About damn time: Off-loop theater hires African-American artistic director

November 3, 2010

As Chris Jones was too tactful to do so, it’s left to tacky me to point out that the most exciting thing about Remy Bumppo’s new Artistic Director Timothy Douglas is not that he’s New York-based, not that he’s directed in Chicago before, not that’s worked at Yale and Actors’ Theatre of Louisville and the Taper Forum, but that he’s black. Eventually I trust we’ll get to a place where the color of a new artistic director’s skin will be no more interesting than the color of her hair; but we’re nowhere near that in this country, and certainly not in Chicago, which boasts a theater community as segregated as the city itself. 

Douglas, succeeding founding artistic director James Bohnen, will be the first African-American to run a mainstream–that is, white–theater company in Chicago. There are African-American Artistic Associates at the Goodman, African-American ensemble members at Steppenwolf and African-American actors who work regularly at Victory Gardens, Court Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare.  But until now none of these white companies has turned itself over to a black artist.

Of course, many of Chicago’s theaters are still working with their founding directors. Bohnen’s decision to leave Remy Bumppo after a dozen years stands in sharp contrast with the lifetime tenure of the leaders of Victory Gardens and Chicago Shakespeare. And people who found theaters with their buddies tend to go on working with their buddies–witness the fact that Steppenwolf didn’t diversify until its founders were out of the day-to-day picture. This is how it’s possible for there to be racial discrimination without anybody’s personally being a racist; that’s why it’s called “institutional racism.” And as long as our groups of buddies are segregated, most likely our theaters will be, too–at least in the founding generation.

But we’re coming to the end of that generation, and therefore to a possible turning point in the way Chicago theater treats race--not on the stage but in the front office. When Victory Gardens--a theater long committed to inclusiveness–chooses a successor to Dennis Zacek this year, will it make an effort to reach outside the company for a person of color? Or will it choose the in-house candidate, the eminently qualified Sandy Shinner? Either choice is defensible, but it’s essential that the search committee recognize that it is a choice whether or not to bring a person of color into artistic leadership at an established company. There’s a different choice to be made when Bob Falls retires from the Goodman: will it look inside to the Artistic Associates of color who’ve served it so well for so long? Or will it do a national search, and if so will “nonwhite” be a desideratum?  Again, the most important thing is for the theaters to be conscious of the choice. Ignoring race will generally mean that we end up with more of the same.

The Remy Bumppo people claim to have been indifferent to race, and maybe they were and just got lucky. (Bohnen described a search activated by a desire to find someone whose national connections could help the company grow–“I’ve never been interested in growth”–and someone who was from a new generation.  Board and search committee chair Karen Randolph expressed a desire to find someone who would change as little as possible about the company.) So it was up to me to call a brand-new artistic director and begin the conversation about his artistic vision by saying, “So, you’re black, huh?”

But Douglas himself has no illusions that people will regard his color as beside the point. “Anybody who goes to the theater knows that it’s not common for someone like me to direct European classics, but I was trained that way, and I’m not looking to change Remy Bumppo’s mission. Even though I’m a black American man I can interpret a European classic, but it’s going to reflect who I am as a living artist and my understanding of ‘classic’ that exists beyond white authors.” He adds, “I’m being a little more conservative in approaching the first season. I want to get through a first season that’s recognizable to Remy Bumppo and to myself, and then see how we can grow.”

If you think color doesn’t matter, try to imagine a white artistic director coming in from out of town whose chief concern was persuading people that he didn’t intend to rock the boat.  

In any case, every hope for success to the accidental pioneer.