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Social Activism & Ethnic Representation in Theatre

Interview with Playwright/Professor: Ismail Khalidi

Written by: Catherine Knox

I interviewed Playwright/Professor Khalidi on the subject of activism and representation in theatre and the controversies behind it all.

Born in Beirut, Ismail Khalidi is a playwright, screenwriter, and director. Khalidi’s work has been published in numerous anthologies and he co-edited (also with Naomi Wallace) Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora (TCG, 2015). His writing has been featured in American Theatre Magazine, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, Mizna, Guernica, Al Jazeera, and The Dramatist. Khalidi holds an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a Directing Fellow at Pangea World Theater and is currently an Artist-in-Residence at Boston University’s Center on Forced Displacement.

Khalidi’s plays include Truth Serum Blues (Pangea World Theater,2005), Tennis in Nablus (Alliance, 2010), Foot (Teatro Amal, 2016), Sabra Falling (Pangea, 2017), and Dead Are My People (Noor Theatre, 2018). He has co-adapted two novels for the stage with Naomi Wallace; Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa (Finborough Theatre, 2018) and Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer (Actors Theatre of Louisville, 2019).

How well do you believe ethnic representation is portrayed in the theater community today?

First of all, I think there are far too few roles for POC in American Theatre. As a whole, there’s not enough representation in terms of what’s produced as a whole. There is a holistic problem of what is produced and what is not. Of course now across the board there is more multiracial casting, but a lot of the white canon is still being produced. Sometimes we use identity politics and representation as a stand-in for addressing the systemic problems that exist.

"...simply showcasing representation doesn't solve the problem."

With a show like Hamilton for example, while it's great that those POC actors had huge roles to play and got beneficial exposure. However, we must think of the payoff. If a play is politically problematic and doesn’t address the root causes of racism and white supremacy, then simply showcasing representation doesn’t solve the problem.

What should cultural identity/representation look like on stage?

When casting actors in my plays, it's important for me to have actors that can convey my stories and sometimes that's more important than having the perfect ethnic representation. As a political writer it is also important for me to find those who can bring those embodied politics to the peace. Embodied politics is as important a requisite as ethnicity sometimes. But are we happy that they’re casting Arabs as terrorists? Or casting Black people as gangbangers?

Is that fulfilling what we want? It may be representational, since they’re playing the roles of their race/ethnicity. However, we must ask ourselves who is writing those roles and what is the political agenda of those roles. The conversation can definitely be much wider.

I personally don’t think that we should play some roles even if they are ethnically representative. It's really problematic because there are so few roles for POC that it's hard to tell people that they should boycott.

What do you think of plays and musicals that choose to resist ethnic representation when it comes to showcasing theatre activism?

My issue is that most of these industries are not letting in subversive stories for the most part. The fact is putting money towards shows on stage genuinely has an interest in maintaining the status quo. They are not trying to showcase subversive/radical stories that will cause an upset against the systemic problems in our country. There may be some exceptions to that, but usually they look to please the widely accepted narrative of radicalism.

Black Lives Matter may be accepted up to a certain point, but how many big Broadway shows talk about systemic poverty and white supremacy. For the most part, those who are let through the gatekeepers are not addressing those questions. On one hand, it's great that there’s representation. On the other hand, we must figure out what they are hiding. Same thing with Hamilton, the founding fathers were racist slaveholders.

It's more important to tell stories that have Black and Brown protagonists that are honest about colonialism and white supremacy. Rather than implanting POC actors in a story that hides those issues and their contexts, which confuses people that are already misinformed. Representation is sometimes used as a smokescreen to distract people from questioning the systemic inequality in our storytelling, who's telling them, and how those stories are being told.

Many of those plays/musicals that address social activism are underrated and given very little attention. Why do you think that is?

There are definitely some exceptions such as the musical Rent for example, that discuss the AIDS epidemic. But they didn’t address some of the most glaring elements of the epidemic as far as racial disparities and systemic brutality. There’s often this period when it's most urgent for those stories to be released, they only ever come up afterwards once the epidemic is more under control or once there is a more accepting audience of gay characters. Only then are those shows allowed to flourish.

In general, there are gatekeepers, both implicit and explicit, that decide what stories are allowed to be told and what stories rock the boat too much. They mainly look for stories that give impressions of addressing issues, without really addressing it. There is the confusion of representation with actual radical criticism of systemic problems. That itself is the main problem.

From a pure entertainment perspective, you can make the argument that a musical about spoiled high school girls is more entertaining and marketable than one about police brutality. It's also about what goes into promoting those shows, how much money is spent, etc. You’ll notice that more radical/political shows that are produced won’t run for as long, maybe nine months. But they won’t run for years on end like The Lion King and The Book of Mormon, etc.

The money that’s invested in making them successful and powers that decide which shows to not take further as far as production. I would argue that a lot of the censorship is unseen, it's about what plays get to an artistic director’s desk. Most of the time we don’t even know what’s being censored because it's happening behind closed doors. In American theatre most of the people making those decisions are white men.

What criteria beyond acting/singing talent should a casting director look at when they are building a cast for a show?

Again, the problem is more systemic. There are not a lot of POC in casting director positions. There are not as many students of color in MFA programs. The training and exposure to theatre for those in poverty, POC, and immigrants, is not the same. You can’t just look at casting, it's the whole pipeline. What are the investments in the arts in low income communities? Often those communities are deprived and kept out of those pipelines, from performing arts schools to MFA programs.

Because the canon is so strong for what certain characters are supposed to be like, there is a lot of conditioning among the audience. However, things are changing and those representational shifts are a huge deal and are important. But who are the audiences for theatre? If you go to a play on Broadway in New York, the audiences are all white. With the exception of Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington for example, we’ll see Black folks come to see those shows. Often those are economic decisions made by the producers to reel in Black audiences.