast an actor I’ll re-name Pete, an imposing black man, in the role of a capitalist overseer in a local adaptation of Jean Giroudaux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. The thing about Pete was that he’d been recently been discharged from San Quentin State Penitentiary, or what Pete called “Q,” for a crime Lew didn’t disclose, and I didn’t ask.
Lew also didn’t expound on how rehearsals went, but opening night was a big deal – which is why Lew was so perturbed, watching Act 1 from the audience, to discern that Pete was performing the play while stoned: The rhythms were off, cue-pickups lagged, the entire production was out of sync.
Lew ran backstage at the start of intermission, assembled the cast and lit into them, focusing his wrath on Pete: “You do NOT act while stoned! Acting is difficult enough, totally dependent on timing and on the connections you make with the other actors, and with the audience. You can’t do any of that while stoned!”
There was a long, pained silence, broken by the rumble of Pete’s voice:
“No white man ever yelled at me, and lived.”
That’s when Lew reflected on his choice of remaining at the theater for Act 2, or of perhaps leaving the area until Pete calmed down. He decided on the latter.
But first, Lew needed to use the bathroom. After a few minutes, he made his way to the backstage restroom, only to find Pete already inside. Pete glared at him, picked up a chair and held it over his own head.
“You wanna come in?” Pete taunted him.
Lew thought about fleeing, but that option now seemed undignified. He chose to negotiate instead.
“I’ll come in if you put down the chair.”
Pete did just that.
However, Lew noticed that Pete’s fists were clenching, first one, then the other, swelling with tension, then relaxing, veins pulsing.
Lew understood he was in serious trouble when he observed Pete’s arm draw back for what was clearly going to be a full-throttle punch. An instant later, Lew felt the breeze from the trajectory of Pete’s fist hurtling by his face and grazing his nose. This was deliberate on Pete’s part. Lew understood that had the punch landed on his head, it had the force to bust it open and kill him. Lew now realized that Pete’s intention was to scare the life out of him, but not to actually take the life out of him. What Pete did not anticipate, however, was the aftermath of the faux blow, the force of which propelled Pete’s fist into a nearby towel rack, slicing open a good portion of Pete’s arm.
Blood now spurted all over Pete as Lew found a couple of towels, which he tried to use as both a tourniquet and a wrap. Pete’s blood was also now spurting over Lew, as he wrapped Pete’s arm, and bound the towel in such a way as to stem the flow.
That’s when they both heard the announcement over the bathroom intercom:
“Places for Act 2. Places for Act 2 of Madwoman.”
“You better get on stage,” Lew said.
“Are you kidding?” Pete replied. “You just saw what happened. I can’t go out there after that.”
“Okay,” said Lew. “Look, we’ll deal with the racism later. But right now, you’ve got a responsibility to your fellow actors and to the audience to finish the show.”
Pete thought about this for a moment.
“I’ll go back out there,” Pete offered, “if right after the show, I can make a curtain speech and call you out for the racist asshole that you are.”
“Fine,” Lew said. “You do that. But for right now, just get back out to the stage.”
And he did.
Throughout Act 2, Lew hid near the back of the auditorium, blood on his clothes, blood in his hair, watching the actor he’d cast lumbering through the play with an unexplained, bloodied towel wrapped around his arm. His timing was still off. The production was still awful. Cues and entrances were still missed. He watched some audience members falling asleep. He watched other audience members leave. Lew says it was among the most artistically excruciating experiences of his directing career.
He shrank even deeper into his seat during the tepid curtain call, after which Pete, as he had threatened, stood at the front and center of the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Pete intoned, “Thank you for coming to our opening performance. I just want to say one thing: This production was directed by Lew Levinson. Everything you just saw came from the mind of Lew Levinson. This was his vision. This is his dream. Let’s give it up for Lew Levinson.”
Lew says he heard about five, uninspired handclaps from various corners of the theater, and that was that.
Backstage, as the actors were preparing to go the opening night party, Lew and Pete made eye-contact again. Pete gave Lew and huge smile, and greeted him with a bear hug.