By Janelle Renee Dunn
Entire contents are copyright © 2017 Janelle Renee Dunn. All rights reserved.
Janelle Renee Dunn (front) with Kristi Papellier & Lauren White in the 2016 Smoked Apple Theatre Group production of A Raisin In The Sun.
Louisville (White) Performing Arts Redeem 2016
There, I fixed it. It may seem a little drastic but as a performing artist of color, that is how it felt reading the Arts-Louisville.com year-end review.
I first moved to Louisville in 2006 for grad school and from the moment I got my diploma I’ve had my eyes set on making the big move to New York to take Broadway by storm. Then I met a guy who took my breath away. We started dating and eventually got married. However, on one of our earlier dates, I declared to him that this was going to be my last year in Louisville and I was headed for the Big Apple. Unbothered by my declaration, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “If that’s how you feel.” But, before I could respond he challenged me to take another look at Louisville. “Louisville is a city that is growing and due to that growth it offers each artist an opportunity to truly create and build in a way that New York just can’t.” As much as I wanted to argue with him, I had to admit he had a point. That was in 2013 and by that point I had already had some really incredible theatrical experiences under my belt. I got to play the Spiderwoman in Kiss of a Spiderwoman with Pandora, had my first villainous role as Don Jon in Much Ado About Nothing with Looking for Lilith and was gearing up for my first one-woman show playing Billy Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill with Bunbury. So, I decided to stay and build upon the emerging performing arts scene.
When I first became a part of the performing arts community, I didn’t see color (I know cliché, right?). I was just hungry to be onstage. To bask in the glow of stage lights. When I auditioned for Spiderwoman, I had one thing and one thing alone on my mind – to be the Spiderwoman. My Black-ness never crossed my mind. However, this artistic community keeps reminding me of my Black-ness and continues to overlook and ignore me… at least until they need a black character. This article (before it was amended) reinforces that.
So, where do I start? Keith Waits’ article was amended to make mention of two companies of color, University of Louisville AATP’s production of Fences, and the work of The Louisville Cultural Community Center’s Youth Theatre Repertory Troupe. (ed.note: Teatro Tercera Llamada, from the list below, was included in the original article.) One production from one company. I’m still not doing backflips. So, I took a cue out of the President-elect’s playbook and went to social media (Facebook to be exact) and corrected some wrongs by recognizing all the theatres of color making a splash on the Louisville performing arts scene. As you are reading this, you are probably asking yourself, “There are Black and Hispanic theatre companies in Louisville?” Yes, there are several and before I go any further here are just a few of them:
- Smoked Apple Theatre Group,
- Faith Works Studios,
- The Louisville Cultural Community Center’s Youth Theatre Repertory Troupe,
- Teatro Tercera Llamada,
- El Delirio Producciones
- Roots and Wings,
- Kentucky Black Repertory,
- Griot Theatre at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage (a recipient of the Jennifer Lawrence/Arts Match grant), and of course,
- The University of Louisville African American Theatre Program.
Of these nine companies creating and producing art, only one is memorable enough to mention? Then it dawned on me. My gripe is not just with this article. This article is the symptom to a bigger issue that needs to be addressed: the inclusion of actors of color onstage.
Let’s get real for moment, if not for these companies mentioned above, I’d have no reason to continue acting in Louisville. It’s a harsh reality, but a very real reality for myself as well as others. Imagine how we feel when a White artistic director says, “I just don’t have anything this season for a Black actor.” (Yes, this was really said to a fellow Black actor. No, I will not reveal which company.) Why does the color of my skin weigh more than my talent when being cast yet White actors are limitless in the roles they can play? White actors can even play a historical Black male figure like in Kent State’s production of The Mountaintop. Or even closer to home, CenterStage’s West Side Story, which claims to have cast two Latino actors. However, from my perspective when I saw it, except for the one actor I know personally who is part Hispanic; it was white actors being Puerto Rican.
It’s time to call a spade a spade, white privilege exist in our performing arts community. White privilege is saying, “Well, no one of color came to audition.” White privilege is overlooking recognition of Black/Hispanic theatre companies’ efforts on the Louisville scene and not realizing it until people of color speak out about it. White privilege is forgiving the oversight without recognizing the problem. White privilege is saying, “Well, maybe there should be a separate in-depth piece highlighting Black theatre.” White privilege is saying, “Well, I would exclude this theatre from your critique.” Because being able to name one or two companies who might cast AOC from the plethora of companies in an article is suppose to be ok. White privilege is casting one or two AOC in the entire season and having no POC on staff, but saying your company celebrates diversity.
It is time for a change. I am a performer who happens to be Black. My Blackness does not define who I play onstage. My Blackness only enhances who I am as a person.
So, I challenge the critics and my fellow White theatre companies: open your lenses and expand your world-view. Find actors who don’t look like you, who don’t have similar backgrounds, who might have a weird name you can’t pronounce, who might live pass 9th Street. Come to the Black/Hispanic shows and see the talent that is emerging and cast them in your shows. Search and hire POC for your tech crew.
Once we can get to the point of true inclusiveness, then the Louisville performing arts scene will be the redeeming star of any year, not just 2016.
Editors note: click here for Keith Waits’ own editorial on this subject.
Janelle Renee Dunn originally from Duncan, South Carolina, is an actor, singer and teaching artist. She has a MFA in Acting from the University of Louisville and a BA in Theatre (Directing) from Berea College. Before becoming the Performing Arts teacher at Chancey Elementary this school year, Janelle Renee taught drama workshops and drama clubs to students for three years. She also appeared in the title role of a local kid’s touring show, Kylie for President (Drama by George). Janelle Renee is also the Co-Artistic Director for Smoked Apple Theater Group. She recently made her professional directorial debut with SATG’s production of Oh Lord! Mamma Done Burnt the Biscuits. Acting credits include: Click, Clack, Moo (Stage One), ShowBoat (Kentucky Opera), Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (Bunbury Theatre), Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Rocky Horror Show (Pandora Productions), Much Ado About Nothing and Becoming Mother’s (Looking for Lilith) and Doubt (Wayward Actors).