What is "multicultural theatre?

Everybody's talking about it, but the question persists: What is "multicultural theatre?" Is it non-traditional casting, affirmative action, a culturally diverse season of plays, and/or outreach to various communities?

"By multiculturalism, we don't mean tokenism," says actress Emma Gay, former artistic director of the Castillo Cultural Center. "You don't just do a black play, followed by a women's play, followed by a gay play. We mean multi-cultural in structure and form. The statement we want to make about the world is one of inclusion." Some Off-Broadway and community theatres have tapped into the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity of New York, and thereby enriched the theatrical landscape; others have just begun to take steps in this direction.

Blazing Trails

The trailblazers of multicultural theatre in New York have presented a range of work that defies categorization.

The Public Theater and its producer, George C. Wolfe, have done more in recent years than any other Off-Broadway company in terms of developing, directing, and sponsoring diverse, award-winning works such as Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Anna Deavere Smith's "Fires in the Mirror," an eclectic performance series titled "Wake Up Call," and "Free at Three," an extension of the Shakespeare in the Park summer season to venues in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

AMAS Musical Theatre, founded by Rosetta LeNoire, Mara Kim, and Gerta Grunen, has produced original musicals for 27 years. It may best be known for the long-running Broadway hit "Bubbling Brown Sugar." Donna Trinkoff, the group's producing director, says that AMAS "is dedicated to bringing people of all races, colors, creeds, and origins together through the performing arts. We have a training program for teenagers, as well as an outreach program through which we give away free tickets to social services organizations, to schools, and to young people who otherwise could not afford to go to the theatre."

Under the able direction of founder Fred Newman, the Castillo Cultural Center--a multimedia community arts center--has attempted to promote an understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity and equity over the past 20 years. The group's most noteworthy productions have included Israeli playwright Josef Mundy's "The Governor of Jericho" and "Off-Broadway Melodies of 1592," a musical by Fred Sherman and Anne Roboff which satirized the city-wide hoopla surrounding the anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America. For more than a decade, the Castillo center has coordinated the national All Stars Talent Show, a series of local talent showcases organized annually by youth and sponsored by the Community Literary Research Project (CLRP).

French-speaking countries have provided a wealth of multi-ethnic fare for Fran‚oise Kourilsky, artistic director of the Ubu Repertory Theater. Since 1981, Ubu has presented English translations of new plays by writers including Aime Cesaire of Martinique ("The Tempest"), Simone Schwarz-Bart of Guadaloupe ("Your Handsome Captain"), Protais Asseng of Cameroon ("Enough is Enough"), and Fatima Gallaire-Bourega of Algeria. These plays are also published in various anthologies, such as Theatre & Politics, Afrique: New Plays, and Plays by Women, in association with the Theatre Communications Group (TCG). Kourilsky credits Ellen Stewart of La MaMa with helping her produce and direct French theatre in two initial productions, "Nowhere" (1985) and "The Sleepless City" (1987).

La MaMa Experimental Theater Club (E.T.C.), in the East Village, has the longest track record of multicultural and multiracial productions in New York City. Founded by Ellen Stewart in 1961 with the down payment of an unemployment check, La MaMa has been a home to varying play forms as well as a springboard for companies like Ubu Rep and the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.

Located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the Blue Heron Theatre describes itself as "a thinking person's theatre which draws from diverse cultural traditions and historical milieux to create provocative artistic statements." The nine-year-old theatre's most notable productions have included Fernando Arrabal's "On the Tightrope," David Henry Hwang's "The Sound of Voices," Ray Aranha's "The Estate," and "We Are Your Sisters," an original docudrama based on slave narratives adapted by Blue Heron's founder, playwright Ardelle Striker.

"Cultural Pluralism

and Equity"

Notwithstanding the efforts of the organizations listed above, much work remains to be done in the area of multicultural theatre. An important consideration, pointed out by writer Eugene Nesmith in American Theatre magazine last March, is "how little has fundamentally changed in regard to the structures of funding, management, administration, and conceptualization of the arts." A city college professor, Nesmith writes that "de-facto segregation remains a way of life at most major institutions." Dartmouth College theatre scholar Victor Leo Walker II advocates "cultural pluralism and equity," and has suggested that the interaction of cultures is best achieved when foundation support enables minority theatres to present their productions under the auspices of mainstream companies, thereby building bridges of cultural acceptance and strengthening the community and economic base of ethno-specific groups.

Founded in 1986 as an outgrowth of Actors' Equity Associaton's (AEA's) Minority Committee, the Non-traditional Casting Project promotes the idea that roles with no specific racial designation should remain open to everyone; members of all ethnic groups and actors with disabling conditions should be considered for Shakespearean dramas, Broadway shows, and American classics. The NTCP is housed in the AEA building in midtown Manhattan, and maintains files on more than 4,000 performing artists--both union and non-union. With the financial support of American Express, an on-line service has been developed to allow computer access to pictures and