Editors note: Tony Award-winning costume designer Clint Ramos says he felt his “very selfhood slip away” when the industry he loves shut down in March 2020, and with two Tony nominations pending – he’s up for Best Costume Design/Play for The Rose Tattoo, and Best Scenic Design/Play for Slave Play – the designer, born and raised in Cebu, the Philippines, should be unreservedly delighted with the recent rush of planned Broadway openings. So why has he “been unable to muster a wholehearted sense of hope?” In a guest column for Deadline, Ramos, a lifelong advocate for an equitable landscape in theater and film, poses a series of questions to the industry, raising concerns that he says weigh heavily on the hearts of colleagues of color. “I am delighted at the notion of a return to the American theater,” Ramos writes. “But not as we left it. I want to return to a truly equitable American theater.”
Many theater practitioners feel a profound closeness to their work. It is their life’s purpose. It is their essence. That is how I feel about the theater. So, when Covid drew stage curtains across prosceniums throughout the American stage, I felt my very selfhood slip away.
The joy and hope that many feel amidst the rush of announcements of shows returning to Broadway and the ultimate reopening of the American theater is wonderfully valid and re-affirming. But lingering questions burn a hole in my stomach with each announced reopening. Questions that countless others have asked for years. Questions that remain unanswered.
Why have I been unable to muster a wholehearted sense of hope?
Of course, the idea of returning and restoring that sense of self is a reason for joy and excitement. I am delighted at the notion of a return to the American theater. But not as we left it. I want to return to a truly equitable American theater.
As a theater worker of color, my sense of self, as for so many other theater workers of color, has always been fractured. Pieces of us are allowed to cross the threshold of the stage door. Other pieces are not. As Playbills start going to press again, I and so many of my colleagues of color find ourselves returning to a state of being in which it is necessary to perennially negotiate our fractured selves within an industry that does not seem to acknowledge what we have been saying about racial equity – not only this last year but for a very long time.
I cite racial equity specifically because Americans clearly see now more than ever, from stolen land to stolen people, the centrality of institutionalized racial supremacy to the country’s formation and development. The American theater and its de facto national theatrical institution, Broadway, just need to catch up.
As an example, in the last two seasons on Broadway, 94% of the directors and 90% of the designers who worked on productions were white. These theater-makers, together with others in power, dictate the aesthetic and spiritual direction of the art form and establish benchmarks for theatrical excellence. More Black, Indigenous and theater workers of color must be in the room.
Reopening raises many concerns. In speaking with colleagues of color, I have found that these questions weigh most heavily in our hearts:
- How do we expect to grow our audiences when the arbiters of the art form are so uniformly white?
- How do we expand audience’s minds and expose them to many matters of value beyond the lived experiences of Broadway’s current theater-makers?
- How will theatrical producers address the racial inequities in all areas of the craft — not just among actors, but also directors, playwrights, designers, dramaturgs, stage managers and casting directors, among others?
- What are the active steps producers will take to remedy the disparity of who is produced on Broadway — not just in one season or for one production, but every season?
- What systems will producers put in place to hold themselves and investors accountable for instating the changes they promise to make?
- How can the traditional capitalist model be rethought so it has an anti-racist underpinning and better serves theater workers? We are an industry of freelancers run by non-freelancers — how do we address that power dynamic?
- What new metrics will producers use to determine a production’s feasibility and sustainability? White playwrights fail on Broadway all the time and generations of white playwrights still get produced, but when a playwright of color gets produced and the show is not well received, that reception is held against future BIPOC writers. That producing rubric/culture needs to change.
- How will producers leverage their power to dismantle systems of oppression — backstage and among the audience?
- What steps will producers take to engage in the life-long process of active anti-racism? Who will they bring along with them?
- How will producers actively shift the culture from one of fear, scarcity, and individualism (google if you are unfamiliar with these terms as referenced in social justice work) to one that centers joy, abundance, and partnership in the rehearsal room, in the casting process, in the creative team selection, and in all decision making?
- How do we as theater workers of color allow ourselves not only to dream maximally but ask unabashedly what our bodies, minds and spirits need to sustain ourselves in this industry? How do we support each other amidst the fear and the gaslighting — and not fall prey to the idea that there are scarce scraps of theater to be doled among the so many of us?
- There has been much work done while the American theater has been closed. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition continues to release its incisive Visibility Report with hard data of representation on Broadway. There has been a 30-page list of demands from We See You White American Theater created by hundreds of BIPOC theater workers. The West Coast created The Living Document. Everybody Black released a concise list of needs and the organizers of the March on Broadway communicated actor-driven demands for Actors Equity. None of the asks are new. They adopt different approaches and different tones. But they are all a product of generations of theater workers of color clamoring for the same thing. Equity. Anti-racism. An American theater that can speak to everyone and be a home for everyone.
As one theater leader of color has noted, Octavia Butler, adrienne maree brown and countless other Black futurists remind us that we have never seen the world we are reaching for, but we must be able to imagine a way forward. We are storytellers. It is our job to help imagine what may seem “impossible” or “unrealistic.” That is what we do. This is who we are. So, I ask my colleagues in the theater: What will you do to make it possible? What will you do to make it real?
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