Back on the Blame Game
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the most textbook examples of implicit bias I’ve ever heard of happened on the set of Hadestown, a Broadway musical that largely takes place at a train station between earth and the underworld.
Last month, a patron was sitting in the front row, watching the show but also holding a handheld device in front of her face. One of the stars of the show broke character and said to her, “No taping.” When the patron did not put the device away, the actor repeated the reprimand.
It sounds reasonable. Recording live theatre is against the rules and ranks with talking during the show, singing along, and loud candy wrappers as bad audience behavior.
Except that the patron wasn’t taping anything. She was hard of hearing, and she was using a closed captioning device given to her by the theatre so that she could follow along and enjoy the show. When she took to social media to recount her evening, she called it a “horrifying and embarrassing experience” that made her feel “ostracized and publicly ridiculed.”
Obviously, the actor did not walk out on stage thinking to herself, “let’s see if I can humiliate someone with a disability tonight.” Lillias White, a Tony-winner much beloved in the Broadway community, clearly believed that someone was making an illegal recording. She meant no harm. And yet, harm was done.
For doing nothing more than simply existing with a disability, this young woman was scolded in public. It’s likely that after Ms. White berated her, however mildly, others in the audience also believed she was in the wrong and shot her evil looks for the rest of the evening. I don’t know whether she put the captioning device away, but I’m sure she was tempted to do so.
The story gets a little better from here, and then it gets worse. The next day, producers from Hadestown and Jujamycn Theatres apologized, and reiterated their support for disability access on Broadway. They promised to learn from this experience so it wouldn’t happen again and thanked the young woman for sharing her experience for everyone’s benefit. They even gave her a couple of free tickets so she could come back and enjoy the show if she wished.
But there was no word from Lillias White, the performer who had taken it upon herself to scold an audience member for using an assistive device. Unfortunately, social media abhors a vacuum. And so, rather than waiting for a public statement, opinions started flying. I myself suggested in a tweet that Ms. White should publicly apologize. But others went a lot further than that. There were blanket condemnations of the harshest variety, demands that she be fired from the show or never work on Broadway again—and because the internet’s gonna internet, probably some threats of violence sprinkled in there, too.
Of course, this led to the inevitable backlash to the backlash, defending Ms. White from all wrongdoing because she didn’t mean it. Others pointed out—correctly—that whenever Tony-winner Patti LuPone stopped the show (in much more dramatic fashion) to shame anyone in her audience for taking flash photos or wearing a mask incorrectly, she was lauded as a hero, but when a Black woman does the same thing, albeit much more quietly and politely, she is lambasted.
The hard-of-hearing audience member then re-entered the chat, urging people to stop harassing the performer. Ms. LuPone then jumped into the fray, choosing this moment to announce to the world that she had turned in her Equity card, noting that she was “no longer part of that circus. Figure it out.”
By the time Lillias White finally made a public statement about the incident, it was the opposite of an apology. After stating that her fans “know [her] heart,” she proclaimed that she was “NOT SORRY” in all caps for telling an audience member to put their device away, then used the rest of the statement to reaffirm her good intentions and decry the “double standard” and the online harassment she had received.
So, what could have been a learning moment around disability was poisoned by racism. In a moment like this, what’s an ally to do? First, we need to separate these incidents. But more importantly, let’s stop trying to find a villain in every story. Online harassment and hate speech is always wrong, and especially egregious when the whole situation was clearly an honest mistake.
Actors should be made aware of what assistive technologies their own houses are offering to patrons. Moreover, actors should be instructed that it is not a part of their job to enforce theatre rules. If, in the age of cellular technology, we need better systems to prevent people from abusing their handheld devices, let’s figure it out and make it someone else’s job. When faced with a problem, let’s look beyond finding someone to vilify and look for a solution, instead.▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity and inclusion practitioner. His first novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available online and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. His podcast, The Rewind Project, is available wherever you listen to podcasts.