Minority Theaters: Beyond and Within

Majesty Scott and Anthone Jackson in African-American Shakespeare Company’s production of Cinderella; Photo by Lance Huntley

Minority theaters have a specific mission: serving an audience and thus specific communities. The African American Shakespeare Theater and the Rhino Theater are two examples of how they choose to define their own sense of community through their online communication.

Two Communities: LGBT and African-American
Both theaters aim at specifically serving their target communities. For the Rhino, that means exposing LGBT oriented issues ; for the African American Shakespeare Company, it means using classics to set African Americans in the larger society.

Founded in 1977 by Allan B. Estes, The Rhino Theater is a non-profit theater mainly dedicated to the production of plays by and about gay and lesbian people. According to its website it “develops and produces works of theatre that enlighten, enrich, and explore both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of the queer community”. It has forged itself a reputation among the years as a reference for its commitment to its social and political point of view in defense of the LGTB community’s interests.
The African American Shakespeare Company (AASC) was created in 1994. Its main goal is to introduce “classic theater” to a more diverse audience. More precisely, they dedicate their company to presenting “classic European works in an African American context”. It develops plays either written, directed or performed by African Americans, which partly explains their main slogan: “envisioning Classics in Color”.

My Name, my Stand
Each theater bears a name that heralds a political and cultural stand

Though both aim at promoting a specific community, the names they adopted for their theaters convey very different meanings. Obviously referring to Eugene Ionesco’s eponymous play, the Theater Rhinoceros, whose logo is a rainbow rhinoceros, aims at representing the resistance and the liberty of being able to think ‘outside the box’ and being free to express its opinions without conformism. By associating Shakespeare -THE Reference in English-speaking drama- to the African Americans, the AASC claims both its professional skills and reclaims classical literature for a community that has long been deprived of its own intellectual production.

Life in Queer vs Life in Classics
Both theaters’s season programming are in accordance with the missions they claim.

Though he Rhino and the AASC have approximately the same amount of shows in their season programming, their choices of plays exhibit striking dissemblances. The Rhino chose to focus its entire season on the difficulties of the LGBT communities in various situations. For example in The Call, a couple asks a lesbian couple what they think of adopting. In Shakespeare Goes to War, the play is set in the 70’s and focuses on The Brigg’s initiative, “a proposition designed to fire all gay public school teachers”.
The African American Shakespeare Company, on the other hand, chose to produce mainly “classics” thus addressing common human issues that have crossed time. In some cases such as Romeo and Juliet, they give them a new meaning by the direction: the play is set in the 70s: “when the world was changing culturally and socially”. In others, like Anthony and Cleopatra, respecting the time set by the playwright sets African Americans back into history.

Pictured left to right: John Fisher and Gabriel A. Ross in Shakespeare Goes to War by John Fisher; Photo by David Wilson

Words do count
The words used on their websites are strong identity markers for both the audience and the theater professionals and say a lot about whom the theaters are trying to target.

Describing itself and whom they are working for, the African American Shakespeare Company chose its words wisely to describe their community. The term “African American community” is for example preferred over “Afro American community” or “Black Americans”. This shows a need for the theater to adopt a more “elaborate” and “educated” speech, the words “ghetto” or “black” being totally absent from the website. As if the word “black” was banned from any article in link with the theater, it opts for a softer wording but also a larger one. The minorities are named “people of colors” or “communities of colors”, and even their actors are described as “actors of colors”.

When it comes to defining themselves The Rhino is a theater of little words: “Theatre Rhinoceros develops and produces works of theatre that enlighten, enrich, and explore both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of our queer community.” The word “Queer” that defines their community is according to the definition from the Gender Equity Resource Center a term that refers to: “all LGBTIQ people (…) A political statement (…) A simple label to explain a complex set of sexual behaviors and desires”. The definition also mentions that older LGBT people don’t embrace this term as it has been used in a pejorative way. Using “Queer” as their main definition is clearly a way for the Rhino to target all LGBTIQ people, also giving a political undertone to the organization. The “newness” of the term giving it a more modern aspect.

Different Communication Standards
The overall aspect of both of the theaters’ websites speaks volumes on their respective aims.

The AASC’s website is very professional with links to various social medias, modern layout and well-organized sections. Theatre Rhino’s on the contrary is very unstructured: the “about” section hasn’t been updated since 2009 and the information given are hard to find.
Regarding the theater itself and the organization of seats for example, the AASC seems once again to want to recall a standard vision of theater by proposing three different types of seats: “left, right and orchestra” in a classic theatre. They also offer a more “family-friendly” schedule by having the plays performed at both 3pm and 8pm.

The Rhino actually doesn’t perform their plays “in-house”, as they don’t have a theater to host the shows. Their relocation could be the result of financier problems. Still, the same pricing for everyone makes the theater more convivial and doesn’t create any cleavage within the viewers. The theater seems to have more of a libertarian ideology: the financing doesn’t take a big place: the prices of the tickets stay the same, the theater is exporting itself to have more visibility (or to be visible somehow) and the programming isn’t really made to attract a huge number of viewers but rather to raise issues that are more of an “avant-garde” type of theater. The African American Shakespeare Theater tends to consider itself  a conventional structure through its wording and the plays that are performed.

Besides the fact that they each represent and defend a minority, the Rhino and the African American Shakespeare Company don’t share the same perspective as to the way it should be addressed so as to be promoted. They thus have different ways of  sensitizing and reuniting communities: one by mixing cultures to be part of a wider community and the other by making its community stand out on its own. In each case their aim is to fight for their own equality and express themselves freely. 

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