“I’m running 10 minutes late, can you leave my ticket at the box office?” Who hasn’t received the exact same text message while waiting for their companions in New York City? I chuckled, sighed and texted him back “#ThankYouMTA”
I headed to the box office at the Helen Hayes Theater as I have done countless times before and asked the box office attendant, an elderly white man, if I could leave my plus one’s ticket under my name for him to pick up. “Write down their full name,” he said with a frown. I explained that I didn’t know my companion’s last name — more on that later — as he uttered, “then there’s nothing I can do, it’s policy. ” He scratched off my name on the white envelope that contained my tickets. To him, I was also nameless now.
As I stepped to the side to text my companion — with the knowledge he was underground battling our inefficient subway system — two elderly white men took my spot at the window. One of the men said his name to the same box office attendant who’d been of no help to me. “I remember your name sir,” the attendant said with a smile, “you’re here on the wrong date.” The patron exclaimed that he was a theater critic and could not come another night. Within seconds, the box office attendant had procured two orchestra tickets and pointed him to the theater entrance.
I reclaimed my spot at the box office and explained I hadn’t been able to get in touch with my plus one. “I can’t guarantee they’ll get their ticket,” said the man, pointing me to two ushers who “might” be able to help me: a younger white man and a black woman, the former looked away from my face and said he was following policy and couldn’t help me; the latter was the first person to acknowledge my name by looking at my ticket. “I’ll make sure they get their ticket,” she said warmly.
What stings was not that I was put through this harrowing experience just to sit through “Linda Vista,” (a play whose white patriarchy themes made the box office feel like part of an immersive experience) nor that I too am a professional critic. What I couldn’t excise from my mind was the way my name had been treated by the theater employee; I was someone he could delete with the strike of his pen, while the elderly white man’s name was worth remembering. And this wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced something like this.
I’ve been working professionally as a theater critic since 2013; I’m a board member of the Drama Desk (where I also serve as part of the nominating committee), and I’ve written for every reputable publication in town. For as long as I’ve been attending theater in the city, my name and brown skin have made me the target of bullies and racists.
I’ve been asked if I’m with the catering staff at theater critics events, been chastised by angry ushers to turn my cell phone off, even if I have never taken my device out of my pocket during a performance, and often been asked if I’m sure I belong in the orchestra, as ushers point me to the mezzanine. My skin has become so thickened by the mistreatment and rudeness of theater employees that I might as well be a walking callus.
I experience this, in part, because I’m a rarity on Broadway. In the 2017-2018 season, 75% of Broadway audiences were Caucasian, according to statistics compiled by the Broadway League. Theater clearly has a people of color problem: It’s not only that many people of color have no interest in revivals of revered but irrelevant plays featuring beige ensembles, it’s also that when we do come to the theater, we are told that we’re invading white spaces. When I see a show with a white friend, people often ask the friend if they brought me to the show and ask me if it’s my first time at the theater.
Every awards season we listen to speeches about the beauty and inclusiveness of the theater community, but people of color know that it’s an illusion. For every Tony Award given to a person of color, dozens of us are denied entry to these temples of love and acceptance.
This is why I’ve made it part of my mission to grant access to other people of color through my limited means.
Journalists and critics often receive two complimentary tickets to attend performances. In the spring of 2018 I decided it was time to give that extra ticket to my community and began offering it to people of color via Twitter. We are among the only people who can bring a guest to work, and when I started doing this many white members of the critical community questioned my approach. “I could never go see a show without my husband,” one of them said to me. I imagined a heart surgeon bringing a date to the operating room and giggled.
I’m extremely appreciative of the trust hundreds of strangers have put in me by accompanying me to performances, which is why part of my “policy” is not to ask them for information they haven’t provided. This is why I did not know my companion’s last name when I went to “Linda Vista.” This is why the attitude of the Second Stage employee irks me the most. If we have trouble making it past the box office, why should we trust that theater will someday tell our stories?
I met my plus one during the intermission of “Linda Vista.” Not only had he been seated in the mezzanine when we held orchestra seats, he had also been told that the seat next to me would no longer be available. I have personally seen ushers seat late patrons during scene breaks, so this felt like rubbing salt in an already bleeding wound.
In the aftermath of my experience at the Helen Hayes I received support from artists of color in the field (white artists and performers remain silent for the most part) as well as hundreds of private messages via social media, in which other people of color recounted the many ways in which they have felt unwelcome and unwanted in the theater.
I also received a call from Second Stage Executive Director Casey Reitz and Second Stage replied to one of my tweets, suggesting they are “aware” of the incident. But I did not receive a public apology or responses to my follow-up questions. When I contacted them about this piece, Second Stage sent the following statement to my editor:
“Second Stage Theater takes Mr. Solis’ complaint seriously and we called him the morning after the incident to listen and apologize. We also subsequently apologized on social media. An internal review was immediately launched and institutional policies and procedures were also reviewed. Second Stage is committed to being an inclusive, welcoming organization and as such, employees will now receive unconscious bias training.”
Dragging an apology out of an institution isn’t my idea of inclusion. We need action and to have people of color involved in the revision and correction of these policies; we need to make sure no person of color encounters a barrier to entry.
In the meantime, my conviction hasn’t been shaken. Instead my mission is firmer than ever.
We belong at the theater, and if you’re a person of color, find me on Twitter (@josesolismayen) and come see a show with me.