Lack of Diversity in Theatre's Directors and Choreographers
By Tomé Cousin
As this year I have been celebrating my 50th anniversary in the performing arts, my thoughts have turned towards what conversations I’d like to have with other like minded, passionate artists. For some time now, I have been tossing around the idea for an opinion piece on what I call the theatre world’s “elephant in the room”: the absence of directors and choreographers of color on projects based on stories about people of color.
Throughout my many years as a performer, choreographer, and director, I’ve witnessed this practice over and over again - sometimes celebrated quite blatantly. We may appear concerned, but all too often in our need and desire for continued employment and our fear of retribution on our professional and personal relationships, we’ve prevented ourselves from addressing it openly and publicly.
Before I continue, I’d like to make it clear upfront that it is not my intention to accuse, place blame, assign guilt, cause harm or deny access to work for anyone. In fact, my purpose is quite the opposite. I wish to draw attention to a topic that is often not spoken about, raise awareness, and hopefully open up employment opportunities for directors and choreographers of color.
Three years ago I began work on a theatre studies journal with diversity casting as its focus. Published in 2017 under the title The Franklin Project, the journal details a rich history of diversity casting and practices. It also includes fifty-one interviews from a wide range of theatre professionals, including actors, singers, dancers, designers, and playwrights on this very topic. Those interviewed include Billy Porter, Rema Webb, Brenda Braxton, Ivy Fox, Lainie Sakakura, Lea DeLaria, George C. Wolfe, Francesca Harper, Andre De Shields, Hope Clarke, Denée Benton, Terry Burrell, Nathan Lee Graham, and Telly Leung. Each artist gives personal insights and opinions on diversity issues in the performing arts.
In The Franklin Project, I choose to highlight the ongoing practice of traditionally non-white material being helmed by white directors. Other chapters of the book focus on issues of gender disparity, the lack and absence of producers of color, addressing the needs and concerns of artists with disabilities, and other concerns of appropriations. I am currently gathering materials and interviews for the follow up journal.
This investigation and conversation requires special focus on the hiring practices for those with double and sometimes triple biases working against them—for example female identifying directors/choreographers of color are especially underrepresented.
Multicultural topics, plots, and librettos are always ripe for dramatic and musical interpretations. While this is wonderful, these projects are also continually supported by predominantly non-minority producers, who have the final word and decide the who, what, and where of any production. This power can be misused, such as in the egregious 2009 Lincoln Center revival production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, directed by Bartlett Sher. The production commenced with the permission of August Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, overriding Mr. Wilson’s expressed wish that no white director ever direct a major production of his canon. Though the production was successful, it was also highly controversial, which gave me pause. I remember being shocked that Mr. Wilson’s expressed wish was overlooked.
While I was gathering material for the new edition of The Franklin Project, the 2017-18 season drew to a close. Several additional events solidified for me the need for a more focused look at this practice. While the new musical The Band’s Visit at first appeared a big step forward in diversity relations, it suddenly became a head tilter for me. The work of Itamar Moses (Book) and David Yazbek (Music and Lyrics) transcribing a film screenplay to the stage was remarkable. The care taken in casting such talented and diverse actors like Katrina Lenk, Sasson Babei, and Ari’el Stachel was a breath of much needed fresh air for the Broadway stage. We as the theatre audience were entertained, educated, and introduced to cultures we never knew existed. Then I was informed that the director, David Cromer, and choreographer, Patrick McCollum, were both white men. My question went straight to the producers. Why go through such wonderful, conscious attention to numerous aspects of the production including casting, orchestrations, and dramaturgy only not follow through with the director and choreographer? The production went on to win several deserved Tony Awards, during which we witnessed heartfelt voices of acceptance. This could have been a win/win in every aspect.
Then there was the wonderfully inventive revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once On This Island. This Caribbean fairytale featured a deliciously diverse cast and was brilliantly directed by Michael Arden and passionately choreographed by Camille A. Brown, marking her Broadway choreographic debut. No fault can be found in any aspect of the committed collaboration between these two artists. I draw focus to the need for the matching in the first place. Are there no African, Haitian, Caribbean directors of color qualified to tell this tale? The pattern was laid bare for all to see, but again I believe the overriding success of a production pulled us away from recognizing the need for this conversation.
Next came the truly stunning Classic Stage Company’s revival production of Carmen Jones, directed by John Doyle with choreography by Bill T. Jones. My puzzlement revolved around the notion that the first New York revival of this 1943 African American interpretation of Carmen was directed by a non African American in 2018. With all due respect to Mr. Doyle and his glorious vision, Mr. Jones is a world class, international, multiple award winning legend (Tony, Bessie, Obie, National Medal of Arts, Lucille Lortell, MacArthur Fellowship and the Kennedy Center Honors among others). On a personal note, I for years have considered Mr. Jones a friend, mentor, and inspiration. To see him in the role of only the choreographer was shocking. Was he not considered qualified to helm the entire project? Was this even a consideration or suggestion at some point during the planning?
In Joshua Barone’s June 1, 2018 New York Times article ‘CARMEN JONES’ IS BACK, AND ITS DIRECTOR KNOWS WHAT YOU’RE THINKING’, Mr. Doyle offers his attraction to the material and inspirations for the production. Mr. Doyle had also recently helmed the 2015 revival of The Color Purple. This production went on to win the 2016 Tony Award for Best Revival of A Musical. With Carmen Jones, this made his second interpretation in a row of a distinctly African American story. The pattern continued, but again, where was the conversation about it?
My attention to this has raised several more questions: Did Mr. Doyle’s recent Tony Award win influence the Classical Stage Company’s decision in seeking him, a white man from Scotland, to direct this production? If so were Mr. Jones’ multiple award wins considered of equal value to helm the entire project at some point during the planning process? In the article, cast members from both productions (The Color Purple and Carmen Jones), give testimonies to Mr. Doyle’s talents and visions. My inclusion of this scenario again is not to defame or criticize Mr. Doyle’s work, as I, too, am a fan. Instead, it is to draw focus to a fact: Regardless of the merits of the works and artists mentioned, a pattern was continued that ultimately will influence and impact future generations of artists.
The third event I would like to reference is the successful opening of City Center Encores's presentation of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. The 1972 original production featured book, music and lyrics by Micki Grant with direction by Vinnette Carroll—both African American women, a first on Broadway. The original production’s choreographer was George Faison. For this revival, the Tony Award winning choreographer Savion Glover took on both roles as director and choreographer. Here was a clean and pure example of successful thoughtfulness and insight for the materials representation.
Just as this success settled in, two more announcements occurred that contradicted this very recent progress. The first is the 2019 Broadway debut of 2017 Oscar Winning playwright Tarrell A. McCraney’s play Choir Boy. Here again is another distinctly African American story to be directed by a white man, Trip Cullam. Mr. Cullman had previously directed the play during its successful 2013 debut at Manhattan Theatre Club. Once again, my concern is not with Mr. Cullam’s obvious and proven talents, but more so with the handling of the content. The same problematic question emerges: Where are the African American directors of color?
The next blow came with the announcement from the Michael Jackson Estate and Columbia Live Stage for the development of a musical based on Jackson's life and work. Proposed to hit the boards in 2020, two time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage had been engaged to pen the book. Praised for her outstanding plays Sweat, Ruined, and By The Way, Ms. Nottage is an excellent choice for a new voice in musical theatre. The shock came with the listing of the Tony Award winning, concert dance choreographic star Christopher Wheeldon, another white male to direct and choreograph the project. This is insufficient progress. Is this really what artistic inclusion and collaboration has become in our industry? Michael Paulson’s April 23, 2019 New York Times feature interview with Ms. Nottage and Mr. Wheeldon “MICHAEL JACKSON MUSICAL CREATORS: ‘WE’RE NOT JUDGE and JURY’’ put forward both artists arguments and defenses for their joint work on the project. Though I can certainly understand their points made, having in my past been in similar collaborations…in 2019, I’m just not buying it.
As we are now closing the 2019 Broadway theatre season, I reflected back on the 2018 Tony Award nominations for Best Choreography in a Musical. The oversight of the stunning Broadway debut of African-American choreographer Camille Brown for her work on the revival of Once On This Island was disheartening. In truth, my personal thought on this is not in a failed recognition of Ms. Brown’s work, but in the 2018 Tony voters lack of awareness, there was less acceptance of the style of movement, text, and choreographic base from which Ms. Brown operated. African diaspora dance or classical Katherine Dunham technique for theatre which once laid at the very foundation of the American Theatre dance has been absent on the Broadway stage for quite some time. Where American tap dance or Fosse style is easily considered standard, Katherine Dunham’s contributions are not given the same weight and respect. It was not until this year, 2019, that Tony voters were forced to confront and address Ms. Brown’s work on Choir Boy. A play no less, but her movement vocabulary deeply rooted in African step dance traditions and Dunham Technique is undeniable. What made her 2018 omission more onerous was that the gifted choreographer Christopher Gattelli, a white man, was awarded two nominations. In no way am I discounting Mr. Gattelli’s considerable abilities by drawing attention to his two nominations, but rather I cite them as an example of the endemic inequity that I seek to address.
In the seventy-two year history of the American Theatre Wing’s Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence on Broadway, only two women of color have been nominated for this award - Ms. Hope Clarke for her 1992 work on the musical, Jelly’s Last Jam and Marlies Yearby for her work on RENT in 1996. As of 2018, Graciela Daniele remains the only Latina artist to be nominated for Best Choreography with her work on the following productions: The Pirates of Penzance (1981), The Rink (1984), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1986), Dangerous Games (1991), Once On This Island (1991), The Goodbye Girl (1993), Chronicle of Death Foretold (1996) and Ragtime (1998). Kimi Okada remains the only Asian artist to be actually recognized by the Tony’s in this category. She was nominated for her co-choreographic work with her then husband, Bill Irwin, for her work on Largely New York (1982). Farah Khan, a South Asian choreographer, is the first and only one of her ethnicity to ever be nominated for Best Choreography for her work on Bombay Dreams (2004).
The Tony Awards have been in existence since 1947. The paucity of non-white nominations is quite obvious – as glaring as the Oscar Awards of only three years ago where not a single African-American performer was nominated in any of the acting categories, giving rise to the hashtag #OscarSoWhite. Given the past year’s national focus on sexual harassment, gender inequality, and the rise of the #METOO movement, the Tony nominating committee had an opportunity to mirror equality in the recognition of leadership. Recognizing and rewarding Ms. Brown’s work with a recent nomination tipped the hat towards a more politically correct and inclusive future. In essence, “Having their cake and eating it too.”
However, this historic recognition then drew my focus to the multiple Tony nominated Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations. Given the huge worldwide success of director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, it is completely understandable how they would be teamed for this project. I’m thrilled that a plethora of Africa American talent is dynamically on display again on Broadway. My issue is once again a distinctly African American story, this time of The Temptations, is being directed/told by a white male. In addition to that, the legendary Motown choreographer, Cholly Atkins’, work is being referenced by another non black artist in the Tony Award winning Mr. Trujillo.
Though the March 13th, 2019 article by Jacqui Malone ‘CHOLLY ATKINS TAUGHT MOTOWN TO DANCE. HIS MOVES GET A UPDATE’ was a wonderful insight into Mr. Trujillo’s process and work, its headline, at least for me, was insensitive and ultimately disrespectful. Of course Mr. Atkins’ work would need to be expanded upon and given more weight and size to fill out a Broadway musical’s book, but words also matter. The article was peppered with images of Mr. Atkins a legendary creative artist working with The Temptations in the studio, yet I believe the article purposely shied away from photos of Mr. Trujillo doing the same. A careful and clever vehicle to avoid pushback.
Word has reached me that next season is to include a revival of the musical DreamGirls. It recently had a highly successful run in the United Kingdom. This revival is to be directed by the truly gifted Tony Award winning Casey Nicholaw, another white male. The production history of this musical is perhaps the most clear example of the recognition of this topic. No major Broadway or touring production of this landmark musical has ever been helmed by a director/choreographer of color. What would DreamGirls look like if directed by an African-American woman? Or Once On This Island by a Haitian? How about Fiddler on the Roof or Ragtime by a director who is of Jewish faith? Or The King and I or Pacific Overtures by an Asian? In The Heights by a person of Dominican heritage? The Color Purple by an African-American woman? Or to make another leap entirely, how about My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music helmed by a South Asian or Greek American, or Crazy For You or Gypsy directed by an African-American? On the plus side: Joel Grey’s recent outstanding production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish was a huge step in the right direction, but when will we all take a much needed pause in the pattern to fully engaged and commit to this conversation?
Unfortunately, this practice of not hiring directors and choreographers of color is also common in multiple regional theatre companies across the United States with thriving audiences. While I truly believe artistic directors, theatre managers and boards of directors aim to diversify their repertoire and audiences, their continued participation in this pattern of hiring only white directors/choreographers actually precipitates an unjust result. More often than not, this practice will include the hiring of book writers, designers, choreographers and assistants of color all well versed in the cultural aspects and movement vocabulary of the project. They can offer historical and dramatic insights, movements, text, and dramaturgy in support of the white director. In certain instances, adding a recognizable artistic name as the choreographer or assistant of color can add a sort of twisted validity to a project, thus enhancing the theatre’s reputation.
While the theatre company advances its profile, along with the director’s resume and reputation, the choreographer of color and often the cast remain in subservient “for special hire” positions. Here’s an all too familiar example: a theatre decides to include a cultural play or musical in its season to hopefully diversify and help broaden its audience. Wonderful, but then instead of seeking out and engaging a qualified director and choreographer of color, the white artistic director themself decides to helm the show/project with the raison d'être being, “I love this show and have always wanted to direct it!” And then, of course a choreographer of color is hired to cover the lion’s share of the staging. As a fellow director/choreographer of color, my response to that reasoning is, “I love that show too, and would love to tell it from my point of view.”
Thankfully, many theatre artists of color have begun to write, direct, choreograph and produce our own stories, but we should also have the same opportunities as other artists to reach beyond our own cultures and themes. Again I ask, when is the correct time to diversify leaders in the theatre industry? When is the now?
Tomé Cousin is an internationally recognized director / choreographer / educator / performer and creator of musical theater works, ballets, films, new opera, song cycles, art installations and a published author. This season marks the 50th anniversary of Tome’s career in the creative and performing arts. While maintaining a prolific performance career he molded an award winning creative reputation that includes collaborations in theater, dance, music, film, photography, television and literature. BA: Dance History, and Choreography, Point Park University and MFA in New Media Art and Performance from Long Island University. He is a standing member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and four professional unions - Actors Equity, SAF/AFTRA, SDC, and the Society of Dance History Scholars. His past credits here at CMU include directing SPRING AWAKENING, THE WIZ and RAGTIME and choreography for ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, THE FULL MONTY, WILD PARTY and this seasons DETRIOT 67. For the Conservatory at Point Park University: CONTACT, MARATHON 33 (M33), THE PRODUCERS, THOU SHALT NOT, and this seasons CORAM BOY. For the REP: BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK, CHOIR BOY, SOUVENIR, WIG OUT, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. As a performer: Broadway: DREAMGIRLS, CONTACT, A FREE MAN OF COLOR. Off Broadway: BELLE EPOQUE, VILLAGE WOOING, CONTACT, A SONG FOR NEW YORK, BINGO LONG. Workshops: GROUNDHOGS DAY, BELLE EPOQUE, CONTACT, MABOU MINES, and THE VANDERZEE PROJECT. National tours: THE ME NOBODY KNOWS, DREAMGIRLS, A CHORUS LINE. INTERNATIONAL: SWEET CHARITY, THE WHO’S TOMMY, GRAND HOTEL, TABALUGA UND LILLI, and countless performances in regional theaters across the country and in Europe.
TELEVISION: DANCE MOMS Season #8, Nine seasons MR. ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD appearing as Ragdoll (Tome’), THE TONY AWARDS, THE TONIGHT SHOW, BROADWAY ON BRAVO, THE TODAY SHOW, THE ROSIE O’DONNELL SHOW. Film: THE JACKSONS: AN AMERICAN DREAM, CONTACT / LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER, FLASH DANCE. Video: The Harlem Shuffle (The Rolling Stones, Ich Fuhl Wie Du (Peter Maffay).
Dance: The American Dance Ensemble, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Tanztheater Wuppertal, The Physical Theatre Project, Bern Ballett (Switzerland). He has performed as a singer / dancer with an eclectic roster of artists: Grace Jones, Sister Sledge, Culture Club, K.C. and The Sunshine Band, RuPaul, Nona Hendryx, and Elton John.
He is the author of performance essays, articles, plays and two theater study journals: THE TOTAL THEATER ARTIST AND NEW MEDIA PERFORMANCE, and THE FRANKLIN PROJECT: ARTICLES / ESSAYS ON DIVERSITY AND NON-TRADITIONAL CASTING. His Cabaret concerts SOME KINDA WONDERFUL and DANCE SWIF ME premiered at the TRAID Theater and the LGBTQ Center in NYC.
Since 2005 Tome’ has also served as a directing supervisor for five time Tony Award winning director Susan Stroman, staging twenty one companies of her 2000 Best Musical CONTACT across the USA and international companies in Korea, Poland, China, and Hungary. He also directed / choreographed over 90 original works and also for Lincoln Center Theater, The American Dance Machine For The 21 st Century, Abington Theater, City Theatre, North Shore Musical Theater, PCLO, Shanghai Theater Academy, the ASOLO REP, Virginia Stage, and the Chinese premiers of GRAND HOTEL and Stroman’s BIG FISH in China.
He is a graduate and instructor of Jacques d’ Amboise’s National Dance Institute and member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. In high regard as a actor / dancer’s educator he has taught at the Alvin Ailey School, Point Park University, STEPS, Broadway Dance Center, Ballett Centrum / Berlin, Korean Imperial School, Hungarian Arts Academy, New York University, The Luigi School.
Tomé is on faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in the School Of Drama.