By the time actor Al Kirk moved from New York back home to Cleveland 10 years ago, he had played a sharp-dressed gangster in the original Shaft, starred in Fences at Karamu House, and performed alongside Sammy Davis Jr. on Broadway. So it never occurred to him that he wouldn't be able to get an audition at the Cleveland Play House.
He was stunned when the casting director turned him away, telling him the big parts were given to actors from the Big Apple, and he'd have to return to New York to audition. That incident still stings the 63-year-old Kirk. Though the baritone thespian lives just a few blocks from the Play House, he has yet to perform there.
Kirk, fellow performers, and businesspeople have met with Play House officials three times in recent months to urge them to employ more blacks onstage, as well as behind the scenes. And to provide a little incentive, they've started asking longtime black subscribers to boycott the theater, which is located at East 85th and Euclid -- a neighborhood that's 95 percent black.
"We can be in the audience, but we can't be up onstage," says Joseph Marshall Parnell, an actor and the union representative for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild. "That's been the pattern since the 1970s."
Play House Artistic Director Peter Hackett dismisses the group as a bunch of out-of-work actors talking smack because they're hard up for roles. After all, the Play House is not a community theater, existing mainly to serve the neighborhood, he says. It's a professional theater with a national reputation to maintain, and roles must be divvied out on merit, not as charity. "It's not something where there's a mandate that we cast by zip code," Hackett says.
Besides, he notes, all actors have a hard time landing roles in a city like Cleveland, which has only two professional theaters. "I think that, sometimes, they don't appreciate just how competitive this business is."
Hackett doesn't see a problem with minority casting. According to the theater's statistics, 25 percent of its roles set aside for union actors have gone to blacks in the past three seasons. Twenty percent of Play House patrons are black, he says.
The only place where minority representation seems to be lacking is on the 44-member advisory board, where only two members are black.
Perhaps this lack of representation at the highest level has contributed to the perception that the Play House is, in Kirk's words, "an old white man's club."
Rasheryl McCreary, who last season landed a major role in the all-black production of The Amen Corner, says she knows of no other local black actors cast at the Play House recently. "If that is happening, it's not happening among the African American professionals here." (Amen Corner's five other lead parts went to New York and Chicago actors.)
"I only get called to audition for the black plays," says McCreary. "They don't seek me out to do things that aren't African American. There's more opportunities at Cleveland Public Theatre" -- where she's played an Italian nobleman and a British woman.
Yvetta Eiley, a black Cleveland actress who spent eight years in the Play House's now-defunct resident company, says she has "never seen an African American in the upper echelon" there. "They have a black director come in from New York and direct a show, but when the show is over, that person's gone, and there you go."
Yet Hackett, artistic director at the Play House since 1995, notes that last season the theater hosted a conference on the impact of James Baldwin in the African American theater. The Play House also awards one scholarship each year to send an underprivileged child to theater camp, as well as an annual Alex Haley scholarship to an emerging black playwright.
Chuck Patterson, a black New York director who's been an artist-in-residence at the Play House and directed several plays there, finds fault with both sides of the argument. As far as "talented, experienced" black actors are concerned, he's found slim pickings in Cleveland -- which is why he casts most major roles in New York.
Then again, he, too, has been relegated to traditionally black roles for most of his life and has yet to direct a non-black play at the Play House. "That's pretty much the standard at professional theaters," he says. "It's not unique to Cleveland. By and large, throughout the industry, invariably the part that goes to an African American is an African American role. And that's across the board, in Cleveland or on Broadway."
When he started out in Chicago 30 years ago, Patterson ran with a group of black actors rallying for non-traditional casting. "There was a lot of hue and cry from a lot of the theaters," he says. "It took a long, hard series of debates to show them that they weren't casting us the way they should."
The Play House is actually doing more non-traditional casting than some professional theaters, he says. Last season, it cast Patterson and several other black actors in traditionally white roles in Twelve Angry Men. Plans are also in the works for Patterson to direct something other than a "black" play.
But progress may not be coming fast enough for Parnell, who says he already has four longtime black subscribers ready to cancel their subscriptions if they don't start seeing more minorities in leadership roles.
Kirk wants even more: He wants the Play House to devote one of its four theaters entirely to works by minorities. He says Hackett has promised to "look into" the possibility of more minority involvement after the 2004-'05 season, which has already been mapped out. But he's not holding his breath.
"They said, 'We're working on it,' whatever that means. I know what it means: The denial concept. To me, as opposed to just talking about it, what are we gonna do about it?"