In recent months, a number of Black playwrights have decided not to stage productions of their own works. This is a reflection of the concerns that Black artists have regarding the failure of theatre administrators to meet the lofty promises made during and after the spring of 2020, when the death of George Floyd prompted nationwide protests and calls for change in many facets of American society, including the arts. Black artists feel that theatre administrators have not lived up to the promises that were made during and after the spring of 2020. These cancellations came at a time when theatres were working hard to reopen and rebuild after being closed for an extended period of time due to the epidemic.
Jeremy O. Harris was the first person to start this trend when he posted on Twitter an email he had sent to the Center Theater Group of Los Angeles in October 2021. In the email, he stated that he wanted to “begin the process” of cancelling the theater’s production of “Slave Play,” his critically acclaimed drama about interracial relationships. Harris was perturbed by the fact that the theatre had announced a season that would include just one piece by a female author. The theatre company issued a public apology and, within a week, made a commitment that the next season at its Mark Taper Forum theatre will solely include the work of female or nonbinary writers. After that, Harris gave his permission for “Slave Play” to go on, and the subsequent performance became the most financially successful show at the Taper since the pandemic hiatus.
Since then, a number of more Black playwrights have adopted a similar approach. After hearing that the Cleveland Play House had mishandled an actor’s report that she had been sexually assaulted at the building where the theatre housed artists, Charly Evon Simpson decided to cancel the production of her most recent work, “I’m Back Now,” which was scheduled to take place at the Cleveland Play House in the state of Ohio. The Flint water crisis was the inspiration for Erika Dickerson-family Despenza’s drama “cullud wattah,” which was being performed at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. Dickerson-Despenza stopped the production of “cullud wattah” in the middle of its run last summer in order to protest actions that included the removal of the theater’s artistic director. And in Los Angeles, Dominique Morisseau pulled the plug on a production of her play “Paradise Blue” at the Geffen Theater a week after it had opened in late 2021, citing allegations that Black women who worked on the performance had been “verbally assaulted and reduced.”
Even while much progress has been made to address issues about diversity and representation, the cancellations are a reflection of worries about the environment in the business. Even though there has been a rise in the number of plays written by black authors that have been staged on Broadway and beyond, as well as a wave of appointments of administrators of colour to high-level positions in the theatre industry, the cancellations suggest that additional action is required to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry.
Everyone who was involved will incur huge financial and reputational consequences as a result of the cancellations. Although while performers are usually still compensated for their work, writers may not get their compensation, and theatres might not recoup their sunk production expenses or box office earnings. There is also a potential danger to reputation, such as whether or not theatres will continue want to employ these performers. Would creative people still be interested in working at these theatres? Despite this, a significant number of Black playwrights are of the opinion that it is imperative to speak out against the pervasive racism and sexism that exists in the profession.
Morisseau said that she and the other writers did not want to withdraw their works because “we are playwrights, we want our plays to be done, we are walking away from money, and we are walking away from seeing our work onstage.” “But, this is not an act of ego, nor is it an act of diva behaviour. We are being the only ones to speak up when no one else will.