Perry Ojeda and Patti Cohenour in South Coast Repertory's 2014 p

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

The great Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer wrote her most famous story, “The Light in the Piazza, ” while living abroad. She had left the small town in which she grew up, Carollton, Miss., on a Guggenheim Fellowship for Italy. There she also wrote The Voice at the Back Door, about race relations in the South. This novel provoked the disapproval of her parents and her community.

As racial tension reached a boiling point, Spencer’s father had chosen to align with segregationists. Even her mother, who used to read to her and encouraged her to write, was appalled that her daughter had written so honestly about race in the South. The Voice at the Back Door was voted as the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1957, but rather than give it to her, the Pulitzer board decided not to bestow a prize that year.

Rejected by her parents and under constant pressure to stop writing, Spencer (who’s still with us at age 92)  spent the next 25 years living in Europe and Canada. It is, perhaps, this distance that allowed her to write a deeply personal work about the strength it takes to defy the “moonlight and magnolia” romanticization of the white Southern patriarchy. The Light in the Piazza was Spencer’s first story about a woman, and for the rest of her career she continued to write specifically about women who break the rules.

The Light in the Piazza tells the story of Margaret Johnson, who has taken her mentally challenged daughter, Clara, on a trip to Italy. Clara falls in love with an Italian man, and Margaret must determine whether to let her daughter marry him, in defiance of her husband’s wishes. The story was made into a Tony-Award winning Broadway musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel in 2005. The musical is currently running at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

Clara, whose disability is described vaguely as an inability to mature emotionally, clearly stands in for a young Spencer who, by virtue of being a writer, an artist and a woman with ambition, was marked early in her life as “different.” Like Clara, Spencer met the love of her life in Italy. Like Clara, Spencer’s father was not in attendance at or supportive of her wedding. But whereas the fictional Margaret chooses to endorse her daughter’s choice and enable her marriage to her lover, Spencer’s mother was as almost as uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s choices as her father was.

In The Light in the Piazza, Spencer has envisioned a world in which her mother’s support of her youthful creativity–her “difference”–continued into her adulthood. In reality, Spencer rarely visited Carollton, and her husband and her family never got along. But in the musical, Margaret Johnson manages to defy her husband and empower her daughter to follow her heart, come what may.

Patti Cohenour and Erin Mackey in South Coast Repertory's 2014 pIn a new documentary about her life, Landscapes of the Heart, named after Spencer’s autobiography, the writer cites a class she took in college in modern literature as a major inspiration. The modern sensibility of the The Light in the Piazza story is mirrored in the modernist music composed by Guettel, who is the grandson of Richard Rodgers. But unlike the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Guettel’s songs aren’t hummable. They are closer to something by Schoenberg: cascades of sound that never quite resolve. For the most part, it works–the music illuminates the refraction of identity at the heart of the story and hints at a musical realization of light.

Though Margaret makes the choice to defy her husband and support her daughter, the story ends without any real resolution as to whether Clara will actually be okay. Likewise, this production doesn’t quite complete itself; I didn’t even realize the finale was happening until the curtain call began.

As adorable as Clara and her Italian lover are, the story is clearly about Margaret. It is the mother’s choice whether or not to support her daughter’s rebellion that constitutes the central action of this story–not the innocence of her child or the sexy young man with whom she falls in love–making this an unusual plot for a Broadway musical. The modern music adds to the challenge of crafting a crowd-pleasing show, and the South Coast Repertory production suffers from a lack of focus on the central conflict. Moments that could have served to emphasize the central character’s rebellion– such as the revelation that she has her own savings account and the fact that she shares an illicit kiss with the married father of her daughter’s lover–are glossed over in favor of the younger characters’ love story.

The success of The Light in the Piazza (it won eight Tony Awards) proves, yet again, that stories by women–even women in their late 40s!–do sell tickets and do make great art . I look forward to a production of Light in the Piazza directed by a woman (both the Broadway and the SCR directors are male) that places Margaret firmly at the center of the story. Clara’s storyline may be unresolved, but Margaret has made her choice. She has said, essentially, “Fuck the patriarchy.”

The Light in the Piazza runs through February 23 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

 Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Originally published by HowlRound

The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation recently hosted a panel discussion on diversity in Southern Californian theater at the Pasadena Playhouse. “Diversity: Through a Director’s Eye” featured Tim Dang, Artistic Director of East West Players; Seema Sueko, Associate Artistic Director of Pasadena Playhouse; Christopher Ashley, Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse; Marc Masterson, Artistic Director of South Coast Repertory; Jessica Kubzansky, co-Artistic Director of The Theatre @ Boston Court; Barry Edelstein, Artistic Director of The Old Globe; Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director of Pasadena Playhouse; and Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director of Center Theatre Group.

For a panel on diversity, the participants were not very diverse: Dang is of Asian descent, Epps is black; and Sueko is a half-Japanese, half-Pakistani, Muslim American. In other words, five of the panelists were white. Only two were women. None were Latino.

Early on, Jessica Kubzansky of Boston Court mentioned that her perspective on the necessity of developing a diverse audience, casting a diverse range of actors, and producing a diverse range of shows was completely changed when she attended a previous panel on which Tim Dang also spoke. To that end, I can understand why the organizers might have believed that inviting white male artistic directors of major theaters to participate might ultimately produce results: They, like Kubzansky did, could have heard something that will effect genuine changes in their programming.

And the need for genuine changes is evident. Of twenty-three plays in their 2013–14 season, Center Theatre Group did only two plays by women (one a woman of color) and five by male writers of color (four of which were one-man shows). In other words sixteen of CTG’s shows were written by white men. In a twelve-play season (not including the as-yet-unannounced Pacific Playwrights Festival shows), South Coast Repertory did three plays by women, one of whom is Asian American. Nine plays were by white men. Interestingly, La Jolla Playhouse, still in the shadow of last year’s controversy over yellowface casting in The Nightingale, has a far more diverse season this year.

This particular framing of the conversation about the need for diversity in the American theater has been happening since the 1980s, and all of the participants at this panel indicated that their audiences are increasingly tolerant of experimentation and risk. So why have these artistic directors, who proclaimed loudly and repeatedly their dedication to diversity, made so little progress? Why have they continued to find themselves in hot water for casting choices, such as with The Nightingale, and programming choices that continue to not reflect the diversity of our field?

Edelstein acknowledged that ticket prices create a major barrier to entry for audiences, and that as long as the business model of major American theaters relies on ticket prices, that problem will remain. Michael Ritchie of CTG admitted that, whereas he can read a play or watch an audition and decide to take a chance on a playwright or actor, he has a hard time trusting unknown directors. However, the biggest obstacles to progress were most evident in the assumptions underlying many of the statements made by the white male artistic directors, statements that on the surface imply an interest in diversity but, when examined, reveal a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to do the work that it takes to implement lasting changes.

Marc Masterson of South Coast Repertory shared that his desire to diversify stems from a “curiosity about the human condition.” He is “curious about what it means to be a humanist” and curious about the way his organization is and is not reflecting his community. As anyone who has spent any time fighting inequality will tell you, curiosity is not enough to get the job done. Changing the status quo requires strategy, action, and accountability, not passive curiosity. One of the prevalent claims of Western theater is that the white male experience represents the human experience—that white males are universal—and anyone who subscribes to this theory can presumably satisfy his curiosity without ever producing a play by or about women or men of color. In fact the SCR season reflects the limitations of relying purely on curiosity to diversify.

Christopher Ashley furthered the notion that plays by women and racial and sexual minorities are not representative of the universal human experience when he referred to us as competing “interest groups:” Women and racial and sexual minorities are not constituents of his theater, they are not artists invested in making high-quality work, they are interest groups lobbying him for resources:

“Sometimes different interest groups can feel in competition with each other in unhealthy ways. This past year there was a lot of conversation—for example, at the TCG conference—about breaking the glass ceiling of gender, or should we focus on race, who gets included in the conversation, and is it a really finite pie where there’s only so much progress to be made?”

Though resources are indeed scarce, every single feminist I know (and that is quite a few) are what’s called “intersectional,” which means they are as deeply invested in racial, ethnic, religious, LGBTQ, and economic justice as they are in gender. As a member of an oppressed group, I consider myself an ally to every member of every other oppressed group. Women and racial and sexual minorities are not competing with one another. We—a united majority—are competing with the assumptions that lead artistic directors to allot white men—a minority of the population—the majority of their theaters’ resources.

When audience member, local playwright, and Artistic Director of Casa 0101 Josefina Lopez asked whether CTG is conscious of the fact that they discriminate against West Coast playwrights, Ritchie replied,

“It’s not discrimination. Regardless of my responsibilities in my job, I also have my own personal morals, ethics, experience, and the things that guide my life as well as my job. I was lucky enough to grow up in family at a time and in a town that was as liberal as it could be. So the choices that we make at that theater have nothing to do with discrimination. On my staff, diversity of voices and specifically in playwrights is something that is discussed every day.”

As with Masterson’s “curiosity,” I contend that “discussion” is not enough, nor is being liberal. Everyone is affected by the patriarchal rule of white men—we all live under it and we are all subliminally influenced by it. The essential first step in changing the homogeny that still exists in the upper echelons of the American theater is acknowledging the legacy of privilege that led to the creation of that homogeneity.

Given that no fewer than three references were made in the course of the evening to The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, where I was privileged to work for two years under George C. Wolfe, I was floored to hear Ritchie further proclaim that, “I haven’t run the numbers, but it is my expectation that CTG has probably produced more diverse plays than any other theater in the country. I could be wrong.” In reality, only 30 percent of CTG’s season was written by women and racial minorities, and the majority of those were one-person shows, meaning that the majority of the actors on stage were also white. Very few people consciously discriminate, but Ritchie’s own theater’s track record and his lack of awareness of it betrays the notion that being raised liberal is enough to effect change.

Not surprisingly, the most practical advice of the evening came from the one woman of color on the panel. Seema Sueko offered,

“One of the biggest obstacles is intentionality and the assumption that we know what the community wants or needs, as opposed to having a real conversation. I don’t think we should assume we’re the solution to the community’s problems. Rather we need communities more than communities need us. And so we have to engage in genuine conversation where our action should be listening.”

In that vein, Kubzansky told the audience, “Those of you who have great ideas about how to make better reaches, I would love to know. Please see me because frankly it’s an ongoing quest, and I don’t know that we are always successful. So great ideas are gladly appreciated.”

Tim Dang encouraged his colleagues to diversify at the same rate as the population or risk becoming obsolete, and urged more mentorship of young directors and writers of color “in the pipeline” as well as a dispersal of authority over that pipeline. Edelstein echoed the statement with an acknowledgment that institutions must throw their resources behind developing young artists. Ashley, on the other hand, encouraged young directors to be more aggressive about getting his attention, suggesting the only reason that women and racial and sexual minorities aren’t getting more work is that they aren’t trying hard enough.

Sheldon Epps volunteered that “we have to be able to tolerate the messiness of the conversation about diversity,” repeating something the moderator had encouraged everyone to do in the course of the evening. So, as the audience-question period came to a rapid close and I had not yet been called upon, despite raising my hand and standing up, I moved towards the stage and shouted, “I’m being aggressive! Take my question!” They did not.

My question was going to be why the lack of gender parity on stage and in the choice of directors and writers getting produced was not a part of the evening’s conversation at all—but it was clear that an aggressive means of approach will not necessarily yield results any more than curiosity, humanism, and liberalism will.

Evelina Fernandez of the Latino Theater Company recently told me that she wishes Latino artists would create their own movement rather than pursuing success through major regional theaters. If this panel was any sign of the opportunities available for women and racial and sexual minorities in big Los Angeles theaters, we’re going to have to start more than a movement. We’re going to have to start a revolution.