By Brad Erickson
Torange Yeghiazarian, founder and artistic director of Golden Thread Productions, has invited me to moderate a discussion at the company’s upcoming ReOrient Forum, where she asks a provocative question: “Is hyphenated theatre dead?” By “hyphenated theatre,” we mean theatre that is coming from and speaking to a specific cultural community. Looking across the Bay Area theatre landscape terrain, one could have reason to worry.
As Torange writes in the ReOrient Forum program, “The landscape of culturally specific theatre in the Bay Area has shifted dramatically. National models such as the Traveling Jewish Theatre have closed. Longstanding organizations such as the Asian-American Theater Company and the Lorraine Hansberry have been quiet. How will culturally specific voices be represented? Are the days of hyphenated theatre over? As we move towards an ever more multifaceted population, are artists and audiences reluctant to align themselves with one cultural identity alone?”
As a culturally specific theatre itself, Golden Thread has a lot riding on the answer. So do we all. For many years, a vibrant cohort of culturally specific theatre companies was a hallmark of Bay Area theatre. Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinas/os and women, as well as Jewish, disabled and LGBTQ populations—all of these communities had a theatre here, often multiple theatre companies, giving voice to their stories and opportunities for artists. While some of these groups are still thriving, others have been forced to cut back on programming, or gone dark all together.
With the current push in the field for full inclusion, it is important to remember that one of the reasons many of these culturally specific companies were formed in the first place was to counteract the exclusion of non-mainstream stories and artists, and, by extension, non-mainstream audiences. Now, with “diversity” on everyone’s lips, and with some high-profile hiring by mainstream companies of women and people of color into leadership roles, has sufficient progress been made in the area of inclusion that the need for culturally specific theatres to give voice and provide opportunities has been met? Framed in that way, the answer must be a resounding “no.”
Research confirms the need for ongoing attention to this issue. “Not Even,” a WomenArts report on gender parity in Bay Area theatre by Counting Actors Project author Valerie Weak, showed that opportunities for women artists in the Bay Area are in no way aligned with opportunities afforded to men. A quick scan across the stages and season notices of the region will tell you the same remains true for people of color, the LGBTQ community, the disabled. So long as exclusion in the form of a dearth of opportunities exists, there will be a crucial role for culturally specific theatres.
Even if—or let’s say when—we, as a field, reach the goal of full inclusion, will the need suddenly vanish for theatres that consistently speak from and to specific communities? My sense is that the answer again is “no.” There is an unparalleled power in artists and audiences united by a common cultural identity working together to unearth and explore their shared experience. It is a power of recognition and self-understanding, of personal and communal critique and celebration that speaks to a deeply human need. As long as we have a desire to know ourselves and know the communities that shaped us and share our identity, we’ll need theatres committed to uncovering our culturally specific stories.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.
For more on the ReOrient Forum (October 3-4 at Z Space in SF) visit goldenthread.org.