Can of Worms

The Ordway Center for Preforming Arts, photo credit Google 

The Ordway Center for Preforming Arts, photo credit Google 

I've been triggered the last couple of times I've logged into Facebook. Usually it's because of 45 and his White House mess that sets me off during the casual scrolling of my feed but lately the buzz in my theatre community has been making me feel very....uneasy to say the least. As some of you know, the Star Tribune posted an article titled "To stage West Side Story, the Ordway Center decided to grow local Latino talents" which has been receiving a lot of negative buzz. Since this article has been making its rounds on Facebook walls and phone calls, I've been sensing this urge to talk about what might only be labeled as taboo in our community. I feel like it's a conversation that I have had with only my close and trusted PoC or "woke white friends". But the language that I have seen in the comments and responses to this article is provoking me to open this can of worms. So, let's have this conversation. 

I'd like to start with a very honest and sincere preface that by writing this piece and contributing to this narrative, by no means am I trying to minimize, or identify with another marginalized communities story. I don't have a right of way to speak insight on any other persons or groups experience just because I am a person of color. However, I do feel that I do have insight on my experiences working in various theaters in this town, The Ordway being among them. I have insight working with James Rocco, among many other directors. And perhaps most importantly, I have insight in working as a person of color in this community. 

I won't bore you with the journey of my existence as an actor in the greater Minneapolis area, but if it is necessary to add to my credibility, I have been a professional actor in this area since the summer of 2007.  I chose to be an actor because outside of being a drama queen and my constant need for attention and affection, I love to tell a story. My experiences, I'd like to think, have similar parallels to most "up and coming" actors here. Not being able to audition for nearly as many musicals as I'd like to because well, we aren't NYC. Feeling like an idiot at dance calls. Seeing familiar faces at auditions and if you're lucky, making connections, acquaintances or even friends over time. I say, if you're lucky because most of the time, the people we see in an audition room, we view as our competition. We analyze them from head to toe and compare them to ourselves. All too many times at an audition I have seen another brown girl, and tried to create a positive distance between us because it feels as if it goes without saying, but unless the script calls for multiple people of color, it will boil down to a casting choice between her or me. 

Now, I get that this isnt a thought that only PoC have during auditions. Many times one of my best friends has come back from an audition analyzing the "other red heads" in the room. We all do it. Don't you dare pretend you don't. But again I will say, if you're lucky, you have made your competition your friend.  Now let's redirect. Let's just say, that you're auditioning for, oh, I don't know "Footloose", and you're a person of color, specifically in white ass Minnesota. Let's say you know that you have nailed the dance call, and you sang your face off and acted the shit out of your sides. And you don't get cast. And when you see the all white cast, Is there a part of you that thinks you didn't get cast because of your race? 

That's a constant on going battle for PoC in this community. While we would love for theatres to be more forward thinking when it comes to casting classic musical theatre such as "Music Man" or "Hello Dolly!", if you're black in this town you jump for joy hearing that a theatre will be doing "Ragtime" because you know that you might have a serious shot to be cast. Which holds so much unfortunate irony in it because isn't the theatre community supposed to be inclusive? Aren't we the ones that are supposed to be inspiring and executing more imaginative representation? Yet here I find myself, glazing over calls for "Bye Bye Birdie" and submitting only for "The Wiz".

Sure, this thinking contributes to the problem. Reimagining the norm is possible, most notably "Hamilton",  which hit the world with such forcible impact they made skit segments about it during last fall's football season, celebrity musicians reimagined the album with a mix tape and the cast preformed at the White House ( sidebar, I really miss the Obamas...sigh) But Hamilton's influence spoke directly to the theatre communities minorities. This was the first show, that with its entire cast, completely opened the doors for every race to be considered for employment for every role. They even encouraged it. I've found myself sitting across the table from people who don't "get" the big deal about Hamilton....but these are the same people that don't understand the importance of Beyoncé to the black community. Representation matters.

stage still of "Hamilton", photo credit Hollywood Reporter via Google 

stage still of "Hamilton", photo credit Hollywood Reporter via Google 

Anyway, as I was saying reimagining the norm is possible and the the self taught (arguably society taught) restrictions don't get me cast and don't let directors know that I am here. However, the only time that I was cast in a role that didn't require me to be a person of color was at the Ordway. Which conventionally brings me to my first point. If I was the artistic director of a theatre and I was putting on a play that called specifically for a group of people, and I wasn't seeing enough of these people at my auditions, I would 1. Consider partnering with a smaller local theatre to help me find my talent 2. Hold a workshop encouraging this group to attend. Now, again if I was an artistic director I would be casting multiple ethnicities, people of all shapes and sizes to show representation in my shows, not just the ones that call for it. Which is exactly what James Rocco has done. 

Last winters production of "White Christmas" featured Thomasina Petrus as Martha Watson. Natalie Tran, who was also featured in "White Christmas", was cast as Bridgeta in "The Sound of Music" the previous winter. "A Christmas Story" not only featured many different actors of color (Suzie Juul, Hope Nordquist and Tre Searles to name a few) but Rocco also specifically made a choice in the shows finale, when bringing groups of families out for their final number, to highlight and represent the multi-racial families that exist today. Need I also mention among other recent productions, The Ordway has featured local artists of color such as Rush Benson, Pascal Pastrana, Alice McGlave, Herb Johnson, Austene Van, Renee Guittar, Kayla Jenerson, Wes Mouri, Jullius Collins, and me. 

"Rebels on Broadway" Song book, Fall of 2017 from left to right; James Rocco, Reid Harmsen, Hope Nordquist, Wes Mouri, Caroline Innerbichler, Julius Collins, Brianna Graham (me), & Tre Searles.

"Rebels on Broadway" Song book, Fall of 2017 from left to right; James Rocco, Reid Harmsen, Hope Nordquist, Wes Mouri, Caroline Innerbichler, Julius Collins, Brianna Graham (me), & Tre Searles.

Honestly, for the recent line up of musicals at The Ordway ("The Sound of Music", "Pirates of Penzance", "A Christmas Story", "Damn Yankees" and "White Christmas") that don't necessarily call for PoC, it seems like Rocco and the artistic team are making space for us. Now, don't get me wrong, there were still a bunch of white actors in these casts respectively, but Rocco was/is making strides in the right direction to add representation and inclusiveness to the stage. And not just in a way that a script would call for it. I mean, without naming names, there have been theatres in this town that don't cast more than one minority in their musical ensembles if the script doesn't say to. I can't count how many times I've gone to a show to see one black artist in a featured role to only guess that their understudy must be the other black person in the ensemble (spoiler alert, I guessed right). Not to mention the theatres in the past that simply put dark brown wigs on white actors and cast them as Puerto Ricans in their versions of "West Side Story".

So why is the Ordway getting so much backlash for trying to bring authenticity and representation to it's productions? The article that the Star Tribune wrote was not nice. It was condescending at best and honestly I would have been upset if I had read something like that in regard to the African American community that I identify with. I do not know Rohan personally but to be honest I don't believe that he had ill intentions in the way that he crafted his piece. I do know James Rocco though, and I know for a fact that this man would never do or say anything to condescend, purposefully offend or exclude any person or any group. He is an artist, just like us, and we have all felt like we didn't belong at one point or another. So why would he, why would any of us, purposefully exclude one another? 

I've seen a response in regards to the Star Tribunes article, written by the Facebook group ALMA, and understand the hurt and anger in the authors tone. However I must respectfully oppose some of the points made in the article. One being the article states, "in the end this commitment to growth by the Ordway yielded only two local Latinx artists cast, more than 10 additional roles were filled with out of town actors, clearly stating through action that the Ordway was embarrassed of our local Latinx talent." Hang on, because I'm going to throw a lot of numbers at you. The cast of West Side is rollin 29 deep. 15 of those cast members are PoC. 10 of those people are local. The "Shark" ensemble is made up of 13 actors, all but five who are local. That I know of, 4 of those people identify themselves as local Latinx actors. And almost, if not all of the "out of town actors" who were cast in this show have preformed "West Side Story" before. Which is smart, from a producing stand point, to cast vets in the show who know the choreography to reduce rehearsal time. Let's remember, a lot has to happen to produce a show in under three weeks. I would also like to mention that two of the members of the "Jets" ensemble identify as PoC, whom are usually, if not always, cast white. Truly, I am not trying to minimize whatever disappointment there is in regards to lack of Latinx talent in the show. The point I am trying to make is there is effort being made here. 

I also might add that, with out attending any of the auditions for West Side and having no direct knowledge of what several members of the local Latinx community are capable of in the audition room/on stage, West Side is hard. Correlating the original choreography in itself is one of the hardest challenges of West Side, all races aside. I would like to think that the extraordinary dancers and singers in the local Latinx community that could execute this intense choreography, would have shown up to the auditions. I would also like to believe in the integrity of the artistic department of the Ordway, that these local talents were seen and given a fair chance in the audition room. Point blank period. If a production of Shuffle Along was being produced here, I know my talents well enough to know that I can't keep up with the required level of tap experience that I would need to be considered for this show. I also know that no theatre has the time it would take to teach me so I could keep up. 

"West Side Story" photo credit via Rich Ryan photography

"West Side Story" photo credit via Rich Ryan photography

But I commend the Ordway for trying. Last summer they offered West Side workshops to prep any one who wanted to attend for the upcoming auditions. And, very importantly to note, the Star Tribune article failed to mention that this isn't the first time that the Ordway has offered open training classes to its local talent. Outside of the lucrative BFA program at the Guthrie and the Children's theatre apprentice program, I am personally not familiar with any other local theatre, that produce musicals, that directly works with promising talent in hopes to cast them in future productions. I might be mistaken and I'll humbly take the L for misinformation....but I also must mention these Ordway classes are free.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the backlash for the Ordway's efforts is discouraging. Again, I get it! The article and quotes were offensive. But also I don't feel the article was fully providing it's readers with all the facts and it certainly painted the Ordway in villainous tones. And I don't think that's fair. At the same time that the Ordway is being shit on for not including enough local Latinx, "Cherry and Spoon" notably wrote that the Chanhassen Dinner theatres most recent production of Grease "could make this production better, and that is a more diverse and inclusive cast that better represents the world we live in.

To be completely fair, this conversation has more dialogue and substance to it than I have addressed. There's politics, favoritism, and money$$$$ to limit myself to a few of the other factors to casting and producing a play. Instead of digging into that here (because we honestly don't have the time to do so*) I'll end with these thoughts. 

We as a community need to do better. Our jobs are to tell a story. Our jobs are to inspire. We know that representation matters. We need to acknowledge when people in our community are trying and encourage them and others to continue to do so. We need to continue a positive and educational dialogue to keep moving forward in the right way. To discount the amount of effort that the Ordway is putting into the community to try and open it up for more people of color and minorities to be featured in their shows would be a shame. We need to be putting pressure on more theaters to represent more colors, sizes, sexual orientations and identifications in their productions, and not just when the script requires it. Our theaters should be protected and our actors should be protected by our theatres.

Finally I will leave you with this, the Ordway's mission statement that can be found on their website.

"The Ordway’s mission is to be a driver for the artistic vitality of the community by hosting, presenting, and creating performing arts and educational programs that engage artists and enrich diverse audiences." 

I think that's the point of what we do. And I think that's pretty cool. 




*this writer is open and encourages the dialogue!!! let's have the hard conversations now to make it better for everyone else later.

LIFEBrianna Graham