For local actor Rebekah Williams, the death of Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman carried a special weight.
“It wasn’t just about him playing a superhero,” said Williams. “It was a story about what it’s like, the Black experience.”
That experience, for Williams, is not reflected in San Antonio theater as well as it could be.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that not a lot of thought goes into ‘Is everybody’s story being told?’” she said.
It’s part of the fabric of theater to empathize, to amplify others’ voices and to tell a story, Williams said. “That’s all we’re asking for – to amplify our voice, ask us how we feel … and be an advocate.”
While she enjoyed her time at Trinity University, which she attended on a theater scholarship, Williams said not once in four years did she have the opportunity to portray a character written as Black.
Williams said script selections should be more thoughtful and inclusive, and San Antonio theaters should include more actors of color in decision-making capacities – both as staff and board members.
“I think diversity and inclusion is all about feeling welcome in the environment,” she said.
In an industry dominated by white actors, directors, and production staff, it’s important to recognize that there’s a lot of learning to do, Williams said. Standard-issue “nude” tights provided by costumers often match white skin tones only and production teams may not have experience with styling Black hair. In cases like these, Williams feels it’s important “to say, ‘I don’t know much about this but I’m willing to learn.’”
Torence White quoted American activist Verna Myers, saying: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
As a Black actor, he would appreciate seeing more classic works by Black playwrights produced in San Antonio and hopes to play more characters traditionally cast as white.
“I am proud of my skin color and not ashamed of it,” White said. “But you [often] feel there’s no point in auditioning when the play is taking place in 17th-century London … so the assumption is that the show will be just for white actors, and no minorities at all, unless there’s a role for a servant.”
If the stage is to be a place of acceptance, he said, “we have to do better in being more accepting of the differences we all have.”
Lauren, a San Antonio actor who requested to be identified by her first name, expressed concerns about lack of representation by actors of color at local auditions.
“As a Hispanic actor, I’ll admit I find it troubling that many organizations are not focused on increasing participation in a city with a 64.2 percent Hispanic population,” she said.
Lauren said racial and economic segregation continues to be a problem in the city of San Antonio, one which is reflected in the theater community.
“For years, attending and participating in theater has been a luxury for those who can afford it,” she said, adding that the poorest areas of San Antonio are largely communities of color. “How can we expect to create new generations of actors and audience members when many individuals … are just trying to make ends meet?”
Lauren hopes to see local theaters reach out to less privileged communities – partnering with arts organizations like the Carver Community Cultural Center, SAY Si and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and creating more scholarship opportunities for low-income youths.
“Anti-racism training does not matter to me,” she said. “Opportunity does. Action does.”
Local actor Juan Calderon recalled attending a nearby film audition where he overheard a member of the casting panel say about him, “I like him because he’s Hispanic, but he’s one of those nonthreatening ones.”
“You’re never really looked at as on the same plane as everybody [else],” he said. “It’s almost like first you’re Latino and then you’re an actor.”
It’s frustrating when well-meaning theater companies mount gimmicky productions to attract actors of color, he said: “Like, we’re doing Hamlet, but set in Matamoros.”
“Can’t Horatio just be Hispanic?” Calderon asked. “We don’t have to make a thing of it. I don’t want any favors – I just want the same opportunities as everyone else.”
He hopes theaters keep up inclusivity initiatives and market their auditions as “for all ethnicities,” even if profits temporarily dwindle.
“It goes beyond money,” Calderon said. “When little Hispanic eyes are looking onstage and seeing themselves represented, it’s more important than how much money you made that year.”
Marisa Varela, who emigrated from Argentina as an adult and dreams of playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, said many roles offered to actors of color – especially those, like her, with accents – depict stereotypes like the nanny or the gardener.
“Who says that a lawyer can’t have an accent, as in real life?” she said. “Open your wings – diversity will make theater bigger, flying, and reaching thousands more people instead of a small group.”
MORE ON SAN ANTONIO THEATER
Local theater executives have expressed commitment to diversity and inclusion going forward.
Kelly Hilliard Roush, artistic and executive director of the Classic Theatre of San Antonio, said she has worked steadily to incorporate more diversity into both programming and casting.
In the past season, the Classic chose two shows by Latino playwrights and cast more actors of color than ever before, she said.
“We are also committed to color-conscious casting and reflecting our San Antonio community,” Roush added.
Recently, Roush reached out to a Black colleague and mentor, asking what stories, in the current sociopolitical climate, most needed to be told.
“I did not want to assume that I as a white woman knew what was on her heart and mind,” Roush said. Her colleague told her that “conversation is always a good place to start.”
And so the Classic Theatre’s most recent offering, “Community Conversation: Amplifying Black Female Voices” – an online discussion helmed by Black women in the arts – was born.
Roush hopes that the conversation will “provide the audience with insight and a safe place to reflect, connect and … commit to personal action … to bring more equity, justice and inclusion to our world.”
George Green, CEO and artistic director of the Public Theater of San Antonio, noted that the city of San Antonio faces broad systemic problems with representation, with a trickle-down effect in the theater community.
“There have been years of failure,” he said. “We’ve continued to fail – I’ve continued to fail – about how to better improve a sense of belonging in our organization.” For Green, the big questions are: How do we find ways to fund access? How do we make sure that underserved populations have access to learn the craft and are able to work in the craft?
For his part, Green is committed to investigating barriers and reaching these populations, not only offering pay-what-you-can performances but grants and scholarships to every class offered at the theater.
In 2019, the Public established an Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee. Under Green’s leadership, the theater has also commissioned a training organization for diversity training as well as employed BIPOC casting consultants. During the pandemic, the Public has partnered with Teatro Audaz, a local theater dedicated to the Latino experience, and offered up its performance space for only minimal fees to cover staff wages.
In the past two fiscal years, the Public has invested in BIPOC organizations via partnerships and made donations to several BIPOC groups, budgeting to continue these contributions annually.
“When you look at improving representation and storytelling in the arts … it’s important that we put race at the top of our discussions,” Green said.
Quoting the words of Liviu Ciulei, former artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Green observed that “a community can be measured by the questions its theater asks.”
“The most important thing I can say right now as a theater artist, as a nonprofit executive, is to listen to your city and ask the questions,” he said.