The day after its announcement last week, an initiative to address discrimination against women in regional theater provoked a discrimination complaint with the city of Raleigh and a request to defund a theater company that receives city funds. As a result, one company has already distanced itself from the initiative, which had the best of intentions in attempting to mitigate a longtime injustice.
Still, the complaint raised serious questions about the proposed measure. Is the reversal—instead of the elimination—of a discriminatory pattern less problematic than an existing discriminatory pattern? And why do formal complaints such as these seem to mainly arise whenever status-quo sexism is being challenged?
On November 15, Jerome Davis, artistic director of Burning Coal Theatre Company, issued a press release announcing that nine theater companies in Raleigh, Durham, and Sanford had agreed to hire women to direct the 2017–18 season productions their organizations had not already assigned. Recent research shows that women directed only about a third of all regional shows from 2012–14.
The initiative was a response to the election, to "make the point that women are a central part of our world and our work, and that they deserve to be in positions of leadership as much as men do," Davis wrote. The companies that signed on to the agreement included Burning Coal, Black Ops Theatre Company, Honest Pint Theatre, Justice Theater Project, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre, Sonorous Road Productions, Temple Theatre, and the Women's Theatre Festival.
But on Wednesday morning, someone claiming to be a Raleigh resident named Matthew Davis emailed a complaint to Sarah Powers, executive director at the Office of Raleigh Arts, alleging that the initiative violates the Raleigh Arts Commission's nondiscrimination policy for grant recipients.
Davis's complaint stated that "because of my gender, I will not have an opportunity to direct one of [Justice Theater Project]'s shows in the coming year. ... This is not what we should be doing as a community. It is wrong." He requested that all funds to Justice Theater Project be withheld until "they agree to hire directors in a non-discriminatory manner." (The company received $66,500 in city funds for the 2016–17 season. Burning Coal and NRACT also receive city funding.)
In acknowledging the complaint, Powers said, "We take that non-discrimination policy very seriously. We are asking for further information from the theaters, and looking into what the next steps are."
After Davis emailed a copy of his complaint to the INDY, we requested an interview. The confrontational rhetoric in his initial email was tempered in his response.
"My earlier email was sent in a state of frustration and anger—so I'm cooling down and letting this play out," he wrote. "I seek equality. I want greater representation by women in our community. ... However, the proposal in the press release is too draconian in nature and is counterproductive in my view."
Davis also said he feared reprisals from the theater community. "It could well lead to repercussions from individuals ... who would see my genuine concern about what I see as an act of discrimination and misinterpret that as being anti-woman," he wrote.
In this and subsequent emails, Davis refused our requests for an interview or to otherwise verify his identity. But his complaint had already done its job. By Thursday evening, Justice Theater Project had withdrawn from the alliance. JTP managing director Melissa Zeph confirmed that the company had contracted men and women as directors for its coming season prior to the alliance's announcement and said it made no changes after signing onto the initiative.
"Since we have a woman artistic director who directs most of our shows, it was very easy for us to say yes to the alliance, but we already had men lined up to direct some key shows," Zeph says. "Upon reflection, we don't feel comfortable with the wording of the alliance's initial missive."
Managing director Timothy Locklear says NRACT made its directing choices before Jerome Davis contacted them. "I told Jerry, 'I support what you're doing, but we don't have all female directors for our next season.'" Women directed three NRACT productions this year; four will direct there next season.
According to Jerome Davis, an employment attorney his company consulted prior to announcing the initiative advised them that it did not violate Burning Coal's or the city's policies. But Jonathan M. Crotty, head of the employment and benefits practice at Parker Poe, says the matter isn't so clear.
Crotty thinks the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would likely dismiss such a discrimination case, since anti-discrimination laws apply only to the employment of permanent staff, while guest directors are usually hired as independent contractors. And performing arts companies routinely qualify for a status that exempts them in certain cases. For example, when a company hires a female actor to play a female role, that choice is shielded from nondiscrimination claims.
Still, depending on how the Raleigh Arts Commission's nondiscrimination policy is interpreted, the initiative may be in violation of it. "It doesn't sound like it's limited to just employment," Crotty says. "It sounds like it's broader." He also thinks that an exemption based on gender would be harder to justify for directors than for actors.
In an email sent to Zeph and Powers after JTP's response, Matthew Davis wrote, "We are all on the same page now. As I have no further grievance with the company, I consider the matter settled."
But he wasn't the only one shaking the tree. Last week, someone named Chris Little emailed a number of local theaters. Though Sonorous Road Productions receives no city funding, Little informed artistic director Michelle Murray Wells that she'd be keeping an eye on the group in case it hosted any company that did.
"Perhaps the financial consequences are of no concern—or perhaps it is a sacrifice these groups are willing to make—but I thought it worth mentioning, as I shall surely be working to see that taxpayer money not go to fund discrimination in our community," Little wrote.
Curiously, her Gmail account, along with Matthew Davis's, appeared to have been deactivated after they filed their complaints, raising doubts about their true identities. Davis later resumed emailing from his account. But, as of Monday morning, Chris Little's email address remained inactive.
Regardless of whether Davis and Little are accurately representing their identities and motives, the question stands: What is the appropriate redress for a population that has always been disadvantaged in the arts? Jerome Davis says he's a "firm and lifelong opponent of 'the pendulum effect'... the idea that in order to correct a wrong, you have to do another wrong. That just keeps the pendulum swinging."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Slings & Arrows."