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Great Roles for Everyone

Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks and UPROOTED Theatre to promote diversity

Jan. 12, 2011
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The great roles in Western drama, onstage and off, have largely belonged to Caucasian males.As women and all people of color achieve greater representation in U.S. theaters, new and appealing possibilities for the future of the art form are appearing. If Milwaukee has barely joined in that adventure, it’s not entirely for lack of trying.

Now Renaissance Theaterworks has made a public commitment to devote 40% of its next three seasons to work by theater artists of color.The Diversity Series, as the company named it, began in November with a reading of Cuban playwright Nilo Cruz’s play Two Sisters and a Piano. It comes full-blown this month with a production of Crumbs From the Table of Joy,the 1995 play by African-American playwright Lynn Nottage, presented in collaboration with Milwaukee’s UPROOTED Theatre, the promising child of four local African-American artists. Crumbs runs Jan. 14-Feb. 6 at the Broadway Theatre Center.

The women who founded Renaissance Theaterworks and direct its programming have embraced, and not for the first time, the struggle against our city’s segregation. Suzan Fete, Marie Kohler, Raeleen McMillion, Jennifer Rupp and Michele Traband founded the company in 1993 to address a lack of professional opportunities for theater women in Milwaukee.This makes them logical allies of the artists of color for whom there are almost no opportunities for professional work.A highly trained actress like Tiffany Yvonne Cox, one of UPROOTED’s co-founders, must term herself a regional artist and work from a base in Chicago.Co-founder Travis Knight does the same from the West Coast.

UPROOTED’s other co-founders, Artistic Director Dennis F. Johnson and Managing Director/actress Marti Gobel, are slugging it out here. In 2008, Johnson was assistant director for the Renaissance productions of Hippolytus and The Persians, Gobel and Knight acted in the shows, and Cox interned at the Milwaukee Rep.When the four became friends and decided to form a company, the Renaissance women provided valuable guidance.

“We wanted to do Crumbs for a long time because we love the play, but because of its large cast it’s a big financial commitment for us,” Fete says. “Now we realize that the reason we waited is so we could do it in collaboration with UPROOTED.”

Why did the company make a three-year commitment to diverse programming? “Because four was too risky and two was too wimpy,” she answers. In other words, the future is up to the town.We’ll cast our vote by supporting the effort or not.

The goal has been to attract audiences from all of our various communities.One can argue for and against the ideal of a theater that transcends race, class and similar categorizations, but it’s been as difficult to achieve audience diversity here as it's beenforpeople from different communities to visit one another’s neighborhoods.Our city’s segregated geography is mirrored in its cultural life.

UPROOTED was created partly to attract more black people to theater.“Why should they go now,” Gobel asks, “when they don’t see their lives reflected onstage, or when one play each year is aimed at them and it’s always by August Wilson or A Raisin in the Sun?”

Gobel did the research and learned that even African Americans here who can afford to attend theater don’t because, she believes, the stories are told from a Caucasian perspective. She points to the diversity of non-Caucasian voices.

“It’s not all ghetto life, single moms or abusive men,” she says. “Some people of color are born to educated families where college is an expectation, not a dream.Their voices need to be heard.”

She is herself in a biracial marriage and “you never see that onstage!”UPROOTED will remedy that later this season with a biracial casting of Jane Martin’s play Jack and Jill.

There are compelling arguments for color- and gender-blind casting as an antidote to the dominance of white male roles. Once a play achieves classic status, the imperative for such realism should fade; yet a black Miss Julie could confuse or insult an audience.Or uproot old ideas.

John Schneider was playwright, director and actor with Milwaukee’s Theatre X. He’s the founding director of Project Non-Violence, which presents original theater, music and dance by young people from Milwaukee’s central city, and of Nice Plays Inc., which develops new, experimental, community-based performances.


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