Longterm discontent about racial and cultural representation in Vancouver's theatre scene has risen to the surface in the form of an open letter to the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society from an ad-hoc group.
On July 22, REAL Canadian Theatre penned and circulated an open letter to the president and board of directors of the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society. The letter, signed by 152 members of the community, focused on the lack of diversity and representation on Jessie boards and juries. (Since the document was posted to Google Docs, the list has grown to over 180 signatures.)
Signatories include Carmen Aguirre, Norman Armour, Scott Bellis, Camyar Chai, David Diamond, Charles Demers, Katrina Dunn, David C. Jones, Su-Feh Lee, Jovanni Sy, James Fagan Tait, Donna Yamamoto, Sherry Yoon, and Marcus Youssef. (To read the full letter, download the PDF available in the lefthand column.)
The not-for-profit, volunteer-run Jessie board has since released a letter of response indicating a willingness to discuss the issues.
The letter from ReaCT began by saying that they needed to address "an uncomfortable truth" about the Jessies: a historical and ongoing representation of white theatre artists with few exceptions.
"We believe that by bestowing awards and nominations overwhelmingly to white theatre artists," the letter stated, "the Society is—unconsciously but implicitly—sending a message that it is primarily white theatre artists and white theatre productions that are 'excellent'….it is our belief that the Society is doing a grievous disservice to the public by largely excluding work by artists of colour."
The letter emphasized that this discrimination is "in no way intentional" and not the result of individual people, but rather "a manifestation of systemic racism", which can be explained as "policies, systems, rules and/or assumptions that perpetuate inequalities for racialized people".
ReaCT stated in the letter that the Jessies' directors, advisory committee, and juries are predominantly or exclusively white.
None of the 10 jury members for small theatre (which ReaCT notes the vast majority of culturally diverse and Indigenous productions are adjudicated) and original script were artists of colour. There was only one artist of colour on the theatre for young audiences jury and three artists of colour out of 12 jurors on the large theatre jury.
They also cited the example of Toronto's 2015 Dora Awards as an example of being inclusive. Playwright C.E. Gatchalian gave the Georgia Straight several specific examples:
- in the general theatre division, three out of the five nominees for outstanding production featured culturally diverse casts, and the winner, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was directed by an artist of colour;
- in the general theatre division, two of the five nominees for best lead actor were actors of colour and the winner, Kawa Ada, is an artist of colour;
- in the independent theatre category, Blood Wedding, a culturally diverse show coproduced by Aluna Productions, a theatre company with a focus on Latin Canadian work, and directed by Soheil Parsa, an artist of colour, won six awards, including best production, director (Parsa) and lead actress (Latin-Canadian theatre artist Beatriz Pizano);
- Daren Herbert won the Dora Award this year for best male performance in a musical.
In comparison, the letter noted that while actors Carl Kennedy and Tom Pickett were nominated in the Jessies' 2015 best lead actor category, they were nominated for playing disempowered characters: black American slaves in Pacific Theatre's Whipping Man. (Neither won the award.)
The letter also cited a Georgia Straight 2013 article about Bollywood Wedding which noted the near-absence of any visible minority nominations at the Jessies that year.
According to Gatchalian, ReaCT is currently compiling a list of overlooked performances and productions dating back to 2009.
The Jessies released a letter signed by their board of directors in response to ReaCT's letter. (To read the full letter, download the PDF available in the lefthand column.)
The board of directors stated that although they had not been informed about ReaCT's plans for an open letter, they contacted a representative of the group to express their interest in discussing such issues. They emphasized that they value diversity and have an "enthusiastic desire to enter into a dialogue about these issues".
They had already been considering diversity as their theme for the forthcoming season.
"The primary agenda item for our upcoming summer retreat is the makeup of our board and juries, setting goals, actions, and standards to increase diversity on both fronts, and at the coming AGM/Town Hall Meeting we intend to bring this conversation to our membership and the community at large," the letter stated.
The jury selection process has already been changed to allow people to self-nominate to attract greater diversity, which has already increased as a result.
They also welcome suggestions, constructive discussion, and inquiries about positions on the board of directors.
Omari Newton, a member of Canadian Actors' Equity Association who was born in Montreal and has lived in Vancouver past 8 years, is an African Caribbean Canadian actor and playwright who helped craft and distribute ReaCT's letter.
In a phone interview, he praised the response from the Jessies, had no criticism of it, and found their letter very encouraging.
"To their credit, the Jessie committee has been incredibly receptive and open to dialogue," he said. "Everyone who we've spoken to recognizes that there is a problem and more work could've been done in this department."
He explained that the members of ReaCT recognize that they "aren't the authoritative voice of all people of colour in the city of Vancouver" and they have received criticism and opposing viewpoints in response to their letter, which took them about two weeks to draft.
Like ReaCT's letter, Newton emphasized that the problem is neither one perpetrated by specific individuals or groups nor one done consciously or intentionally. Rather, it's a reflection of values embedded within social structures.
"The current people who sit on the board of the Jessies…are largely figureheads who are representative of the Jessies but they're also representative of a much greater problem—it's not their fault—of systemic exclusion and…this institutional racism that's unconscious in the community," he said. "Because institutional racism is so pervasive, if you don't consciously, actively think about it, it just defaults on to this thing where people of colour end up getting excluded and it becomes this vicious cycle where people of colour aren’t included, and then they feel like they're not welcome."
The ad-hoc group was necessary to form, Newton explained, to help its member feel that their concerns had justification and widespread relevance.
"As a person of colour who lives in a world where you face a lot of barriers in terms of systemic racism and lack of representation…in order to feel empowered or in order to feel like you have a valid case, you have to be some kind of collective and get consensus because you wonder to yourself, 'Is it just me? Is this just a personal gripe, or is this something that the community is actually concerned about?' "
ReaCT's letter is part of a larger social movement taking place in theatre scenes around the world.
Newton pointed out how the U.K. is discussing diversity in theatre. The spring issue of Canadian Actors' Equity Association's Equity Quarterly focused on their equity census being conducted to examine the impact of diversity on work opportunities, engagement patterns, and income.
Newton pointed out that greater diversity helps, particularly in the arts, to gain a more objective view of subjects and avoid insularity.
"Art is subjective by nature…so it's important to have a diversity of perspectives that are evaluating art because…whether it's gender or age or racial demographic, the more lenses that you're viewing things from, the richer perspective you get and the more accurate a sample you get of what the community feels about what's out there."
To read about the Jessie Awards board of directors president, see this article: "Jessie Awards board of directors president addresses ReaCT's letter about racism in theatre".