A Racial Reckoning Is Underway in Theater. Where Is the Gender Reckoning?

The American theater is undergoing a long-overdue transformation. This past year has been awash in demands from artists of color who, in this time of racial reckoning for our broken country, insist we do better. The plays presented on Broadway and other stages nationwide have not represented the full richness and sorrowful truth of our stories, and storytellers, in these United States of America. It amounts to racial discrimination, and that needs to be rectified, now.

So, many applauded when the Center Theater Group of Los Angeles — one of America’s leading theaters — announced its new season recently. The 10 plays planned for production were written by a dazzlingly diverse and talented group of artists. Lesson learned.

With an asterisk. Out of the 10 plays, only one was written by a woman.

Nine men, one woman.

This imbalance was noticed by Jeremy O. Harris, whose acclaimed work “Slave Play” was slated to be one of those productions at C.T.G. Mr. Harris’s play had a very Tony-nominated Broadway run two years ago, and he has a lot of attention on him right now. He has used that attention to support his female peers, and he said he would pull his play from C.T.G.to make room for female playwrights.

That made a huge difference. People are writing about it. C.T.G. offered a vague but well-intentioned apology. It’ll all get sorted. Probably.

Let us be clear: I deeply admire Mr. Harris, who has made other wildly generous gestures to his fellow playwrights. He’s using his power for good. Which is rare, and incredible.

But why does it take a man to say that women are being discriminated against, for people to notice that women are being discriminated against?

If a racial reckoning is underway, the gender reckoning is still struggling. Back when I started trying to be a professional playwright, in the early ’90s, I spent a lot of time working odd jobs for about $11 an hour and being told there was nothing wrong with my work but that it was just going to be “hard” for a female playwright. This advice came from friends and mentors as well as artistic directors and literary managers, who bemoaned the situation but had no solutions. “Women don’t write good plays, do they?” a rather famous director said to me, over drinks. “They write good novels.”

Another told me to write under a male pseudonym, like George Eliot. Yet another director looked me in the face and said, “But where are the female playwrights, Theresa?” I mean, I was sitting there. Right in front of him.

The justifications for holding women back, for not hiring them or promoting them, as articulated by those in power, were many, all of them lame. Ultimately I was told that women can identify with male characters but men don’t identify with women! I would later hear the same idiotic refrain come out of the mouths of many Hollywood producers. But after I clawed my way through that minefield, I got to work on television shows where I was absolutely used for every script they could get out of me, even while I was shut out of meetings, dinners and editing sessions.

I would ultimately bounce back to the theater, hoping to find a home, scrounging around off-off-Broadway, doing 10-minute one-acts for Naked Angels or the 24 Hour Plays, while the guys I started out with — friends such as the playwrights Doug Wright, David Auburn and Robbie Baitz, the directors Chris Ashley, Michael Mayer and Michael Greif — moved on to Broadway. Then the guys in the generation behind me were moving into that club as well. It was impossible to miss what was going on.

The whole thing was hideous, and the brutal hostility was unapologetic. When female playwrights and directors pushed for accountability from producers as to why women were all but shut out of production opportunities, the discussion was dispiriting. It was something to do with comfort level. Boys just like to hang out with other boys. Girls should stick with the girls. Besides, women were included as actresses, weren’t they?

A lot of female playwrights and directors stuck to it, climbing that steep hill and finally moving our work into production, only to then find we were all but shut out of awards seasons. I know, who cares about awards — aside from everybody? So in 2010 we came up with our own award, the Lillys, only to hear one of the most prominent and respected male artistic directors in New York sneer to me, “What is this, the sour grapes award?”

In 2009, some suggested the humble goal for representation of women’s voices on our stages as “50/50 by 2020” — the theory being women are 50 percent of the human race and women buy most of the tickets. A prominent white male producer responded, “I don’t like the word ‘quotas.’” So 50/50 by 2020 is a quota? It doesn’t matter; we didn’t make it anyway.

The numbers were always incredibly important because they proved what all of us knew and had to keep explaining to men in power who just didn’t believe the facts we were all living with. In the 2007-08 theater season, when I had my first play produced on Broadway, I was the sole woman to have a new play produced there. That year, only about 12 percent of the new plays produced in major off-Broadway theaters in New York City were by women, even less than the 17 percent figure in a 2002 New York State Council on the Arts report, which looked at nonprofit theater stages across the country.

Then in the early 2010s, two of the founders of the Lillys, Julia Jordan and Marsha Norman, began The Count, a project that collects data on whose work is being produced onstage. We had made enough noise; there was one year when the percentage of new plays by women presented on major off-Broadway New York City stages was as high as 38 percent. That fell back quickly and averaged about 20 percent for the years 2011-14, according to the first report of The Count. Three years later, the second Count report put it at 29 percent, and the latest installment had it at 31 percent, before the pandemic hit and closed all the theaters.

Then there’s this: Only four women have ever won the Tony Award for best play. They are: Frances Goodrich, a co-author of “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1956); Lucienne Hill, the translator of “Becket” (1961); Wendy Wasserstein, “The Heidi Chronicles”(1989); and Yasmina Reza, who won twice, for “Art”(1998) and “God of Carnage”(2009). The history of the Tonys — supposedly the reflection of the best of the American theater — is in fact a history of the male American theater.

There’s no question we’ve been inching forward. When we created the Lillys, it was a movement of female theater artists of all races. Intersectionality was something we all understood as the ultimate value. And we had wonderful male colleagues supporting us.

But we never had Jeremy O. Harris saying, I’m pulling my play because you have to do better than this by the women.

I love that he did that. But as much as I value what he did, as an artistic community we should not ask him to do it. Our leadership should be listening to all of us.

This time of racial reckoning is vital and essential. But what if the outcome of all of this is that there are more men, of all different races, telling their stories to audiences all over America, and the women are largely shut out again? That’s actually not a good outcome; that’s a tragic outcome. And no amount of really nice vague apologies will cover it.

Women are half the human race, and our stories are half the stories of the human race. Have we been discriminated against? Yes. It is a global horror show how women and children are treated as second- and third-class citizens, among all races and at all levels of experience and achievement. Are our stories worth telling? Indeed.

Theater is a beautiful and vital art form. There’s nothing else like it out there. Audiences come together to have a story told to them in darkness and in light. As the actors live the story before us, we weep for the loss of strangers and rejoice in their triumphs. We laugh together; we are silent together. We are reminded of our place in the present, and in history. It is a holy gathering. Everyone should go to the theater. Because it is there that we see the struggles of those we might otherwise misidentify as “other.” It is there that we go to see ourselves.

Theresa Rebeck (@TheresaRebeck) is a playwright, television writer and novelist. Four of her plays have been produced on Broadway, most recently “Bernhardt/Hamlet” in 2018. Another work, “Omnium Gatherum,” which she co-wrote, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. She created “Smash,” the television series about Broadway.

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