The theater community in Chicago has had many reckonings in terms of representation in criticism, casting, play selection, administrative staff, and boards, yet we don’t often discuss Marketing and PR. This week Drury Lane Theater put out advertising on social media and their website for their upcoming show And Then There Were None which was received with a firestorm of criticism. The primary marketing graphic featured a noose.
Aside from the confounding fact that this image represents a major plot spoiler in that the main character hangs herself, complicating this bizarre choice is the problematic history of the material, which is based on Agatha Christie’s highest-selling mystery book which was originally titled Ten Little N*ggers in the UK, after a popular minstrel song. The US version was retitled in some cases (just as problematically) Ten Little Indians and most popularly, And Then There Were None.
Where did I research this wealth of history you may ask? You’d be surprised to find out that it only took a two-second Wikipedia search. This begs the question, did no one in Drury Lane’s entire organization Google it even once? Did no one raise a concern before this image was sent to print? That seems highly implausible.
What seems more plausible is:
A. Someone came across this information yet didn’t feel comfortable enough to share it with decision-makers.
B. Someone came across this information and shared it with decision-makers who didn’t care.
C. Someone came across this information and decided that leaning into the inflammatory racist imagery and history was a great selling point.
D. Everyone in the entire organization is completely ignorant of grade-school level American History.
It is possible that Drury Lane may offer more context to what occurred, but it is possible that they will not. After all, ducking one’s head in the sand has been an amazingly effective survival tactic for the theater elite in Chicago and beyond. This is an issue that is bigger than one theater and their racist hang-ups.
My background is in fashion design, and part of any design discipline from fashion to graphics is being acutely aware of the power of imagery. When you choose an image for advertising, your job is to have a deep understanding of all permutations of that image. What feelings does it evoke? What associations does it create? What do I want to say on behalf of the company that I am designing for? Does the power of this image promote the story that I want to tell? Does it enhance that story, or does it overpower that story?
For example, once while working in the dance industry, one of my colleagues stopped by my desk and showed me one her designs and asked “What do you see?” She had arranged a bunch of small female figures wearing leotards next to each other in several rows to create a fun, neutral-toned graphic pattern.
It strongly resembled drawings of the Middle Passage.
We had a good yikes and subsequent laugh, she scrapped that design and went back to the drawing board.
Who has the power to scrap an ad before it goes to print in Chicago theater? Who has the power to push a problematic ad through the pipeline, overriding the timid warnings of underlings? Who decides what problematic critics are catered to and offered access? Who has the largest sway over what demographics are targeted in advertising dollars? Who decides which faces appear in ads? Who tailors the dog-whistle messaging for an advertising campaign?
Who green-lights a fucking noose?
We stand at a time in the Chicago theater industry where institutions are reactive: being blindsided by a scandal of their own creation. Rushing to paper over the problem with an insincere apology and cosmetic changes. Holding their breath until the firestorm subsides. Saying the right thing publicly, yet bitching about “PC” culture behind closed doors. Then moving on as if nothing happened.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity is not an add-on. These are core values that need to be baked into the DNA of any company that truly wants to grow and not become a crusty relic. A theater needs to have the bravery to ask “What do you see?” At every step of the creative process, as well as a diverse staff to see a variety of perspectives.
I’ll tell you what I see.
I see homogeneity in creative leadership
I see stale and timid creative leadership.
I see creative leadership that views a changing America as a burden instead of an opportunity.
I see burned-out creative leadership that only knows one hack way to provoke.
I see one-note creative leadership that views Black pain as a cash-cow.
I see fragile and shallow creative leadership afraid to confront their biases.
I see fearful creative leadership afraid to leap towards the future.
I see self-interested creative leadership protecting its salary at all costs.
I see myopic creative leadership unable to move past stereotypes of POC .
I see angry creative leadership wistfully hearkening back to a time when one could punch down at POC and be considered “edgy”
I see hypocritical creative leadership that clings desperately to the past while calling its art “bold” and “relevant”.
These are the same “bold” and “relevant” theaters that felt moved to resuscitate the hoary spirit of a book written in 1939 originally called Ten Little Niggers.
Let’s say we asked Ten Little Theaters a series of questions about their commitment to EDI. How many that weren’t founded with a focus on marginalized communities would receive a passing grade?
Q. Are you willing to accept new input and dissent at multiple points in the creative process that could radically affect the trajectory and shape of a planned project?
And then there were eight.
Q. At how many points and in how many departments is there a REGULARLY PLANNED discussion about issues of equity and representation outside of EDI meetings or public scandal responses?
And then there were four.
Q. How many people from marginalized communities hold high-level decision-making power within your organization?
My dear readers, out of our Ten Little Theaters, how many could survive these three simple questions?
And Then There Were None.
Editor’s Note: Firstly, we apologize for posting the original show artwork that includes the noose, but wanted to be honest to the events as they have proceeded and not participate in the scrubbing over and censoring of this hurt. Secondly, It has been brought to my attention that these “call in” articles can be perceived as a form of attack. I would like to remind you that Sheri is a professional writer and comedian, but it is not her job to critique racially offensive imagery. We speak on these things because it seems no one else is willing, with the tools we have to do it. Empathy includes being brave enough to say the thing no one else will say to you, in the nicest way it can be said. If we did not think you would listen, we would not speak. Accountability is important to us here, and if you would like to reach out you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org