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‘Stupid and enraging’: Lack of women in L.A. theater lineup sparks protest

Artists are as mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore.

But instead of throwing their heads out the window and venting their fury, as news anchor Howard Beale urged his TV viewers to do in the 1976 movie “Network,” they are voicing their frustrations with the institutional status quo from the ramparts of social media.

When Center Theatre Group announced its season programming for the Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre last week, it seemed as if diversity had been prioritized in a way that hadn’t always been the case at L.A.’s most prestigious theater organization.

Michael Ritchie, CTG’s outgoing artistic director of whom I’ve been highly critical in the past, seemed to be listening to the We See You, White American Theater movement. The Taper and the Douglas feature an impressive array of artists of color.

But one group was conspicuously overlooked — the group that amounts to roughly half the human population: women.

Only one offering in the Taper season, a revival of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” was written by a woman. The other five, which thrillingly includes Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play” and Rajiv Joseph’s “King James,” have male authors.

The Douglas lineup boasts two new plays by young male playwrights of color: Benjamin Benne’s “Alma” and Dave Harris’ “Tambo & Bones.” But the only other offerings are two local productions being reprised for Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre. They are the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s “To T or Not to T? A Comedic Trans Journey Through (T)estosterone and Masculinity,” written and performed by D’Lo, and Sacred Fools Theater Company’s “The Art Couple” by Brendan Hunt.

Again, there’s a refreshing range of humanity on display — but with a missing piece that can’t be chalked up to the luck of the draw.

The American theater has been engaged in a reckoning with itself on issues of race and workplace fairness. But its blind spot when it comes to the representation of women, particularly among dramatists, is a recalcitrant reality.

Condemnation of CTG was swift. The writer and activist Sarah Schulman articulated her dismay in a series of tweets:

  • “I emerged as a playwright decades ago into a world of all-male, all-white seasons — with all-male, all-white critics who were hostile to women writers who had perspectives different from the men who ran the world.
  • “Because we were initially dismissed by an inequitable system, we have clouds hanging over our work. We have had to endure generations of watching our male peers getting opportunities we have never had.
  • “There are hundreds of women my age who never had a fair chance yet still create because we are playwrights in our souls. Today the Mark Taper Forum announced their new ten-play season in which the great Pearl Cleage is the only women included.
  • “HOW CAN THIS STILL BE? It is so depressing, stupid and enraging. When is this going to end?”

Playwright Jessica Goldberg, one of many artists who responded to Schulman’s protest, replied: “Thanks for this Sarah though it makes we want to cry.”

Others, however, were too angry for tears. They wanted action. And on Tuesday, Harris, whose transformational drama “Slave Play” was supposed to have opened the Taper’s season, decided he could do more than complain. He threatened to withdraw his play.

“As an Angeleno and a lover of theatre, I think Los Angeles audiences deserve an equitable showing of the playwrights working in the U.S. right now,” he tweeted, adding: “I’ve spoken to my team and would like to begin the process of removing ‘Slave Play’ from the season at this time.”

As Twitter cheered on this act of solidarity, CTG offered an apologetic response from its account on the platform: “We understand your frustration, disappointment, and even anger in the scarcity of women’s voices in the upcoming seasons. Although we have assembled a lineup featuring voices from many standpoints and identities, we acknowledge that we’ve fallen short of your expectations … (and our own) in regards to gender equity, and for that, we apologize. We can and will do better. We will follow up with a more expansive statement from Michael Ritchie.”

Jeremy O. Harris has threatened to pull “Slave Play” from the Mark Taper Forum in solidarity with female playwrights.

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

No artistic season is ever going to satisfy all constituencies. But a theater’s track record speaks volumes about its priorities, and women dramatists have been woefully underrepresented at Center Theatre Group. Forget about parity. Scarcity has been the elephant in the room at the Taper.

Making matters worse, the more adventurous female authors have tended to be shunted off to the Douglas, the smallest of CTG’s three venues. That’s where Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men,” which went on to become the first play by an Asian American woman to be produced on Broadway, was presented, as well as Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play.”

Both of these works would have raised the Taper’s all-too-usual lackluster level. But works by women hardly ever seem to be given the benefit of the doubt, even as the most erratic male playwrights are offered chance after chance, in a vicious circle that rewards established figures for being established by a system bent in their favor.

CTG’s season announcement features several notable women theater artists, including a few directors, who may face even more formidable gender bias. But one reader, an arts writer, shared with me a letter she sent to CTG complaining that the sole play by a woman writer at the Taper is being directed by Phylicia Rashad, whom she described as “sex predator apologist,” following Rashad’s defense of her former co-star Bill Cosby.

Observers of arts institutions will never suffer a shortage of things to object to. But taking inventory is essential — not to call out for the sake of calling out, but to reveal patterns and the decision-makers behind those patterns. At CTG, those decision-makers are disproportionately male.

Ritchie has added Luis Alfaro to his brain trust to help guide CTG during this period when issues of equity, diversity and inclusion have come into sharp focus. But his team of associate artistic directors is predominantly male — and it shows.

Who’s in the room matters. Ritchie and Meghan Pressman, the managing director and chief executive, released a longer statement Tuesday night. Their appeal could be distilled to the following: Don’t worry too much about the numbers. Yes, something’s amiss, but trust in our commitment. More is coming. Don’t you worry.

Harris’ action, however, clearly set off alarm bells. Ritchie and Pressman conclude their statement on a conciliatory note:

“Today we received a notification from playwright Jeremy O. Harris that he would like to start the process of removing ‘Slave Play’ from this season in the hopes to make room for more women. We respect Jeremy’s opinion and believe in him as an artist. We hope to continue our relationship with him going forward. We are regrouping and will be able to share more in the coming days about the impact on our upcoming season.”

Theater leaders are operating in a new landscape where the balance of power between artists and managers is shifting. The politics of culture, traditionally subordinated to economic imperatives, can no longer be dismissed with a wave of a public relations wand. Accountability has arrived — and not a moment too soon.




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