One African American Cinderella Is Not Enough

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Keke Palmer and Joe Carroll

Credit: Carol Rosegg

Keke Palmer and Joe Carroll

(WOMENSENEWS)–Iconic princesses are all the rage with young children and Broadway is taking full advantage of their popularity by producing shows like Cinderella.

And while Keke Palmer is the first African American TV and film actor to play Cinderella in the Broadway production, still an unacceptable lack of diversity exists in theaters across this country.

From Broadway houses to regional and local stages, offerings rarely include plays by or about people or women of color and they exclude a wide range of identities or experiences.

Most published plays in the United States are written about white experiences and for white actors. And according to the Creative Trust and the Broadway League, the average theater attendee is a white woman with a family income of over $189,000.

Theaters continue to cater primarily to this white, upper and middle class audience. This is especially true in TYA–theater for young audiences–once called children’s theater, where book adaptations rule the stage and upcoming seasons continue to feature the same old stories and characters.

As a theater professor and a director, I spend a lot of my time making TYA. I am constantly thinking about the types of stories and characters that are created and marketed toward kids. And I am highly aware of the many families whose lives are excluded from our stages and screens.

TYA is not the only genre guilty of white-washing and limiting stories for young people.

Hashtags to the Rescue

Earlier this year, Ellen Oh and Melinda Lo began the now well-known social media campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Their catchy hash tag became a call for action and has sparked larger efforts to address the lack of diversity in young adult literature, specifically around race, gender, religion, LGBTQ, disability, and culture.

TYA needs a similar call to action on the national level. Let’s call it #cinderellaisnotenough.

In the U.S., TYA has a long history of producing "safe and family-friendly" narratives and characters for children. The problem is that many of the stories considered appropriate or family-friendly are primarily written by and about white people or about characters stripped of culturally specific (read non-white) content.

Moreover, topics labeled as risky, taboo, or too serious for kids, such as death, racial politics, or lesbian and gay experiences, are the very themes present in the real-life experiences of many young people in this country.

To be sure, some regional TYA companies are making efforts to expand their repertoire to include more diverse offerings. Zach Scott Theatre in Austin, Texas, recently commissioned "Cenicienta," a bilingual version of Cinderella that will go up in the spring. The Coterie (Kansas City, Mo.,) included "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott" in their seasons this year. And Metro Theater in St. Louis just closed "Unsorted," a new play about gender binaries.

However, despite the diverse demographics of young people in this country, by and large, those making theater for young and family audiences continue to produce the same popular titles, such as "James and the Giant Peach," "Charlotte’s Web," and Dr. Seuss’ "The Cat in the Hat."

Blocking the Space

While I appreciate many of these productions, they are currently being produced at the expense of stories that include children of color and address the diversity of identities and experiences of young people.

Diversifying the stories and plays we tell and show our kids requires a collective effort that should start within the theater community.

Directors and producers and play reading committees can help by choosing scripts by and about people with non-majority identities.

Theaters can help by making tickets affordable for more diverse audiences. Those who can afford to attend theater must choose to buy tickets to culturally specific and diverse theater.

White theater-goers can help by speaking up about how and why diverse stories matter to everyone.

Artists and publishers can help by actively recruiting, hiring and publishing the work of artists of color and LGBTQ artists within our organizations.

Together we can build a culture in U.S. that helps young audiences see and celebrate the diversity of who we really are.

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