Tuesday, December 1, 2015

On Diversity. On Cabaret. On New York City.



The 26th Annual New York Cabaret Convention was held on Tuesday, October 13th, 2015 at Town Hall…

“…the musical equivalent of an exclusive country-club retreat for an older audience repelled by the abrasive tone of contemporary pop. Even now, it is a bastion of tradition against the barbarian invasion that began with the ascendance of Elvis Presley. Under its new artistic director, KT Sullivan, it is cautiously broadening its scope to embrace a younger, more diverse audience. There was even talk this year of including a hip-hop suite from the hit Broadway show Hamilton on the opening-night program. But that didn’t happen…to keep the running time down to two and a half hours.”  That’s what Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote about The Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 2015 annual New York Cabaret Convention.  Frank Sinatra once said that everything he knew about phrasing, he learned from Mabel Mercer.  Ms. Mercer is considered The Standard and the supreme cabaret artist of the twentieth century.  A black woman considered the mother of American cabaret? 

And now, on to award season…

When I look at the 116 nominees (in 14 different categories) listed in BroadwayWorld’s 2015 Cabaret Awards, I see only 7 nominees of color (mostly in the Best “Jazz” Vocalist category).  In 2014 there was an even smaller smattering of artists of color nominated (I loved Terri White’s show, Two Score, in a category that no longer exists – Best One Night Special Event).  Currently, I notice an imbalance, as I look at the few artists of color involved in this year’s Convention alongside these 7 BroadwayWorld nominees we are recently set to vote on.   I begin to feel the further expansion of Mr. Holden’s aforementioned “country-club atmosphere” in the current world of cabaret.  It is no longer simply the music on the bill that can be brought into question.  For an organization whose banner heads have recently attempted using the word “Diversity” just as much as the beloved battle cry of “Community”, I wonder if the idea of inclusion is actually on the table at all?

American cabaret and storytelling have deep roots in the black community in particular.  Tell anyone they can’t, and they’ll go tell a story somewhere about how they can.  It’s always been a simple equation.  The question becomes, I’m guessing, how do you keep the forum and the inevitable sense of community thriving while being sure stories from all walks of life get to be heard?  Inclusion is not just about the music (Standards vs. Popular).  It is about the people as well.  I long for the day when “Diversity” is something we almost don’t have to talk about.  Whose responsibility is it to talk about anyway?  Awards foster nothing as it is.  They are made up – voted upon and invented by aficionados.  For example, if you follow the history of the BroadwayWorld Cabaret Awards and their categories, I ask, has anyone ever made the leap from “Debut” Performance to “Celebrity” Performance?  How does that leap happen?  Diversity in the arts is a hot-button topic for 2015.  It is a necessity.  However, I feel the conversation is best had amongst the people making these decisions, nominations, and set lists.  The writers, the music directors, the artistic and program directors, we all have a responsibility to do more.  As a writer and performer of color, I have a responsibility to tell the stories that directly reflect how I fit into the world around me, which is a beautiful, vast, and multicolored world. Recognizing and acknowledging differences is what creates, challenges, and fosters the growth of young artists.  In programming, for example, don’t tell the young artist they are here for Diversity.  Just simply include them.  Diversity is rapidly becoming a word on a page to be discussed at luncheons and in boardrooms.  Just a word.  It has no feeling.  In this historic art form, seeing the results of inclusion of people from all walks of life would truly be where the great work gets done.  It also wouldn’t add too much time to your set list, like that pesky hip-hop suite from Hamilton.  Remember to vote.  And remember to tell every story.
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