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Seattle's Art Scene Wants To Be Less White

Donald Byrd, choreographer for Spectrum Dance Theater, is demanding a more frank dialogue about race.
Spectrum Dance Theater/Ian Douglas
Donald Byrd, choreographer for Spectrum Dance Theater, is demanding a more frank dialogue about race.

Spectrum Dance Theater’s Donald Byrd wants to shake up the conversations about race in this country.

“People are cautious,” says Byrd, a choreographer. “Given the times we live in, we can’t be cautious.”

He points to the uproar that followed a second consecutive year of Academy Award nominations that overlooked performances by actors of color, coming on the heels of the continuing, and growing, national Black Lives Matter movement.

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That’s why he named Spectrum’s 2015/2016 artistic season “#RACEish: An Exploration of America’s 240 years of (failed) Race Relations.”

He’s focused his company’s spring programs on dances that might trigger those conversations.

The offerings include work inspired by the cultural traditions of Africa, dances set exclusively to the music of African-American composers and a collaboration with noted theater artist Anna Deavere Smith, called “Rap on Race.”

Byrd is also adamant that his dance company be racially diverse.

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“You have to make an effort!” Byrd says, dismissing frequent claims by some of his white contemporary dance colleagues that they can’t find technically proficient artists of color.

“I have made an effort to ensure that there are always dancers of color at Spectrum, in particular African-American dancers.”

Last year, Seattle’s Intiman Theatre also committed to more diversity, committing to hire 50 percent actors of color. Andrew Russell, Intiman’s Producing Artistic Director, calls it “a very small step in a long, long journey.”

This year, Russell tapped University of Washington drama professor Valerie Curtis-Newton to co-curate Intiman’s summer festival. She’s decided to exclusively program work by African-American women playwrights.

Audiences in Seattle are still primarily white, and for the most part, they see plays by white writers, who are predominantly male.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Dancers perform in black face in 'Minstrel Show Revisited,' which is part of the #RACEish series curated by Donald Byrd, an African-American choreographer for Spectrum Dance Theater.", "fid": "124035", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201602/_81X0381.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Spectrum Dance Theater/Ian Douglas"}]]  “I think privileging a different lens and exposing you to a different point of view of the world is maybe the most important thing in a city like this one,” Curtis-Newton says.

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In 2013, Curtis-Newton directed Intiman’s production of “Trouble in Mind,” a play by mid-20th century playwright Alice Childress. It received nightly standing ovations and raves from the critics. Another play by Childress will be on tap in 2016, and this time Intiman wants to perform it for a more diverse group of people.

To develop new audiences, the theater company hopes to find venues beyond its traditional home at the Cornish Playhouse on the Seattle Center campus.

That’s a good first step, according to Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson, and not unique to Intiman Theatre.

“The audience for performing arts is aging,” Berson says. “And who do we replace them with?”

Berson doesn’t know if new audiences will flock to repertoire by a wider diversity of artists, presented by more performers of color.

It definitely won’t hurt.

“This is no longer going to be America the white,” Berson says. “If we don’t reflect that, we’re kind of obscuring what our country really is.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "From left, Andrew Russell, producing artistic director at Intiman Theatre, Valerie Curtis-Newton, director and educator, and Jennifer Zeyl, Intiman's artistic producer.", "fid": "124036", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201602/DSCN0011.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]]Intiman’s Valerie Curtis-Newton says her main goal is to present great work that touches on our shared humanity, rather than plays that hit you over the head with a message.

“It’s hard to get people to come into a space to share when you say, ‘Come, it’ll be good for you!’”

She says if the art resonates with its audience, social change will follow.

“For me, that’s the point,” she says. “This diverse group of people sits in the dark, vibrates together, and then when the lights come up, they get to look at each other and figure out how they’re going to be in relationship going forward.”