Statera VOICES | Rehana Lew Mirza

"Statera Voices" is a series dedicated to reclaiming dominant culture narratives as a means towards gender balance in the theater and beyond. "Statera Voices" is where we tell our stories, expand our histories and celebrate each other. It is here that we join in a circle of mutual trust and support to share our thoughts and self-reveal on our own terms and in our own voices. 

Today's offering comes from Rehana Lew Mirza. In addition to her work as a playwright, Rehana is also co-director of Ma-Yi Writer's Lab, the largest collective of Asian-American writers in the country. For her advocacy work with the South Asian community, Rehana was nominated for a South Asian Media Award and was featured in publications such as India in New York, DesiTalk, India Abroad, Bibi Magazine, Nirali Magazine, and EGO Magazine, among others. Her plays have been published with the Alexander Street Press, indietheatrenow, and the New York Theatre Review, and her breakout play, Barriers, was the first play to address 9-11 from a Muslim perspective and has been included in the curriculum at West Virginia University, Yale University, and NYU. Learn more about Rehana HERE

This piece originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of The Dramatist and is reprinted with permission. The full article, titled The Count, can be found HERE

 
      Photo by Christine Chambers

      Photo by Christine Chambers

REACTION TO THE COUNT

Upon seeing the statistics from The Count, I turned to the person on my right and asked if the Dramatist Guild was handing out arsenic to swallow with these numbers. On my left was my husband Mike Lew. We couldn’t make eye contact through the tears. Up until this moment, our semi-serious joke had been that I was a “2 for 1” as a woman of color, meaning I’d be twice as likely to be produced. But the facts were laid bare: female-authored productions hover at only 22%. Women of color comprise only 3.4%. Given these statistics, my chances of production are grim. Mike has a slightly better shot; men of color comprise a whopping 6%.

In that moment, I realized how arbitrary and ineffectual “feelings” are. Mike and I had both “felt” that I was more likely to be produced. But the numbers said otherwise. And I’m sure the American theater “feels” they are moving towards diversity and inclusion. But the numbers say otherwise too.

What I take away from The Count is that theaters are NOT producing the BEST plays; they’re merely ascribing higher value to plays that show a particular (hegemonic) perspective. Theaters are tacitly allowing unconscious bias to permeate the industry, and until we find ways of holding decision-makers accountable for excluding women (and men of color), they will have no incentive to change. After all, “feelings” are overwhelmingly convincing.  Everyone “feels” they are doing the best they can do. 

I’d like to think that upon seeing these numbers, we as a collective community would freak the fuck out and do more than the best we can do. But I was at Julia Jordan’s first town hall on gender parity in 2008, and since then female representation has only creeped up 5%. So I wonder how honest we’re being with one another about actually wanting change, or about the role of theater as a vital, visceral window on the world. I’m not sure theaters care that representation on their stages is increasingly disparate from their surrounding communities. Millennials (18-34) make up a quarter of the country, and of those, nearly half are minorities. But you’re not seeing them in our theaters. Women are half the population, and people of color are 37%. But you’re not seeing them being produced. What happens when nuanced and diverse representations of these demographics are completely absent from theater? I actually worry that instead of theater opening us up to new experiences, we are creating an empathy problem. We are effectively censoring alternate perspectives to the point that instead of shining a light on humanity, the plays we see merely confirm privileged experience. 

Sometimes when I mention this stuff in public, inevitably an older white man will tell me, “If you can’t take it, get out of the theater.” The thing is, according to these statistics, I’m already 96.6% out of the theater.  Ultimately, Mike and I have to believe that the value of our plays will transcend statistics. Yet The Count shows that there is a toxic systemic bias at play that we cannot overcome on our own, no matter how much we believe in our plays.