Hale Centre Theatre, a professional playhouse located in Gilbert, has come under fire after issuing an apology for a blackface routine in its 2015 production of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor. The play is a backstage sex farce about a production of Verdi's Otello, and includes a blackface riff on Shakespeare's famous Moor of Venice.
“There was some outrage when this happened five years ago,” says Alejandra Luna, a member of the artistic ensemble of Latinx theater company Teatro Bravo. “But the Hale people brushed it off and said the complainers were being overly sensitive. It got swept under the rug because they were gaslighting the people who were upset, saying, ‘It’s the way that play was written, so it’s okay.’”
Luna says Hale has a longstanding reputation among local theater professionals for what Luna calls “certain casting practices.” The company routinely miscasts people of color, she claims. “They only ever cast Black and Indigenous People of Color if it’s required. Like in Hairspray, they cast Latinx actors in Black roles. That’s not what that story calls for. It’s an erasure of Black characters. They did it for West Side Story, The Little Mermaid — and that’s just characters written for people of color. But because they’re a powerful theater that pays their actors, people are afraid to speak up, afraid they’ll be blacklisted.”
The outrage over Hale’s blackface routine has resurfaced, according to Luna and others, because of the troupe’s recent response to the issue on social media. After Hale principals were called out on Facebook about the blackface routine and its alleged discriminatory practices, the playhouse posted an apology on PHX Stages, a website that promotes local theater.
“The apology was wishy-washy,” Luna says. “It didn’t say ‘Black lives matter,’ and it didn’t address the situation of discrimination at Hale. And they never posted it on their webpage, I guess so their audience won’t see them apologize for racism. They don’t want to offend the audience, and I guess they think the audience won’t see them apologizing on social media.”
Labeled “A Sincere Apology” and signed by Hale owners David and Corrin Dietlein, the post reads, in part, “If we have hurt anyone through our production choices, casting choices, or made anyone feel marginalized in any way, again, we apologize with all our heart. We want the whole community to know that we stand with you in making sincere, conscious, and lasting change. … We recognize that our production of Lend Me a Tenor in 2015 was a poor choice. We weren’t being mindful of the insensitivities of this show and produced it anyway. We have no excuse. We are truly sorry.”
Despite its apparent remorse, the apology’s language — as well as Hale’s failure to publish it on its website — have local theater folk crying foul. “This is a pathetic attempt at a non-apology,” replied one commenter to the PHX Stages post. “Without taking a clear and public stance, it's clear that you care more about the money and support of racists than the dignity of members of marginalized groups,” wrote another.
“They said ‘if,’” points out local actress Dayna Renee Donovan. “It was a backhanded apology, and it wasn’t aimed at actors of color in the Valley. Hale made the claim they cast actors based on the race specified in the script. That’s not colorblind casting. I’m a Black actress who just played Lady MacDuff at Southwest Shakespeare. Backhanded apologies and trying to backpedal and pander to other people who still harbor racial biases, that’s not change.”
Things went from bad to worse after Hale responded to angry posts by taking down its Facebook page. Although the page has since been restored, all but two comments have been deleted. (Hale Centre Theatre agreed to be interviewed for this article, but canceled minutes before the interview was scheduled to commence.)
“The conversation is very important right now,” says local actress and director Maren Maclean. “Both sides talking this through, on a human level, has to happen, or there’s no growth. I can’t imagine how any theater company can move forward without these conversations. If they’re not willing, that’s the real problem.”
Black Theatre Troupe executive director David Hemphill declined to comment on Hale Center’s choices, speaking instead in general terms about racism in theater arts. “The use of blackface and the demeaning of an entire race of artists was a well-crafted machine,” Hemphill says. “It’s very encouraging for those of us who went through the struggle for artistic dignity and recognition to be able to tell young artists of color, 'We are here as a home for your creative voices and growth.'”
Meanwhile, Hale is keeping mum. “They’re not the only local theater with discriminatory practices,” Maclean insists. “They’re just the best example right now, the one that’s getting all the attention because they did this obvious thing and then they tried to apologize. And their apology just fell really short.”