Not so Black and White: My experiences in white theatre

How gaslighting, inaction and oververt and subtle racism in white theatre pushed me to leave an industry I love.

Jacob ‘Coby’Aloi, Guest Columnist

It is no surprise that American theatre, a traditionally and predominantly white space, has been marred by accusations and allegations of racism. However, when most people consider racism in theater, I imagine they think of big, fervent explosions; such as the use of slurs or unsavory hiring practices. While those are indeed elements of the wider issues of race in theater, they are often not the most prevalent. In fact, while I have seen those things first hand, in my experience racism is often more subtle, refined and sneaky—which almost makes it more sinister. This is why I found it important to tell my experience working in various theater settings, including Hamline’s Theater department. 

Before I get too ahead of myself, I would like to acknowledge that I have been afforded certain privileges in the theater. I am a man, I am rather straight passing and while I am clearly and obviously a person of color, I am rather light skinned. I am fully aware the kinds of things I have seen, heard and lived are far less intense than the things my darker skinned colleagues have experienced. That being said, I am not here to minimize my experiences. 

When I first walked into my work study job on campus I was excited to have the opportunity to grow and learn. I was initially hired as a theater electrician, and after a pretty wonderful year, I transitioned into a management position—a role that oversaw all aspects of theatrical lighting and special effects. Generally speaking, my first couple of productions in the role, while rocky, were enjoyable. Everything was finished on time and I got generally good feedback from my supervisors. I felt supported and cared for. This quickly unraveled once I began working on another show that I shall leave nameless for the time being—even now I am covering for racists and enablers. 

When I began working on this particular production, I was immediately faced with an energy that I had previously not encountered. The hostile environment created can be attributed to a number of individuals involved in the project, but primarily fell upon a set number of senior (and white) production team members who I believe did not fully understand how hurtful the actions they exhibited toward their fellow designers and technicians of color were. 

Repeatedly in production meetings and in private conversations, my work and professionality were brought into question—beyond the usual ‘I’m here to help’ sort of language—and became micro aggressive, demeaning and emasculating. However, I was the lucky one. My other colleagues of color got it the worst, being reduced to tears on more than one occasion. Meanwhile, my immune system took a hit and I got stress induced vomiting. For the most part, I was a mess during the final weeks leading up to opening night. I was resigned to doing push ups and crunches to get out my pent up aggression and I also packed on a few extra pounds from stress eating.  

From what I understand, this is nothing new to theater—in fact, I think it’s baked into the culture. From a young age we are taught the industry is small and that if we are difficult to work with, no one will hire us. While having a good attitude and being easy going are definitely good qualities to have, in practice this generally accepted truth in theater is used to silence those who work in the industry. 

Last spring we saw this first hand on a national level in the Scott Rudin scandal. For context, Scott Rudin is a famous Broadway producer, and recently allegations of abuse toward staff and crew have come to light. Yet, very few came forward to condemn him—a lot of which I abritute to the fear that has been so ingrained into theater. If we make a statement, we become unhireable.

Some have found the strength to talk about this ugly environment we have created. Karen Olivo and Daniel James Belnavis come to mind. However, there are few and far between who are taking a stand to actually change something about how theater operates and how it treats its most vulnerable and marginalized members. Those with power, even in limited amounts, need to say something. That includes me and it certainly includes my white colleagues when it comes to racism in the industry and department.  

To make a long, overdue and hopefully not too preachy column short, I’ll leave you with an anecdote from my personal life. I was walking through my frustrations about how I was being treated as a man of color in the department with a friend and co-worker. When I asked them why they didn’t speak up when they saw and knew what was happening, they said “This is the only opportunity I have to do theater. I don’t want to cause a riff.” My response was simply “This is my only chance too.” 

I realize now that my comment was snippy and rude—and I apologize for that—but the point still stands. Yes, it may be hard to see racism and it may be scary to say something about it, but it’s even harder to experience it. To quote the New York Metro slogan, see something, say something. We’ve been seeing it for far too long, it’s time we actually say something.