guest blog: can we really teach an audience to see us? / travis alabanza
‘As 2017 comes to a close, and I sit in my dressing room ready to start a run of a major production in one of the UK’s largest theatres, I look on the cast call sheet and take a moment to remember I am not the only Black face on stage tonight. I think about theatre shows I did this time last year, and how I, a mixed-race black person, was actually the lightest member of the cast. I think about the shows I saw in theatres this year – Selina Thompson’s salt, Bullish at Camden People’s Theatre, Malik Nashad Sharpe’s Selfie, Rachel Young’s OUT, Summer In London at Theatre Royal Stratford East – and I stop and think to myself: wow, maybe I have seen more Black and brown faces than white on stage this year. Maybe my experience of theatre this year was actually incredibly rich with colour – not just on the Fringe, but in the centre. I think of my experience watching theatre four years ago, and I take a moment to be thankful for this difference in direction. In fact, I think of many of the theatres in which I saw these shows and also notice how it is not a shift in my direction – it is a shift in theirs. I walk downstairs into the main area of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and look at a life-size poster of myself (a Black mixed trans person) sitting next to a huge poster of two Black people in their Christmas show Guys and Dolls – and have a moment of, “well, everything must be alright.”
Of course, this moment of ‘alright’ is quickly overcome with logic. Of course I am more than aware that posters, life-size images, and seeing more of us inside these buildings does not amount to everything being okay. However, I cannot help but wonder if, to the white executives upstairs, this means we’re on the right track? That because, slowly, there are more of us appearing on the stage, the work is being done. Admittedly, most Black and brown performers would probably agree this is far too slow and far too late – but I would like to go beyond and say that this will never, and cannot be, enough.
Reflecting on my time in the theatre over the past two months, and my time dealing with live audiences in larger venues for the past two years, I’m beginning to realise that putting us on stage (and, of course, diversifying production teams) cannot be where our energy stops. That, in fact, the problem of ‘diversity’ (to use an over-simplified term) goes far deeper than just who is on stage, working backstage and even increasing the number of people of colour who come and watch the show. I think the problem is far more systematic than that, and is harder to dismantle than what is currently being proposed. A large problem we have when putting Black and Brown performers on stage is this: white audience members do not know how to see us.
I will repeat: we are not seen, and furthermore, I do not know if white audience members fully know how to see us.
I am fully aware this statement needs expanding but, ultimately, when explaining it still falls down to that simple sentence: white people to do not know how to see us. Their history of viewing, ingrained ideas about us and present culture of what they view performance to be means – when they are confronted with Black and brown bodies on stage – they have already skewed and altered how they are seeing us. I argue that a Black performer has not only worked harder to make it onto the stage in the first place but, when on it, is continuously working harder to fight back against the audience’s unconscious (or sometimes conscious) bias. For example, it is merely not enough to celebrate a Black women being cast as Cinderella in a main-stage Panto without also recognising and realising the honest truth that white audience members will be viewing her completely differently to a white counterpart. Already, the audience’s opinion of who can be Cinderella, or deserves to be a protagonist, will affect how they are watching her, responding to her, and ultimately: seeing her.
I stepped on stage this week to over 300 people a night, playing a character that was in an iconic queer and punk film in the 70’s. At the time she became, quickly, the face of – not only the film but also – [white] punk. Following suit, I became the image and poster of the show’s remount this autumn, replicating her iconic and famous geometric makeup and pink twin set and pearls – only now inhabiting a black, trans, gender non-conforming body. I knew this was a bold move. I knew this was a brave, important and deserving casting choice, modernising what punk could be. I also knew, at this point, I had done the work to own the character, my place on stage and to give a good performance. However, on opening night, what I did not account for – and what continues to take me by surprise – is the audience not being ready for these changes. I could see in the faces of the – predominately white and older – audience members that for the first 10 minutes of my opening monologue, I was not only introducing my character but was also trying to persuade and push them to believe that I could possibly be this character.
Blackness is always something proposed as abject to whiteness. We are always seen in opposition, in contrast and in anger to their calmness, and my Blackness on stage – demanding and taking time from them – causes upset.
This is not to say that I saw audience members turn their nose or be bold in their expression; racism can be far more subtle and ingrained. It is more noticing how a predominantly white, middle-class audience in a large-scale theatre has their expectations and how they deal with those expectations being challenged. How do we allow Black people to take up space on stage? Is Blackness only allowed on stage when fitting neatly within the boundaries? Was I just taking up too much space? My feelings were validated when, after the show last night, a 50-something year old white woman came up to me to compliment me on my performance. She held onto my face and said “at first I was hesitant, I mean…. you are not Amyl” I stared blankly. She continued: “You are definitely not her. I was so angry when I saw the poster, I thought, 2017 is so PC, but then you came and absolutely smashed it.” She then kissed me on the cheek and smiled and left. I stood there, stunned, but I shouldn’t have been. This was everything I already knew was happening, confirmed. My casting will always be seen as a diversity pull, a stunt and never about just my talent. Her being surprised that I smashed it – having arrived frustrated at my casting – confirms my feeling that Black actors and performers have to work 10 times harder, in an already uphill battle, to win equal praise to their white counterparts. There can never be Black mediocrity.
I sit here and wonder if this is really news? This is not new. Still, I know that this is something that continually needs to be talked about. Our conversations around diversity cannot start and stop at who is making the show, but continue to who is seeing it and how they are seeing it. Theatres, production houses, marketing, press – all need to be involved in the conversation of how to diversify audiences, but also how to support Black and Brown actors dealing with the micro-aggressions we face being on stage. We cannot pretend that – although we are often creating stories on stage – those stories transform audiences, making them magically leave behind systems and years of ingrained prejudice. We need to be working to create theatres that represent the people on stage. We need to be working much harder than we are to get Black and brown audiences into watching theatre, making it accessible and approachable – not just for their experience, but also for the Black and brown actors on stage. Above this clear need to increase diversity in audiences, we also need to acknowledge that the current ‘traditional’ theatre audiences is not neutral in how it sees us. We need to continue to give Black and brown performers complex, full and large roles, and continue to tell our audiences through our casting, our vocal support and our shows that if they have not learned to fully see us yet, then they better catch up.’