A great diversity experience – Theater Breaking Through Barriers

Two of the actors featured in “The Artificial Jungle,” David Harrell and Anita Hollander

NOTE: The play featured in this blog runs through July 1st at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City. Link to Theater Breaking Through Barriers for information and tickets.

In early June, my mother and I took a quick weekend trip to New York City so she could have a reunion with her best friend from college from the early 1950s. Since that was planned for Sunday, I arranged for us to see an off-Broadway play on Saturday afternoon, Charles Ludlam’s “The Artificial Jungle” in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

The play was a combination comedy and thriller featuring only five characters. Nerdy Chester, his attractive over-sexed wife Roxanne and his doting mother all live together and run a pet shop in New York City selling exotic animals. They are looking for some additional help with the store and hire sexy mysterious Zach. Zach and Roxanne have an affair and then plot to kill off Chester by throwing him into the piranha tank. The 5th character is Chester’s best friend Frankie, a good hearted but somewhat incompetent policeman. Do read this fascinating synopsis and review from the NY Times from when the play first ran in 1986.

Anthony Michael Lopez (Zach) and Alyssa H. Chase (Roxanne) plotting Chester’s demise in “The Artificial Jungle”. Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

What is special about this current production? Theater Breaking Through Barriers features actors with a wide range of disabilities. David Harrell (link), who plays leading man Chester, is an actor, speaker and disability advocate with one hand. And Anita Hollander (link), who plays Chester’s mother is a long time actress, singer, lyricist, producer and teacher who lost a leg due to cancer. Both actor and actress were marvelous in their respectful roles. In addition Anthony Michael Lopez (link), who portrays Zach was born with a leg defect, and other articles about the cast say that one of the five actors is also legally blind, though all my google searching could not help me identify who.

As a diversity consultant (deep expertise in LGBT, but half my clients engage me for all areas of diversity and inclusion,) I do take away two lessons from this production:

First, that differently-abled people are fully capable of handling the same tasks and taking on the same responsibilities as people without disabilities, and may perform just as well or better. This is a very important message for the business world where often unconscious bias could lead us to prejudge people with disabilities as less capable. During the play, the acting, directing and story were so good, the disabilities of the cast were non-apparent.

Second, the world of entertainment should use more “imperfect” people in roles. So often shows, movies and plays have the most beautiful flawless people on stage. Naturally in entertainment, we like to get lost in the fantasy of gorgeous people in a glamorous story, but it is also nice to experience entertainment that much more parallels real life.

I do thank Theater Breaking Through Barriers and the Clurman Theatre helping my mother and me have a great weekend in New York, and I am pleased to also make a charitable contribution to TBTB through my business. And if you are in or going to New York, do go see “The Artificial Jungle!” Link for info and tickets. And do pay close attention to the piranhas in the tank.

Three key lessons from a diversity mishap

Photo courtesy of Fernan Balsalubre

Recently my friend and fellow adult figure skater Fernan Balsalubre provided the following disturbing account on his Facebook Page:

“It’s such a small thing nowadays, but the AM/PM (convenience store / gas station prevalent in Southern California) attendant told a gentleman in front of me to “Speak English” three times. I can’t believe this is how we greet people now!

The customer did not speak English. He was pointing at the glass display on the counter at some lottery scratchers, and saying “Two,” while handing money over. Brian, the gas station attendant, asked, “Do you want two of those?” The customer nodded his head. Brian then proceeded to say “Speak English” three times, each time getting louder and slower. The customer paid and left. He looked so embarrassed. I took his photo (yes, from the safety of the energy bar counter) and drove to Chevron.

This gas station is the closest to my dad’s stroke rehabilitation facility, so I have encountered this guy before. He’s not the nicest person. His customer service skills could use some brushing up.”

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Fernan took the time to provide this information to AM/PM headquarters and got no reply. Meanwhile several dozen people saw and commented on this account.

Perhaps the customer did not speak English. Maybe he was deaf and mute. Maybe he recently had a stroke which left his speaking ability partially incapacitated. It does not matter – this interaction is totally disrespectful and highlights three important lessons from this diversity misstep.

1) In today’s world of quickly proliferating social media, diversity mishaps can be frequently and quickly captured, and spread like wildfire. We see more and more capturing of public missteps in dealing with others via cellphones and quickly posted on various social media. It can be a matter of 30 minutes where soon millions of people are aware of some awful occurrence by a company’s or organization’s personnel.

2) All employees, not just managers and executives, need diversity and inclusion training. So many companies believe that diversity and inclusion can be addressed simply via management training. But in reality, it is often the lower-wage, non-management employees that are on the front line interacting with customers and clients.

In my blog “The Three Components of Diversity and Inclusion Training,” I wrote, “It is important that all employees within an enterprise receive diversity and inclusion training. Co-workers are most often the frequent cause of employees not feeling welcomed and becoming unhappy at work, and most often it is the non-management employees on the front lines who interact with your diverse customers.”

3) When diversity missteps occur, corporate leadership must be extremely quick to react. So often these diversity errors get captured and communicated to corporate leaders and then the matter is dropped and the person who reported the incident never contacted. Organizations, especially those with public expression for the diversity and inclusion commitments need to back up these statements with real action.

Diversity and inclusion is increasingly becoming a key strategic initiative for organizations to succeed, and mishaps in this area can so quickly undo years of hard work. Be vigilant and diligent! And thank you, Fernan, for speaking out and taking action in this situation.

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Footnote: I could not find any diversity and inclusion statements on the AM/PM corporate website, but parent company BP has a very visible and robust diversity and inclusion business strategy.