When Circa ’21 on Nov. 9 opens the Irving Berlin holiday musical, “White Christmas,” the color of the title could refer not just to snow.

The cast of Circa 21’s upcoming production of “White Christmas” at the Rock Island dinner theater.

Like many Quad Cities theatrical productions, the 22-member cast will be comprised of all white actors. More than a year after Quad City Music Guild led a concerted effort to increase diversity, equity and inclusion on local stages, progress remains challenging and slow going.

Last year, QCMG received a $2,500 Quad City Arts Capacity Building Grant, which funded training for Guild leadership, that took place in spring 2021 and focused on building an inclusive community, identifying challenges leading to feelings of exclusion by members of our community, and building a plan for long-term outreach, engagement, and inclusion of all members of our community.

Guild’s goal is “to build and maintain a community theatre that is overtly inclusive and representative of all facets of our rich and diverse community.” On Oct. 23, 2021, Guild hosted a community meeting at its Prospect Park theater in Moline, (led by two professional facilitators) to discuss the thorny issue of diversity.

Sasha Trice, left, and Katherine Zerull, led a 90-minute meeting on QC theatrical diversity, equity and inclusion in October 2021 at the Prospect Park theater, Moline (photo by Jonathan Turner).

That same day, the Facebook group “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Arts-QC” was created to help publicize opportunities among local theaters to improve diversity among casts and crews.

“We invite all arts groups in the Quad Cities to share audition notices, production notices, calls for volunteers, production staff, educational opportunities, etc.,” says the public page, which has 417 members as of Oct. 30, 2022.

QCMG board president Jennifer Sondgeroth said recently they “saw a huge increase in the number of brand new participants both onstage and off over the course of 2022, with more representation of traditionally underrepresented groups than the organization has seen in past years across all productions.”

DeVonte Westley was in the Music Guild cast of “Something Rotten” in June 2022.

Additionally, all directing staffs for 2023 actively addressed diversity and inclusion in their presentations to the board,” she said.

Keeping in mind that diversity is broad (beyond skin color), QCMG doesn’t collect demographic information about groups people may or may not belong to, “and as an organization we are not going to make assumptions about anyone’s story to provide a number,” Sondgeroth said when asked for a specific number of people of color in casts and crews.

The board is “dedicated to being an all-volunteer community theatre whose makeup mirrors the makeup of our community as a whole,” she said. “QCMG is working to achieve that through continued outreach initiatives and additional scheduled trainings for organizational leadership.

A scene from Music Guild’s “Cinderella” in July 2022.

“We are actively addressing facility issues that are a barrier to diversity and equity,” Sondgeroth added. “We are currently under construction and in process of installing a backstage wheelchair lift and renovating backstage restroom facilities so that backstage areas are ADA accessible and those who are differently abled can participate in the creation of our shows as well as enjoying them from the audience.”

That project will be completed before the outset of the 2023 season.

Music Guild has offered audio description services for those with visual impairments for many years, but starting with “Elf” this holiday season, will be adding American Sign Language interpretation services as well. Both of these services will continue into 2023, Sondgeroth said.

Increasing diversity on Broadway and the big screen

Boosting cast color and diversity has been a national show-biz priority for many years, including the phenomenally popular “Hamilton” (2015), which reimagined the Founding Fathers telling the story of then by a virtually all non-white cast reflecting America now.

At last October’s QC meeting, facilitators Sasha Trice and Katherine Zerull led participants through a video that defined essential terms, and showed inspiring examples of how Broadway, the ballet world, and TV are doing better at diversity, equity and inclusion.

Ali Stroker accepts the Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical award for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! onstage during the 2019 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 9, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

They displayed clips of musical theater actress Ali Stroker (paralyzed and in a wheelchair since age 2), who was the first wheelchair-bound person to win a Tony – for “Oklahoma!” in 2019; companies that make colored pointe shoes that are appropriate for dancers of color, and an impassioned 2015 speech from Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis, who is Black.

For the first time in over 18 years, earlier this year a Black Glinda starred in Broadway’s “Wicked.” Brittney Johnson, who joined the company of the long-running musical in 2018 and previously understudied the role, was promoted to Wicked‘s leading lady on Feb. 14, 2022.

A Black actress will play the title character in Disney’s new live-action movie “The Little Mermaid,” to be released May 26, 2023, with Halle Bailey as Ariel.

The Black actress Halle Bailey is Ariel in the new 2023 live-action “The Little Mermaid,” directed by Rob Marshall (courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures).

Latina actress Rachel Zegler will be the title character in Disney’s live-action remake of “Snow White.” She shot to fame after playing Maria in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation of “West Side Story,” for which she received the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy.

The Arthur Miller classic “Death of Salesman” has been revived on Broadway, for the first time where Willy Loman and his family are played by Black actors.

This historic production of the 1949 tragic Pulitzer winner is currently at the Hudson Theatre, starring Wendell Pierce as Willy.

Most diverse of all, the 1969 musical about America’s founding, “1776,” has revolutionized Broadway with a completely new revival, directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, currently delivered by a racially diverse cast of women, nonbinary and trans actors.

Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island

Of Circa’s mainstage productions since last October, there have been five people of color (total) in the casts, owner/producer Denny Hitchcock said.

The show that was most diverse was last fall’s musical, “Disenchanted,” which of the six women performers, featured an African-American and Asian-American.

Circa’s “Disenchanted” from fall 2021 featured women of color Tammie Harris (center) and Quinn Mei Lysaght (right).

Hitchcock said it is important to increase diversity on QC stages “to better reflect the makeup of our community.” The biggest challenge in accomplishing this is finding talent for the shows.

He hopes an upcoming show with a more diverse at Circa will be “We Will Rock You,” a Queen jukebox musical. Circa’s The Speakeasy this month featured an African-American actress, Kira Rangel, in “The Rocky Horror Show,” as Riff-Raff.

Kira Rangel, center, played Riff-Raff in the recent “Rocky Horror Show” at The Speakeasy.

Mockingbird on Main, Davenport

The Mockingbird in downtown Davenport – which opened in late July 2021 with a two-person play about Martin Luther King, Jr. – is keenly aware of the issue, co-owner Tristan Tapscott (who also directed the new “Rrocky Horror”) said recently:

“Unfortunately, we haven’t achieved the level of success with this as we would have liked. It’s on our mind and we wish we had the resources to make more progress,” he said. Of its past six productions in the last year, there have been people of color in four of them: “Enemy of the People” (1), “Deck the Halls” (1), “Your Better Self” (2), and “Their Town” (1).

The Mockingbird on Main’s “Their Town” (in September 2022) featured Louie Fischer and Alisha Hanes.

“We opened our facility with ‘The Mountaintop,’ which featured 2 artists of color on stage and was directed by an artist of color as well,” Tapscott said. “We haven’t achieved something like that since opening, but the future seems bright for inclusion.”

“It’s important to showcase the talent this area possesses. And the talent is there but how we reach them respectfully and artistically is a skill we are all learning,” he noted. “I’ve always been a champion for diversity on local stages — and my record reflects that, but I know it comes with challenges. Progress does not happen overnight and I wish I had the resources others have.”

Mockingbird is working on its 2023 lineup now but it’s “not just about picking shows that feature artists of color, but making them know we are all about diversity in casting in no matter what the show is,” Tapscott said. “That’s the key.”

Playcrafters Barn Theatre, Moline

Playcrafters has gone out of its way often to choose shows on Black themes, with Black actors and directors.

After staging August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” in July 2021 (with an all-Black cast), it presented the classic “A Raisin in the Sun” this past July.

Ashley Harris, left, and Kermit Thomas (with Nichole Payney in the background) in Playcrafters’ “A Raisin in the Sun,” in July 2022.

In the 1959 Lorraine Hansberry story, we’re brought into the cramped Chicago apartment of the African-American Younger family, where three generations are wrestling with their dreams and limits in life. But like all great literature or theater, “A Raisin in the Sun” isn’t a dramatic tale of just one demographic; it’s an exhilarating lesson of what it means to be human.

Playcrafters board president Yvonne Siddique said recently they’ve been working to make the theater inclusive of not only people of color, but also the LGBTQ communities.

“While we cannot pinpoint the exact number of diverse people, we have had many diverse folks be part of our theater,” she said, noting they have two members of the current board who are POC, as will the 2023 board.

“This past season, we had four directors that are POC, with one dropping out due to personal reasons,” Siddique said. “There have been many actors who are POC as well as LGBTQ.”

The first Playcrafters show this year, “The Odd Couple” traditionally has an all-white cast, but they had several people of color in the cast. “A Raisin in the Sun” had a majority of the cast, crew, and directing staff being POC.

Teresa Moore (right) as Mama Lena and Ashley Harris as Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” at Playcrafters, Moline.

“We performed ‘Dog Sees God,’ which included a diverse cast as well as the subject matter relating to LGBTQ issues,” Siddique said. “We have had other shows which included diverse casts and crew with folk identifying as LGBTQ.”

Playcrafters has offered several opportunities for foreign exchange students to be part of the theater as well, including one student on stage this season in “A Murder Is Announced.”

One show next year, “Skeleton Crew,” is planned to have an all non-white cast, Siddique said. “We also have been hosting ‘Black Nativity’ for the last few years, and plan to host them again this December,” she said.

“We are doing every effort to reach out to POC, but getting more POC to come to auditions for shows that tend to be cast traditionally with non-POC folk is still an issue that we are trying to resolve,” she wrote by email.

“It is vitally important to increase diversity, as that is how we can continue to grow our audiences and thrive as a theater,” Siddique said.

Black Box Theatre, Moline

Over time, The Black Box in downtown Moline has done a number of shows that feature people of color, including the all-Black “Crowns” in 2018.

Others include:

  • “I and You” (written for one white and one Black cast member)
  • “The Revolutionists” (including one Black female cast member)
  • “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” (written for a sensational female Black performer)

Co-owner Lora Adams said the Black Box also has cast non-traditionally, including “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” “Next to Normal,” “A Christmas Carol: A Radio Play,” and “War of the Worlds.”

“Schroeder was black in ‘Charlie Brown,’ the boyfriend in ‘Next to Normal’ was Black, etc.,” she said. “We didn’t cast all-white shows just because they had always been done with all-white casts. My Santa was Black in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Things like that.”

Keenen Wilson (top center) played Schroeder in Black Box Theatre’s 2017 version of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”

This last year, her theater also had some non-binary performers and staff.

“Challenges continue to be just having people come out to audition. I hope that our reputation is one of an open door, but I suspect that this will be a continuing challenge and we will continue to reach out and expand,” Adams said.

“I am not looking at next season in any other way than to cast the best person for any given role unless the role specifically calls for a certain cast,” she said. “Some shows lend themselves to different interpretations and others don’t.

“Currently, there is an all-Black cast for ‘Death of a Salesman’ on Broadway that started in London where changes to the script were necessary. That is not to say that my upcoming ‘Hello Dolly’ won’t have a Black Dolly,” Adams said. “My suggestion with regard to The Black Box is that no matter who you are, come and audition

“We would love to see you and if we’ve never met you before or seen you before, you might just give us an idea for a show we didn’t think we could do,” she said. “This has happened in the past and I suspect will happen in the future.”

The Spotlight Theatre, Moline

The same philosophy applies for Spotlight co-owner Brent Tubbs, who said his four-year-old theater has always been devoted to welcoming anyone.

“We have had several different ethnicities, POC, and backgrounds on our stage since last year,” he said recently, also noting the Spotlight doesn’t track data on POC. “We don’t want anyone to feel like a number at our theatre, and we don’t necessarily know what someone’s ethnicity is from looking at them.”

A scene from The Spotlight Theatre’s “The Lightning Thief” in February 2022.

Also, “what is your ethnicity?” is not a question on Spotlight audition forms, Tubbs said.

“We believe in offering everyone an equal opportunity when audition and make it very clear on all of our public audition notices that ALL. ARE. WELCOME to audition and apply,” he said by e-mail. “We believe diversity on stage is very important, and to make sure to show that representation, because you never know who is in the audience that could relate to that person and who that could inspire to follow that spark of interest and passion. 

“We believe some questions worth considering asking are – ‘How many POC have auditioned for you since last year?’ ‘How many POC have applied for directing positions?’

“We are not out hiring actors,” Tubbs said. “We can only cast people that come out to audition and apply for positions from within our community. And we continue to stress in all of our notices that everyone is welcome. 

The Spotlight staged “The Producers” earlier his fall.

“One of our partnerships we are very proud of is our partnership with the MLK Center to hopefully reach a diverse group at a young age to increase interest in theatre and performing,” he added.

“As we look to the future, we continue to strive to bring in as many people of all different backgrounds on to our stage and on our staffs,” Tubbs said. “We hope anyone reading this knows they have a home at The Spotlight, and will be welcomed here with open arms. “

Genesius Guild, Rock Island

Executive director Isabel Dawson said that Genesius Guild did not have a representative at the Music Guild meeting last year, “but has been making steps towards increasing diversity,” she said recently. “We had more women directors and one director of color last season, but we do not currently have a place in our audition forms for actors to select their race.

A scene from Genesius Guild’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” this past summer.

“Diversity and inclusion is a struggle for most organizations, and Genesius is no exception,” Dawson said. “We have been creating new materials to create a better experience for those joining our team for the first time, and working to make sure everyone has a welcoming experience.

“We also have board member openings this year and are considering diversity when looking to fill those roles. There is still a long way to go, but Genesius has been inspired by other theaters’ steps and looks forward to being involved in conversations in the future,” she said.