(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
TCG Blog Salon
Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc
Mixed Race/Culture Theatre
JACQUELINE LAWTON: In your work as a theatre artist, do you self-identify closer to one race/culture over another? If so, why do you think that is? If not, how are you able to live in both worlds?
KHANISHA FOSTER: I am Black, White, and Mixed–in no particular order. The long list goes like this:
- Scotch-Irish (This is a word we seem to have made up in Chicago. When I go to Scotland no one knows what I am talking about.)
- African American
- Native American (I prefer this term to American Indian, but I’m open to others’ opinions on the subject.)
Now, the question of how I identify as a theatre artist requires clarity. The theatre is my great love and it is the single most aggressively racially insensitive place I have encountered. It is one of the only jobs in the world where a potential employer can dissect, rearrange and strip you of your race. Because of this I hit people straight and quick with the fact that I am Mixed.
JL: As image makers and creators of narrative, theatre artists are in a position to define, influence and change what it means to be of mixed race in America. How do you feel the mixed race/culture experience has been presented in the American Theatre so far? (Have you experienced plays that are enlightening? Damaging? Or is there a complete absence of stories?)
KF: I’m a forever optimist, so I’d love to name a long list of moments when I have felt represented onstage. Unfortunately, I have only had one experience in my life where I felt like I saw someone who resembled me or my experience in theatre. That was when I saw Anna Deavere Smith perform. It was because she was a single person performing in multiple voices. That felt like truth to me.
Right now we could probably rename 85% of produced American theatre White Dudes, White Dudes, and More White Dudes. This kind of imbalance shuts down both existing audience and potential audience. Those who are not directly affected by this don’t see a need to talk about it. Those of us who are affected are often scared to talk about it. Finding work in the theatre is already difficult; add being a woman, add being a woman of color, add being a transgender person of color (which I am not, but we as allies must rep for each other), add being someone who wants to talk about inequities. Suddenly pointing out the obvious becomes dangerous. This is how a problem that could be easily solved remains.
And yet, here comes my optimism, I believe that innovation in theatre lies in underrepresented voices. In the theatre one of the great fears of representing works by people of color is that you will lose audience. Being Mixed is, by its very nature, inclusionary rebellion. We are made by people who chose love over habit. Perhaps if the theatre took a break from purely habitual creation it would surprise itself.
We don’t create art for singular answers. We have standardized testing for that. We create art to beckon the future and illuminate the past. We create art because parts of ourselves are hidden and we want to be seen. We sit in a theatre to feel connected to other humans. In a movie theatre you lean back to take in the whole picture. At a play, you lean in. You lean in to get closer to the touchable wonder in arms reach. In an art form that is so much about connection, how can we exclude?
Also, to get technical for a moment, click here to check out the census numbers. The Multi-cultural family is growing at a rapid rate. We are a major part of your current and future audience.
JL: Do we need theatre organizations devoted to producing work by and about the mixed raced experience? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?
KF: I am the Live Performance Producer for the Mixed Remixed Festival at the Japanese American National Museum and for two years I performed the same role for the Mixed Roots Festival. Year after year I see nationally renowned figures in tears because they are, for the first time, in a room of people where they are the majority and where they can speak fully in their own voices. They can explore their work without worrying about being too much or not enough.
As an individual artist I have been lucky enough to train with some of the very best. I cannot overstate the effects my teachers and mentors have had on me. I am a better artist and human thanks to them, but there has always been a gap in my training and in what my voice is capable of. Many Mixed artists are told to hide who they are culturally and blend in. This is so that they can be more cast-able. As a young actor I did this, but the trouble with blending in is you become invisible.
Now I choose to stand in my one skin as a Multi-cultural artist. This has led me to a rich community of artists that are doing the same. It is my hope that the base we are creating will create fully developed pieces that the national theatre community will produce. If Multi-racial artists have nowhere to play they cannot grow at a rate that keeps up with White Dude theatre.
Playgrounds for Multi-cultural artists:
- Mixed Remixed Festival (Los Angeles) – brings together film and book lovers, innovative and emerging artists, and multiracial families and individuals for workshops, readings, film screenings and live performance including music, comedy and spoken word. Be sure to submit! I’ll be reading submissions and want to hear your voice. (Oh how I wish I could release the names of our amazing participants. In due time!)
- Critical Mixed Race Studies (Chicago) – a biennial conference, a journal (JCMRS), a field of study, and a scholarly/activist/artistic community. We are in the process of forming the Critical Mixed Race Studies Association.
- LovingDay (Global/Online) – a global network of annual celebrations that you can host or attend. It’s also an educational campaign that you can be a part of every day.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies who are interested in creating opportunities that reflect the experience/challenge perceptions of mixed race people in America?
KF: There are different ways to create change. I will name a few, but let me begin by saying the leadership of a company must create an invested and supported dialogue in their organization. When working in all levels of diversity and inclusion small conversations are as important as big initiatives.
Now, action steps:
Questions yourself. Each and every one of us. We all hold bias, intended or not. To acknowledging our own bias is a game changer. That way when it is time to hire, cast, commission, or choose a season we are pushing ourselves to be innovative and have multiple voices in the conversation.
Get some Mixed people in the room for some kick ass generation workshops. I volunteer! I’ll even run the workshops for you.
Commission the work. This is a new frontier. Nobody is doing it. There is an audience and money waiting for your theatre to be the first.
JL: As an advocate of mixed race theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?
KF: This is a question I have been asking since I was 16 and first started looking for audition monologues.
(If you find yourself judging a Mixed race actor because their audition monologue does represent their race, I dare you to name 5 monologues for Multi-racial men and women that you did not write yourself)
I do believe there are lots of plays being written. Very few are being produced. I asked this same question to my community of national theatre artists. Many suggestions were not in fact Multi-cultural plays, but instead were non-race specific. I’ve included the ones we have verified here, and we will add to the list as it grows. I hope people add their suggestions in the comments below.
My new solo show is all about being a Mixed race actor, and all of my solo work encompasses that theme. Other than me please check out the work of:
Daniel Alexander Jones, Alexandra Billings, Key & Peele, Victoria Tilford, Schoen Smith . . . I could go on and on. Please consider me your resource for hiring Mixed people! Seriously, reach out if you need help.
Hire a Mixed-race writer/theatre artist (I’m available) to adapt one of these amazing books:
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi Durrow, Caucasia by Danzy Senna, and Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond by Essie Mae Washington-Williams.
Someone should write a play about Nella Larson or adapt any of the Young Adult novels listed here.
Khanisha Foster is a mixed race actress, writer, teaching artist, Associate Artistic Director of 2nd Story, ensemble member of Teatro Vista, a TCGYoung Leader of Color, and has collaborated with the Citizen’s Theatre in Scotland. She is in the film Chicago Boricua, is writing her memoir, HEROIN(E), screenplays, and has published a story about her work as a teaching artist in the anthology Briefly Knocked Unconscious By A Low Flying Duck. She is currently performing her Solo Show Actor of Color. See more of her work: http://2ndstory.com/people/
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com