Woke Vs. Being Aware in theatre
In pop culture, today there’s a huge pressure on being woke. It somehow makes you wiser or better than someone because you’re woke but it doesn’t. Think of it like this, when I was younger my mom would always check on me to make sure I was awake in time for school. I would wake up but I wasn’t aware, I would be awake. I could brush my teeth, get ready for school, pack my bag and be out of the door. But I wasn’t aware, you could’ve been talking to me the entire time and that afternoon if you’d asked me what you said I wouldn’t be able to tell you. You can be woke and accomplish things but you can do so much more when you’re aware.
When you’re aware it’s a totally different situation. If I see a pen rolling off a table, I can catch it because I’m aware. If you’re aware, you can make rational decisions and make things happen. The point of the woke movement is to call issues out in hopes of fixing “it”. Whatever “it” may be, whether it’s discrimination against someone because of their race, sexuality, gender, religion, etc. You call it out so that it can be rectified.
But the problem is anyone can be woke but it takes more to be aware and willing to change your environment. One of the biggest issues actors of color face today lies in casting. Casting can already be problematic cause they’re looking for a type and that type usually includes race. It’s harder to separate one from the other. Which makes It harder to break that mold, because our types are usually what we see in pop culture which doesn’t accurately portray all people of color. From that stems the thought that for black women in musical theatre they all have to be big powerhouses with huge Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Holliday voices. What about the classically trained soprano that’s told she can’t be casted as classic beauty because her color isn’t what you’d first think of when you hear the word, “Beautiful”.
There’s a very obvious lack of representation and casting of people of color in all facets of the industry because of these ideas that were given to us as children. But sometimes there’s someone that breaks that mold completely, people like Norm Lewis who go on to lead shows like, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and even Sweeney Todd. These roles are traditionally played by white men but it took one person at the table just to say “Him. That’s our guy.”
Having more people like that will bring about a positive change in entertainment.Call it out! When you see something, address it, because that’s what art is. When we choose to ignore the issues someone shows it to you in a beautiful way. People wanted to leave events like the Holocaust in the past and ignore it then shows like “Cabaret” and “The Sound of Music” came along and told these stories in a way you couldn’t ignore.Today, there’s a lack of diversity in theatre and shows like “Hamilton” and “Natasha Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812”. we choose to ignore the school to prison pipeline and there are brilliant shows like “Pipeline” that tell these stories in a digestible way to cause change.
There’s always a story to be told from the issues we ignore. But that work doesn’t get created without willing producers, without those “Gatekeepers” you can’t get anything done. We put so much weight on diversity but don’t acknowledge there has to be more pressure on diversity within the creative team. The people in “the room where it happens”, it’s important that the people with power are even more aware.
And most importantly it’s not fake awareness. It’s not “oh, there aren’t any people of color in this production. “Let’s sprinkle some throughout the ensemble, or maybe just have a couple in auditions just to say we saw them.”. Choose the best people period, no matter what color. Derrick Williams said on the “Broadway Cast” he auditioned for Kenickie in Grease and was told they wanted him but they couldn’t find a black Rizzo. Why did she have to be black? Why not just cast the person that would best tell the story?
When will our casts reflect our audiences? This, is why there must be an open mindedness and awareness “behind the table”. I love shows like Wicked and Hamilton where your race doesn’t matter it’s about the story. This is where I believe theatre is headed. If we all stop claiming to be woke and be aware I believe we can change theatre completely.