If art institutions are to treat African American and other underrepresented artists with equity and sensitivity, there must be more of them represented at the top.
That was the consensus Sunday, June 14, during Long Beach Opera’s (LBO) panel discussion on Equity and Diversity in the Arts via Facebook Live, attended by about 240 virtual listeners who posted continuous chat comments and questions.
The first of LBO’s Community Conversations series this year, the panel was moderated by Dr. Derrell Acon, LBO’s director of engagement and equity, and featured scholar Dr. Naomi André and an array of opera singers, with vocal performances Julia Bullock, John Holiday and Solomon Howard.
Additional panelists included singers Brandon Bell, Kenneth Overton, Ailyn Pérez, Karen Slack and Andrew Stenson.
“We’re really far behind in the opera world and we have a long way to go,” LBO Executive Director Jenny Rivera said by way of introduction.
Most panelists recounted ways that, as Black and other discriminated races, they have been typecast in roles, sometimes in demeaning ways, and called for a more multicultural approach to leadership representation, casting and community outreach and education.
Bell, as the youngest member, said his experience of being stereotyped as a Black opera performer has caused him to be wary.
“I had to think about how I was going to allow myself to be presented on stage,” Bell said. “I have to be conscious in ways that my White colleagues don’t have to.”
Pérez said that as a Latina artist, she also resents being predefined when cast in roles.
“You go to music to find your place,” she said, describing the need for leaders and directors to widen their view.
As a person of Asian descent, Stenson said there is no “convenient box” in which directors can place him because Asian people haven’t been historically represented in American or European opera.
Some of the artists also discussed their colleagues being afraid of speaking up about racial injustices during productions because of potential retaliation or being silenced by company administrators.
“As young artists, we don’t often have the agency to address these types of things,” Bell said, also expressing frustration that these issues continue to pervade the industry. “A part of me is very tired of allowing people time to catch up to what they should have gotten by now.”
Bullock also said younger performers have told her stories of lines crossed in training or during productions but didn’t know if they warranted filing a report with administration.
“There’s never even been an admittance of crimes happening,” Bullock said, adding the behavior seems an accepted part of the opera-theatre culture. “Firing is not the only answer here. […] We all want healing to happen. But sometimes for that to happen, there has to be a complete breaking open, and an admittance that there was a real wrong.”
Stenson called on companies to expand their administrations and boards of directors to include more representation of traditionally marginalized people, even if it means existing leaders step down to make way.
“It’s going to require people to give up something and lose something so someone else can have it,” he said.
However, Overton suggested a more inclusive approach.
“I don’t think we need to take the place of people who are currently in the administration,” he said. “We just need to make the table bigger so that others can have a seat, too. There’s room for everyone. There’s room for every voice.”
Overton also called for sensitivity training and increased racial awareness in the industry, especially when a company stages a production involving a Black cast, such as the opera Porgy and Bess or the racially problematic Showboat.
“When the Me Too [movement] happened, there were people who came into the room and talked to us for hours and hours about what’s appropriate,” Overton said. “We have to have the same thing when it comes time for Black shows if you want Black bodies on stage making green money.”
Overton added that companies don’t even need to employ people of color to make those decisions but can simply add sensitivity training when they plan racially sensitive shows.
“You just have to be aware,” he said. “You have to be conscious. You have to have a vibration that the people on the stage are not just there to make you money. They’re living, breathing human beings who have to carry the weight and the emotion of that piece when the curtain comes down and the applause stops.”
Acon and Slack both encouraged institutional boards of directors to have the courage to make those kinds of decisions.
If boards are concerned about reduced funding from mostly White donors, then they need to reevaluate their strategy, Acon said.
“If your company is not adding to the narrative of furthering justice, then your company does not need to exist,” he said.
André, an African-American studies scholar with a Ph.D. in musicology from Harvard, affirmed that boards of directors must diversify for change to happen.
In her keynote before the discussion, André said perceptions and misperceptions about Blacks are rooted in the American version of slavery in which slaves could not work toward their freedom and kinships were cut as slaveowners sold people individually as property.
Minstrelsy– a vaudevillian theatrical practice beginning in the 1820s South in which white men blackened their faces and sang and danced– created stereotypes of Black people that spread and persisted, André said.
Harriet Beacher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ironically further entrenched those perceptions of Blackness, André said.
“Reading this story could transform Black people from slaves who had violent tendencies into people who could be tamed and domesticated,” she said. “Black people were given more humanity but were part of an inferior group of people who needed saving through Christianity and the charity of White people.”
The result was Whites saw Blacks as either violent creatures who needed to be tamed or trainable creatures who could be domesticated– objects for either ridicule or pity, André said.
“Black people were never on equal footing with a capacity for intelligence and an agency of their own,” she said.
Both Blacks and Whites have been groomed to internalize these views, André said, resulting in writer W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of “double consciousness” in which a Black person learns to only see themselves through the eyes of Whites. “Having this double-consciousness is the key […] to survival for Black folks,” André said. Addressing such a toxic relationship will create a better democracy for all, she added.
“Fixing the systemic racial barriers around education, housing and health will benefit everyone, not just Black people,” André said.
Acon described addressing these concerns as necessary “emotional labor” to help change the industry.
Such discussions are difficult but needed, not just for artists but for the community and society to learn and grow, Acon said, adding that art performances help spur such conversations.
“The performing arts have the ability to clarify some of the most complex human emotions,” he said in explaining why he chose to intersperse performances with the discussion.
Howard sang two spirituals in a deep bass voice with percussion– “Going Home” and “Swing Low”– in honor of recent Black victims of violence, including Ahmad Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Their images, along with those of Black Lives Matter protests, juxtaposed Howard’s performance on a split-screen.
Accompanied by piano, Soprano Bullock sang a litany with text by African-American writer Langston Hughes that was alternately soaring and melancholic.
She also sang a lullaby, an arrangement of Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby,” in a way Acon called “haunting.”
“Brown Baby, as you grow up, I want you to drink from the plenty cup,” Bullock sang. “I want you to stand up tall and proud. And I want you to speak up, clear and loud.”