What is Diversity?

I wake up every day, well most every day, with the same ambitions and expectations of myself that I had when I was 25. Of course, the moment I move I’m immediately reminded that I am no longer 25, nor have I been near that age in decades. But my perspective on life, my ambition to explore my environment and my nature don’t feel any less than it was in the ’70s. On reflection, I realize that a great many changes have taken place since then.

My origins, the foundation of my reference point for viewing life is I am a male, born in Hungary, when Stalin was still the leader of the 2nd world. I arrived fresh upon the shores of the United States on Christmas day in 1956, and while I knew that I was a stranger in a strange land, the point was most poignantly brought home when my great uncle, who was the dominant male role model in my life to that point, jumped up from his seat on our bus, as we were moving through Manhattan, pointed with his very imposing finger, out the window and shouted, “Schwartza”!

I had never seen my great uncle that animated. I asked my mother what that word meant, and she told me that it was Yiddish for black man. For the first time in my life, at nearly 6 years of age I became consciously aware that there were people in this world that had different color skin, significantly different color that my own. For me, my uncle, my mother, and most every other passenger on that bus, none of us had ever seen and in some cases probably believed that that was even possible.

Less than a decade later, I fervently watched the progress of Dr. Martin Luther King as he symbolized the progress of the civil rights movement. However, my support of the civil rights movement at that time was born more from my identifying with the white kids going down south to participate than in understanding the profundity of the struggle. While I certainly found the abuse of marchers and protesters very disturbing, there was a part of me at that time that wondered why the protesters were so invested that they unwittingly encouraged the police and others to act in a barbaric fashion.

Not until I began protesting our participation in the war in Vietnam did I begin to understand that principles were worth standing up for, and that sometimes encouraged others to act in a barbaric fashion.

Even then, and perhaps not for a few more years, did I come to the full awareness that perspective is as important to an event as those that participate in the event. What brought me to that particular conclusion was my participation in theatre. As an actor, I was afforded opportunities to at least play at fulfilling the directive of the adage, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (Scout’s line from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee).

Because my family moved to a lily-white neighborhood, where being Jewish was deemed unacceptable, and not having stereotypical Jewish features, I passed as white. Thus I was afforded opportunities as an actor that I wouldn’t or couldn’t replicate again. The first occurred when I was cast as Othello in a Scene’s from Shakespeare production. And the second soon to follow when I played Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest. More than any other factor, these two roles impelled me upon a career in theatre. I was given the chance to inhabit the lives of characters that were totally foreign to me. My work to bring these characters to life caused me to consider the circumstances and perspectives of their lives. Not my male white European judgment about the characters, but how these two men experienced the white world they lived in.

Those roles were transformative of my very core. I grasped the power of theatre, and have not looked back since in my desire to affect others. Theatre offers that in every play, through every role that is brought to life. The Insights and experience that are personally unavailable to us, as an audience it is offed up to us on a platter to simply sample.

What brings this to an interesting focus is that there is a rising tide, a cry of equanimity, aimed at the casting of white actors in roles of color. Actually, the call is for using ethnic actors on a more consistant basis. Setting a standard wherein those of other than white ancestry will be given the same opportunity offered to whites to play other ethnicities.

Ultimately, that would be the definition of profound diversity, casting the very best actor available for each and every role regardless of ethnic similarity, but to get there, we must first grant full access and privilege to those that have yet achieved that access. Plainly stated, not only should ethnic roles be cast to appropriate ethnicity, but we should encourage productions, wherein an actor of color might play say Willy Loman, or Big Daddy, or any other role they have the chops to carry.

For that matter, when will it be commercially viable to have a woman play either of these archetypical roles? When will we as a society stop looking at the differences that divide us and start looking for the best in each of us?

When Dr. King said, “I have a dream…” isn’t that what he was describing? When Edger Mevers was working to encourage African Americans to register to vote, he was waving the flag of parity, equal opportunity to all. The cry was not or is not for preferential treatment, it is a cry for blind opportunity. Dr. King did not seek to be on top of the mountain to laud over us, he sought his equal footing, equal opportunity for every man.

We as actors, as people, are not limited by who we are, we are limited by the perception of what we are. The next time I see anyone in a motorized wheel chair, whose head is supported by braces and their limbs are held in askew, rather than feeling pity or concern, I should wonder, could that Stephen Hawking?

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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