Race and Representation Among Decision-Makers in Chicago Theater

Race and Representation Among Decision-Makers in Chicago Theater

(or How Guerrilla Research is Like Performance Art)

by Smyra Yawn

Diversity on Chicago’s stages has been the hot button issue in 2016. But, as director Lavina Jadhwani observes, “Casting is the symptom, not the root problem. I wish we could focus the conversation more on decision makers (including directors and writers — but also producers, artistic directors, etc).”  The lack of diversity she saw in the field prompted Jadhwani to start her research, existing in it’s entirety on a public Google sheet entitled “Director/Playwright representation in Chicago.” As of this writing the sheet documents 74 Chicago theatres along with the number of playwrights and directors of color involved in their latest season.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-4-11-31-pm Over the past week, anyone who opened the document could see not only the data that Jadhwani has gathered, but also little avatars in the top right corner indicating other people who were also looking at it. Sometimes 10 people at once, perusing the numbers or perhaps checking in to see if they had changed. It felt like a hybrid of guerrilla research and performance art.

Jadhwani shared the document on Facebook and it quickly attracted the attention of others in the Chicago community. Most shared the link with comments commending the work and encouraging others to check it out, but some people contacted her directly with concerns that the project was biased or unfair. “It was surprising (and honestly, a little hurtful) that those people’s first response was to reject the whole project as careless, rather than examine the programming of the companies in question first,” says Jadhwani. In a Facebook post on November 24th, she wrote, “If you feel like the stats are incorrect, please contact me directly; I’ve said from jump that this is a work in progress and I’m open to feedback!”

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-4-12-03-pmThe spreadsheet, along with two tabs of analysis, certainly do not present every single Chicago theater and there are some exceptions and overlap (noted extensively by Jadhwani at the bottom of the document). However, at the time of writing this article, the statistics are striking.  With 74 theatres listed, nonwhite artists make up only 23% of the directors and 26% of the playwrights. About 40% of theaters surveyed had no directors or playwrights of color in their seasons. “Back in the Spring,” Jadhwani told me, “I said that I would only attend work at theaters that are featuring at least ONE playwright OR director of color in their season … ideally I’m going to companies that hire multiple artists of color, but that’s my bare minimum. This rules out houses like Redtwist, House, Lookingglass, etc.”

Jadhwani was particularly concerned with the representation of Asian directors and playwrights. She pulled the following stats: Asian directors made up 3%* of the total number of directors counted in the survey. Asian playwrights made up only 4.3%. Appalled by these findings, she posted a list of upcoming productions that featuring Asian playwrights and directors on Facebook (reprinted below).

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-4-12-43-pmMany jump to point out that one season does not necessarily reflect any one theater’s overall inclusion of artists of color, but that’s not the point. Jadhwani’s project illustrates for everyone – in clear cut terms – what she and other artists of color see when they look at the theatrical offerings in Chicago. Both as a director looking for work and as an audience member, it’s profoundly disappointing. “I’ve found that people are eager to talk about what they want to see more of, (i.e. actors of color on stage)” says Jadhwani, “but reluctant to talk about what they would be willing to give up (i.e., maybe not direct at their company for a few seasons).”

But for all her frustration, Jadhwani’s project is hopeful. “I’m not looking for holes,” she says, “I’m looking for a place I can call home … I’m counting [directors and playwrights of color] because as an artist and audience member, I’m looking for a reason to stay [in Chicago].”  She would love to see a 50/50 balance in terms of playwrights and directors in the next five years. “I think we can do this!” she told me. I certainly hope she does stick around to see it happen.

– Chay Yew directed Roz and Ray at Victory Gardens Theater, playing now thru December 11
– Chay Yew will direct A Wonder in My Soul at Victory Gardens Theater, February 10-March 23
– Chay Yew will direct Lady in Denmark at Goodman Theatre, May 19-June 18

– Minita Gandhi‘s solo piece, Muthaland, at 16th St, August 31-October 7
– Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats at American Theatre Company, January 6-February 12
– Jiehae Park’s peerless at First Floor Theater, February 11-March 12
– Lauren Yee‘s King of the Yees at Goodman Theatre, March 31-April 30
– Lauren Yee‘s Hookman at Steep Theatre, April 20-May 27
– James Sie’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time at Lifeline Theatre, February 17-April 9
– Christine Bunuan‘s cabaret, Christmas at Christine’s, at Silk Road Rising, December 1-23
– Madhuri Shekar’s Queen at Victory Gardens Theater, April 14-May 14
– Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die at Haven Theatre, opening May 8

– Lloyd Suh’s American Hwangap, directed by Helen Young; co-produced by A-Squared Theatre and Halcyon Theatre, February 24-April 1
– Lavina Jadhwani‘s adaptation, VANYA (or “That’s Life!”), directed by Kaiser Ahmed for Rasaka Theatre Company, January 5-February 3
– Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Great Expectations, co-directed by Lavina Jadhwani; co-produced by Remy Bumppo Theatre Company and Silk Road Rising, May 11-July 2
Straight White Men, written and directed by Young Jean Lee at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, February 2-March 19


This article originally appeared on spielchicago.com.

About author

Smyra Yawn

Since 2011 Smyra Yawn has worked as a stage manager, production manager, business manager and teacher in Chicago. She enjoys also coffee and gardening.

  • Michael R Jones#1

    December 5, 2016

    Smyrna Yawn’ are you white? You look white, but your name sounds kinda Asian….hmm for my database I will say that you are Asian. And that the theatre blogpost guy with the olive complexion in his picture is Latino?…Italian?…no Latino because it proves my hypothesis that writers of Theatre blogs are predominantly minorities. Yup. That’s how I will gather my data. Then I’ll post it and THEN ask if anyone wants to correct me they can email me. Of course by then I will have lit up the blogosphere with my “facts”.

    See how it works?

    My apologies if I appear flippant, but as a theatre artists, who also happens to have a degree in mathematics, Ms. Jadhwani’s collection of data is as guilty as the hiring of an Italian actor to play Latinx because he “looks the part.” Now I do not identify as White, but most people think that I am based on my light skin. But I am listed in this “research” as being white. Was this based on a few random pics of me on the Internet, talking to my associates, reading my director’s notes or hearing me speak (how does one “sound” white), or calling my mom. She would have given her an earful of MLK’s I Have a Dream speech (judge my son not by his skin, but the content of his character). My mother told me not to fill out that square on the financial aid forms, etc. as to race/color. To get accepted into college based on the “KIND of man you are, nothing more.”

    Yes, Chicago can definitely #DoBetter but we should not ask white cis-gender male directors and playwrights to put their passion on hold, just so Ms. Jadhwani can fulfill hers, most of the small non-eqs has as its sole director the founder of the theatre company, whose entire company exists because of his cis-gendered white male (or by outward appearances such) hard work.

    At this point all ya’ll are seeing red, ready to pounce because I question the narrative, but please know that I am an ally. Yes, I have passed for white. And yes, that has removed barriers. And yes, I go out of my way to fill the chairs next to me on the production team with LGBTQQ and POC. And yes, I have had to pull out my race card when trying to woke a production manager as to the need for inclusivity. But we will not gain ground by using the same labeling tactics that others have used to oppress the disenfranchised just to prove our point. Statistics, even ones with pretty bar and circle graphs, are meaningless, especially when the data collection methods are so dubious.

    Yes a Nom de plume was used out of fear of villagers with pitchforks towards any dissenting opinions on this topic.

    • Smyra Yawn#2

      December 5, 2016

      Hi Michael,

      I come sans pitchfork. You raise a lot of perfectly legitimate concerns about a survey like this. Self-identification is the only truly reliable way to determine how representation is playing out. And having a mathematics degree, I’m sure you are concerned about the selection bias within the surveyed theatres. But I don’t think at any point Ms. Jadhwani or I presented this as complete and final data on the matter of representation in Chicago’s theatres. It is a starting point–at which the intent and the methodology are completely accessible for anyone to read and make their own decisions, as you have. It is (to me, thought I cannot speak for Ms. Jadhwani) meant to raise awareness for the need of more robust research.

      I am not interested in burning at the stake anyone who disagrees with me. Chicago is lucky to have artists such as yourself and Ms. Jadhwani both working to improve the opportunities for artists of color, and healthy discussion–and criticism–is essential to that process.


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