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Colors of the Stage

Are Richmond theater companies doing enough to address issues of race?

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After months of controversy regarding the lack of black actresses in its cast, "Saturday Night Live" decided to poke fun at this deficiency during the show's opening a few weeks ago. While episode host Kerry Washington scrambled to change costumes to portray various black female celebrities, a voice-over apologized on behalf of the show for its lack of diversity.

For theater professor Tawyna Pettiford-Wates, the amusing sketch was emblematic of the greater problems of race and gender in the world of entertainment.

"Our industry does not handle race well," says Pettiford-Wates, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. She also serves as artistic director for the Conciliation Project, a theater organization that raises issues of race, gender and class through its productions.

In Pettiford-Wates' view, Richmond's theater scene is particularly lacking in substantial work about race. She moved the Conciliation Project from Seattle to Richmond in 2005, and says it's been a challenge to generate the amount of interest it received in its previous home.

"This theater community would rather avoid the topic of race, or pretend that it's not a problem by saying, 'See, we're doing this play,'" Pettiford-Wates says. "People are more comfortable with a known quantity like 'To Kill a Mockingbird'" — which Virginia Repertory Theatre staged in the fall.

Local productions about race are a mixed bag, says Chuck Mike, a theater professor at the University of Richmond, who says the city is behind the times in having a dialogue about race: "This is a place where that conversation is not had as openly or as freely as other places."

Mike directed and co-wrote "Zhe: [noun] undefined," which explores race, sexuality and identity and had its American premiere in Richmond earlier this year. Now it's being staged by London-based theater company Collective Artistes, where Mike serves as artistic director.

The city's old-money audience is hesitant to support provocative work about race, Mike says: "They want 'Annie.' They want anything that is far away from the drudgery, from the complications — and I need to say this word — the pain. They're reticent to go there."

Among the dozens of locally produced professional shows scheduled for this season, only a handful include the subject of race, and few of them say anything to advance a modern discussion on the issue. In past seasons, a number of shows that were promoted as furthering the dialog on race — such as "Scorched Earth" and "Night Blooms" — focused almost exclusively on white society's views of the topic.

Sycamore Rouge in Petersburg, which regularly produced shows tacking racial themes, closed this past summer. Even fewer shows represent nonwhite communities, with "The Color Purple" standing out as the lone exception among major theater companies this season (playing Virginia Rep's November Theatre from June 19 to Aug. 3).

"I think it's a very legitimate concern," says Bruce Miller, artistic director of Virginia Rep, the largest theater organization in central Virginia. Miller cites "The Color Purple" and past years' productions such as "The Bluest Eye" and the Hispanic Theatre Project as ways the company has attempted to engage nonwhite audiences. Miller says Virginia Rep has made having black leadership on the board a priority. "I think we should do more shows by African-American authors," he says. "We should be doing more shows by Latino authors."

Casting is another issue where race comes into play. There are two modes of thought: traditional casting and colorblind, or nontraditional, casting. For "Fiddler on the Roof," Virginia Rep followed a traditional model, selecting only white actors to portray a story that takes place in Russia in 1905. When it staged "The Music Man" last season, it used the colorblind model, placing black actors in roles that weren't historically accurate for Iowa in 1912.

"What was more important [in 'The Music Man'] was that African-American audience members could see themselves on stage," Miller says. "In 'Fiddler on the Roof,' we wanted the audience to directly connect with Russia in 1905, just as with 'The Color Purple' we want the audience to directly connect with an African-American community in the South."

Switching between the two models, Virginia Rep says 65 percent of its productions in the past decade have featured racially mixed casts.

Pettiford-Wates takes issue with the idea of colorblind casting, and says that theaters need to consider the socio-political context of casting actors of color. Casting against the norm can work, she adds, as long as it's explained through the production.

"You cannot be obtuse to what placing someone of color in specific roles means — the social, political, historical context of that," she says. Theaters "have good intentions, but they are still afraid to face the socio-political ramifications of using people of color. They'd rather shy away from it, or perpetuate the same racial stereotypes."

While the remainder of the theater season has only a few shows addressing race, at least three offerings will tackle the issue in a modern context. In February, Cadence Theatre Company in partnership with Virginia Rep will stage "Clybourne Park," a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that works as a response to Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." The play bounces between 1959 and 2009 while addressing issues of race and class (running Feb. 20 to March 14).

Firehouse Theatre Project also will explore the subject through the prism of professional wrestling with a mostly minority cast in "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" (running Feb. 6 to March 8).

Hitting the subject square-on, David Mamet's "Race" is being staged by Carol Piersol and African American Repertory Theatre, which hasn't produced a show in two years. The play — staged in theater space donated by Virginia Rep — follows three lawyers while they consider defending a white businessman accused of raping a black woman.

"It's raw, it's out there, and the fact that it's playing in Richmond is all the more fascinating," says Mike, who saw the play in its original Broadway run with none other than Kerry Washington. "That is a statement on where we are with racial relationships in America, that we can have that dialogue."

"That's what theater needs to do," he says. "It needs to activate the discussion." S

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