Notes from the Playing Field: On Diversity, Identity, and Mosaics

by Kim Peter Kovac

in Diversity & Inclusion,Theatre for Young Audiences

Post image for Notes from the Playing Field: On Diversity, Identity, and Mosaics

(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.)

Diversity and Inclusion Blog Salon: Theatre for Young Audiences

The deep darkness of a very early morning, walking the pooch at the site of a Civil War camp, electronica from many lands on the headphones – sometimes trancelike, sometimes jangly. Multi-stimuli are common to most of us, but for some reason this remix leads to interwoven thoughts about history, war, language, identity, and – especially – diversity in all its forms.

It’s the twenty-first century, and I wonder sometimes just what cultural diversity means, what it should mean, what it will mean. With electronic media, we have more knowledge of each other than ever in history, and probably more sharing of culture, art, science, medicine. At the same time, the landscape –geographic, cultural, artistic, religious – of the world is filled with large sections of separatism, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and all the isms imaginable.

We talk about diversity a lot; say that it’s a good thing, even an essential thing. But if we want to embrace cultural diversity even more, how do we—as workers in theater for young audiences—do so? What messages should we send? How do we send those messages? With our work, how do we paint a future world that embraces harmonious interrelationships of differences? How do we paint that picture with words? Language is critical, as there do not seem to be common definitions of the words, the concepts, the ideas of diversity and identity.

Though living in a city steeped in the language and nuance of political correctness, I’m not always sure what the appropriate current expressions are. They change, of course, due to morphing social conditions, politics, attitudes, strength of a particular group. As only one example, over the past fifty years, Americans whose ancestry is African have been called (by themselves and others) colored people, Negroes, Blacks, African Americans. In my travels overseas over the past dozen years, though, this construct has been thrown into sixes and sevens. Now, I tend to use ‘Black’ which I hope is appropriate because you can’t, of course, refer to someone who’s Black and from Zimbabwe as African American, and ‘African’ means different things because what do you call a white schoolteacher whose family moved from Britain to Cape Town six generations ago? They’d say they were African, most likely, but with a different blend of geography, history, culture, and ethnicity. You see the challenge, but, you know, don’t we just need to call people as they wish to be called?

When South Africa ended legal apartheid in the early 90’s, Nelson Mandela said words to the effect of “let us rest for a generation, not retaliate, however justified, or otherwise we will never have a unified country”. There is tremendous intelligence in those words, and in the turning of Robben Island, the former prison emblematic of oppression into a museum of hope. There is great irony in the fact that Afrikaans was the language of the oppressor, but also the language of the working class. There is great pride in the voices of people when they speak about how far they have come in building a culturally diverse country, though the pride is tempered and strengthened with knowledge of how far they have yet to go.

In Adelaide, Australia, public gatherings begin with words such as “I’d like to acknowledge we’re standing on the traditional lands of the Kaurna people who are the custodians of the region and that their cultural and heritage beliefs are still as important to the living Kaurna people today.” This happens all over Australia, more typically in places with closer ties to the aboriginal communities, and is a reminder of the past and obligation of reconciliation. It’s more good manners than law, and while we might hope for the laws, we need to remember that change precedes insight, and even the way we speak can make for change.

Diversity is not just doing a play of African American interest in February. It’s not even only about ethnicity, but also about religion, gender orientation, history, politics, gender, age, ancestry, disability. Arguably our most important job is to tell the truth – of both the terror and bliss of the world – to our children and young people through images, music, and language. And one of the most important truths is that there is no one truth, but many, and sometimes truth is defined by who we are. Identity is powerful, something we nurture in ourselves and in those closest to us, and essential enough that we fight wars to protect it.

In smaller arenas we often draw lines in the sand and separate (or worse) ourselves from those of a different religion, political party, culture, country, ethnicity. The lines make it safer for us to ignore own prejudices. And I daresay we all have pockets of ignorance, stereotyping, prejudice and even the most open and understanding of us finds this hard to admit privately, much less publicly. Even harder is confronting those prejudices head-on and wrestling them into submission, but there’s no guidebook, no road map, and though we make progress, do we ever fully succeed? Yet we must try, for in our increasingly mobile global community, our ways of delineating who each other are have changed. And as we madly scramble to keep up we also need to teach our children how to understand this brave new world without the old classifications which now are limiting.

As I look up from my laptop, across the room is a picture of an ancient desert creature, one of the nineteen varieties of gazelle they say live in the Middle East. A contemporary craftsperson copied the work of an ancient artist and it’s a beautiful and simple image. When you examine it from close up, though, you realize that it’s a mosaic, something that’s not apparent from even a dozen feet away. Individual tiny tiles, all straight lines and often jagged, but blended so that there are curves and shadows and subtlety.

Embracing cultural diversity no longer means the melting pot we once thought our country should be, for that wants to make everyone the same. Embracing differing identities does not just mean monochromes or boring beige, and it requires active effort. I love the idea of our world as a mosaic, with brightly colored tiles put together to make an individual work of art (read: culture and identity). The mosaic is different, of course, in each country, state, region, and neighborhood, all over the world.

And change is a process, not a product. The mosaics shift and evolve, and it’s a never-ending quest to transform our differences into assets. I would not be so presumptuous as to offer solutions here, but simply to ask a few questions and point out that we can, in our own spheres, help keep the mosaics bright and pure and full of unique identities. Sometimes it starts with focusing on the empathic intent of what we’re saying, and not freezing at the thought of using the ‘wrong’ term. Sometimes we just need to just roll up our sleeves, push old patterns of thought and reaction aside, and just ask someone¬—perhaps someone very different than ourselves—if (s)he would grant us the honor of bringing their tile into our mosaic or if we could join theirs. It will only make the picture richer and more complex, and really, much more beautiful, for ourselves and for our children.


  • This article originally appeared in TYA Today in 2006 in a slightly different version. Since it was written, ironically, much has changed, and nothing much has changed.
  • Over the past two years, I’ve been involved helping launch what is called the International Inclusive Arts Network (IIAN) affiliated with ASSITEJ International, primarily focused on theater for young audiences by, with, for, and about persons with disabilities.  While ‘inclusive’ usually is used in broader contexts, the group of a dozen or so laying the foundation felt it was the term that would be the most accepted in the most countries.
  • As part of that work, I would be remiss if I did not special thanks to three colleagues – Betty Siegel, Director of VSA and Accessibility at the Kennedy Center, Daryl Beeton Artistic Director of Kazzum Theatre in England and Talleri McRae of Stage One Family Theatre in Louisville, all part of the founding board of IIAN.  They continually remind me of two things relevant to this article: 1) The exact terminology is indeed important, and is different in different countries: and 2) What is even more important than terminology is intent.  As Daryl says “If your intent is negative, the ‘correct’ term can be used offensively.  Relax, and just talk.”

Kim Peter Kovac is Producing Director of Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences, which commissions, produces, and presents local, national, and international artists and companies. At the Center, he has served as producer of over fifty new plays, operas, and dances and co-founded New Visions/New Voices, which has assisted in the development of 96 new plays, musicals, and operas from 86 playwrights and 37 composers working with 57 U.S. and 10 international theater companies.

He has taught seminars and/or participated in symposia at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Central Florida, as well as in Amman, Jordan; Vienna; Adelaide; Tokyo; Okinawa City; Cork, Ireland; Bursa, Turkey; Warsaw.

Since 1998, he has been on the board of Theater for Young Audiences/USA, and was president from 2004-2008;  was on the board of IPAY, international Performing Arts for Youth, from 2010-2013; was on the governing board of ASSITEJ, the international association of theaters for young audiences from 2005-2014.

In May 2011 he co-founded Write Local. Play Global., an international network for playwrights for young audiences, which presently has over 500 members in 64 countries.