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TheatreFIRST Gets Aggressive with Diversity

The Berkeley theater company is implementing a diversity mandate to benefit actors and audiences.

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Wes Gabrillo's advice: "Be unapologetic about it."

He was describing the fragile duality of being Filipino and American and the bold decision to own both identities. His eyes scanned the room as if searching for a useful metaphor in the four corners of Live Oak Theater, which currently houses TheatreFIRST, a rebooted Berkeley company committed to "aggressive diversity."

Gabrillo said the role of Iwaksi in TheatreFIRST's first play of its 2016-2017 season, titled Bagyó (Tagalog for "storm"), appealed to the teenage version of himself, who yearned for theater with Filipino characters. He recalled rifling through monologues by Tennessee Williams, forcing the white southern dialogue to fit his Filipino tongue.

"You don't have to tell the same story," he asserted. "Tell your own story. You don't have to bend."

The refrain is common at TheatreFIRST, or T1. Bagyó is a good example. It is a mixed-genre work written by Rob Dario. And while it has been criticized for being unclear, it has also been celebrated as an honest, poetic, and unapologetically Southeast Asian perspective on colonialism. The entire creative team and much of the cast trace their roots back to the region.

At TheatreFIRST, new works are commissioned and created in house by writers, casts, and crews that must be two-thirds people of color and at least half female-identified at all times. T1 is the first theater in the East Bay with such a mandate.

Theater in the East Bay is a microcosm of a greater national conversation about diversity and representation within media. Al Jazeera reported that only one out of every twenty speaking roles on television is given to an Asian-American. And as the Oscars quickly approach, the Academy remains glaringly white and overwhelmingly male. Continuing racial asymmetries in film, television, and theater beg the question: Why is the issue so pervasive and what can be done to change it?

Mina Morita is the artistic director for Crowded Fire in San Francisco, where over half of the works and productions are led by and focused on queer women of color. Morita attributes the problem to the genre itself. "Theater in the United States is based on a eurocentric and sexist lens," Morita said. "It's been led primarily by white men."

The origins of American theater, specifically musical theater, can be traced back to minstrel shows during the 19th century. White actors artificially darkened their skin to play slaves, a practice known as "blackface." When Black actors were finally integrated into these shows, social norms forced them to depict themselves in dehumanizing and degrading ways. While not all musical performances involved minstrel shows, the Cambridge History of American Theater describes them as "the chief frame within which some folk elements appeared in an organized element for paying spectators." Put simply, minstrelsy is a primary foundation of American theater.

SK Kerastas, a recent visiting artistic associate at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, said that theater can be used either to re-perform old historical dynamics of racism or as a tool for empowerment and freedom.

Companies such as Lower Bottom Playaz, TheatreFIRST, and Ubuntu Theater Project seek to do the latter. Lower Bottom Playaz specifically moves toward "increasing social awareness" and highlighting community concerns and vibrancy through live theater. And for all three, the answer has been to go smaller, riskier, and adamently local.

William Hodgson co-founded Ubuntu as an outgrowth of a theater company he began in graduate school called the Midnight Society. Hodgson said big regional theaters feel different from smaller-scale projects like his. "Walking into that building, you know you're amid ten million dollars and not of that space," he said. "That culture is dominated by white culture." Ubuntu offers an alternative to big money productions. The board and actors are mostly local people of color. They produce shows in churches and community spaces all over Oakland. Hodgson argued that because Ubuntu draws people of many backgrounds, it's only natural that its decision-making, staff, performances, and seasons reflect diversity.

In theater, the reverse is far more common, often because of a lack of marginalized people in leadership roles. Kerastas said decision making that fails to be inclusive won't attract desired audiences. As he explained, a theater's mentality may be, "We don't have trans people, so let's put on a play about trans people. But theaters don't have trans people making decisions, so the community doesn't come."

Tokenism and exclusion led Morita to question hiring practices in theater: "Does that person who has been hired feel comfortable or are they simply a nod toward diversity?" As a result, Ubuntu and TheatreFIRST are shifting away from such models, either naturally or more structurally.

But change can be difficult.

TheatreFIRST artistic director and Bay Area arts fixture Jon Tracy linked the historical prevalence of shallow gestures toward diversity to theater's current inability to engage and reach communities of color. "It's not enough to open the doors," he said. "They've been closed for so long, people stopped coming."

So, Hodgson and Tracy spend a lot of time mining for talent and training the untrained. Hodgson's productions include youth and community members — people, he said, "who haven't been stamped with the institutional seal of approval." Tracy has similarly looked for untapped skills in people such as artistic associate Noelle Viñas, who described Tracy as "someone [who] will push artists to do the thing even when they're not comfortable doing it."

Hodgson and Tracy's approaches reflect a commitment to something greater than what can be encompassed by the word "diversity." When it comes to theaters making space for unheard voices, Viñas explained, "We see a white man and think 'Look at his potential'. TheatreFIRST does that for everyone."

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