On Friday, June 15, there was a protest at the Muny’s production of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” The protest was led by theater artists who were in town for a conference held by the Theatre Communications Group. This is a response to that protest by the members of the Theatre Communications Group Rising Leaders of Color cohort. The Rising Leaders of Color is a program sponsored by TCG that offers exceptional early career artists of color the opportunity to participate in a year-long curriculum of professional development and networking opportunities.
In light of what happened in St. Louis when the national theatre community was here for the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) conference from June 14–16, we, artists of color living in St. Louis, wanted to issue a statement. During the Muny’s production of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” a white actor played an Asian role, and Latin and Native American cultures were treated with derision. We stand behind the statements already made at the TCG conference and by the Consortium of Asian American Theatre Artists as well as the petition for better casting, which are all in response to this incident. Further, we condemn the use of yellowface, blackface, brownface, cripface or redface. We support the protesters and are disappointed by the local and national media’s critique of the protest itself, as an attempt to avoidconversation about the need for protest. Many people left St. Louis shocked at Midwest theater, but we are here to tell you that the Muny is not us.
It is an honor to work as an artist of color in St. Louis. But like many honors, it comes with responsibility and in turn a burden. We deal with racism, both overt and systematic. We work hard to use art to bridge deep divides that began long before our time and still affect the daily lives of people of color. We deal with a police force that has been under investigation by both the FBI and DOJ. We deal with a state government that wants to defund arts and education. We deal with a theatrical cannon that doesn’t celebrate our bodies or our experiences. The true honor, however, comes from having a community that looks these challenges in the face and rises above. THIS is what we work towards tirelessly and display almost every weekend of the year and have had on high display this month in June.
While the Muny was using worn and outdated tropes, the heart of St. Louis theatre was shining. Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo were in a coproduction of “Luchadora” by Alvaro Saar Rios, about a young Latina finding her inner power by talking to her Abuela about her time as Lucha Libre wrestler. It was directed by Anna Skidis Vargas (a TCG Rising Leader of Color) with co-direction by Gabe Taylor (TCG RLC), and starring local talent led by Latinx performers and Carl Overly Jr. (TCG RLC). Less than a mile down the road, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble was staging “Run-On Sentence” in partnership with Prison Performing Arts. (And you can still catch it until June 30!) Local artist Taleesha Cuturah led a diverse cast in a searing depiction of life in a women’s prison. It was written by Stacie Lents who spent time in a prison interviewing the women central to this play.
Just a few minutes walk from the Muny in Forest Park, was Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ “Romeo and Juliet,” with a diverse cast (including Reynaldo Piniella as Romeo) under the direction of Elena Araoz. At the same time on the steps of the St. Louis Public Library downtown, the Shakespeare Festival (which employs TCG RLC Bryce Goodloe) was also producing “Blow Winds,” a citywide community-engagement project written by Nancy Bell with additional material by Mariah Richardson. This production, helmed by Tom Martin and Jacqueline Thompson (TCG RLC), had a cast that represented our community’s racial makeup, including The Gentlemen of Vision (National Champion Step Team of young local men) and a local gospel choir.
If you were dead set on a musical, there was the diverse cast of “Yeast Nation,” a new musical about when our world was dominated only by single-celled organisms, at New Line Theatre. This is the smallest of samples of the diverse, rich and progressive work that goes on in our city over the course of the year. We have other incredible theater companies, thinkers, public servants and artists such as Ron Himes the founder and artistic director of the Black Rep, which will be producing its 42nd season this year. We mention these not just for added awareness of diverse art, but also to highlight ways in which color consciousness, not blindness, truly opens up our theatre to all people.
St. Louis’ artists of color are decentralized, diverse, inspired, progressive, angry, tired, unyielding, and damned talented. We are so thankful that TCG came and gave us the opportunity to show the nation what we do, and are embarrassed by what happened here. We would love people to come back, bring their friends, drink tasty local beer with us, and hear our unique voices. We hope to continue to show our work not just to the most artistically minded of our region, or to everyone in St. Louis. Instead, we are determined to carry the torch of revolution and change from the streets to the stage to the nation.
The conference and these events have inspired us to push harder and be more public with what we do. We will be working more publically and diligently on a document of Casting POC Best Practices, which was started long ago and is well overdue for revisiting. Upon revision, this document should become a clear tool for companies to know what is expected and what is unacceptable when casting (or not casting) POC. We will continue to curate spaces for young artists of color to seek mentorship, opportunities, and continued education. And, as ever, we will support each other with a ferocious dedication. #Goseeaplay #welcometotheLou
The St. Louis Rising Leaders of Color Cohort
Carl Overly, Jr.
Anna Skidis Vargas