Why Is the NEA Funding Discrimination?

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Federal tax dollars must not go to theaters that specifically exclude straight white men.

Some might think that the theater world would be an unlikely place to find racial or gender discrimination, but a call to action named “Jubilee 2020” from Howlround, a nonprofit “knowledge commons by and for the theatre community,” is a direct plea for discrimination. Howlround has asked theater companies to pledge that in the year 2020 they will produce no plays written by straight white men. Thus far, 70 theater companies around the country have signed the pledge, and the number is growing.

The pledge reads in part, “Every theatre in the United States of America will produce only work by women, people of color, Native American artists, LBGTQIA artists, deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” The purpose of this discrimination is to give opportunities to “traditionally marginalized voices,” as Howlround puts it.

In a Frequently Asked Questions section of the Jubilee website, Howlround addresses the purported exclusion of playwrights based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. One FAQ reads: “What About Straight White Men?” The answer:

Love them. The person typing this particular answer to this FAQ is one! There is not intent or desire to do harm to any straight white man. We think the Jubilee will end up being a benefit to all of us.

What the happy self-censoring white guy who wrote this is missing is that intent to do harm is irrelevant. Barring playwrights from selling or producing their work on the basis of their race (or other category such as gender) is harm. And to make matters worse, a search of the grant database for the National Endowment for the Arts shows that in the past decade, theater companies that have signed this pledge have received at least $1.2 million in federal grants.

According to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The NEA must make it clear that no theater company that participates in such discriminatory exclusion will be eligible for federal funding. If companies wish to discriminate because they believe it promotes diversity or for any other reason, of course they may do so, but not on the taxpayers’ dime.

Even aside from the legal question of federal funding, this approach to diversifying America’s stages is wrongheaded. Moreover, it is not clear that the problem that Jubilee 2020 is attempting to address is even much of a problem. American Theatre magazine compiles a list of the “Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights in America.” So far, the magazine notes, “2016–17 is the most diverse season yet, with 8 playwrights of color and 6 women represented — an increase from last year, which& had 3 and 5, respectively.”

I’ve worked in theater for nearly two decades, and during that time the issue of diversity has been front and center at every organization with which I’ve been involved. This focus has paid dividends: Individuals and companies have made choices that have led to the most diversity that the art form has probably ever seen. It is that focus and those choices made by artists of every race and type working together that build meaningful and lasting diversity.

As artists and citizens, those of us who work in theater and patronize it must reject the blunt discrimination of Jubilee 2020. And we should work to make sure that federal dollars will not flow to organizations that disfavor playwrights solely because they are straight white men.

The cause of equality cannot be advanced by institutionally embracing inequality.

The cause of equality cannot be advanced by institutionally embracing inequality. The goal is not a number; the ideal world is not one in which actors, writers, and directors are proportionally represented based on the demographics of the United States. Rather, the goal must be for every artist to be treated as an individual, not measured against a hierarchy of victimization and privilege.

Jubilee 2020 is divisive, illiberal, and dangerous. All of us, and especially our government, must make it clear that there is no place for racial or gender discrimination in art. It is my hope that theater companies in the United States will reject this pledge. It is already the law, as set forth in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that companies signing the pledge may not receive a single penny from the government of the United States.


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