2 hrs · My Oscar Opinion
In late July 1989 I moved from NY to Los Angeles to become a Head of The Urban Entertainment Department at The William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills. Then WMA and now WME was and remains one of the top three talent agencies in the entertainment industry. A few days into my tenure there I asked my assistant , "How Many Black executives were in the companies west coast office? The answer was one! That would be me. (There was also one in the New York office and I was responsible for the hiring of two more during my two year tenure). I have long left the company but I called over there the other day with pretty much the same question. The answer almost 27 years later is still one. Other top level talent agencies have a similar lack of Black talent representatives even though they make much revenue from Black talents especially on the music side of things.
To me this void and that of Blacks in decision making studio positions is a bigger issue than lack of actors gaining Oscar nominations. In close to 40 years of being in and around the entertainment and media industries I have held a view that we Blacks would greatly benefit by getting into places where we historically were not. Clearly some of these places are talent agent positions, studio production and acquisition positions, high level corporate accounting/ CFO positions.
The #oscarsowhite campaign has brought much attention to the lack of Black acting nominees. There have been calls to boycott tonight's show and a quick change in the voting roster of The Academy. I for one feel those actions are short sighted if we do not push to get in the room where the deals are actually made. I for one feel that some of our bigger Hollywood personalities should push their agencies and the studios they are involved with to bring forth some young Black behind the scenes talent and allow them to be track for inclusion in the deal making rooms. If we don't get in those rooms we will have another 27 some odd years and still have the same putrid answer.
Last I am going to watch The Oscars for at least a bit tonight. Lost in the tension is the fact that Reggie Hudlin a Black man is one of the producers of this years show. I have known both Chris Rock and Reggie Hudlin for about 30 years and I want them to win. Why?
Because Reggie is bright conscious Black man who as producer is in a decision making position as to many of the behind the scenes hires. I can assure you that's the least some Blacks have been put on in behind the scenes production related positions because Reggie is the producer of the show.
Those persons will be able to buy their kids clothes, food, books or pay their
rent, mortgage or car note with money they make tonight. To me the ability to have more Blacks eating because they are getting regular work behind the scenes is more important than soothing the ego of some star or starlet with a nomination.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson