Bill Womack is used to being a “first.” As a person of color in the largely white profession of child psychiatry, he’s accustomed to breaking new ground. Still, he wasn’t quite prepared for the overwhelming isolation he felt when he joined the board of directors at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre in 1987.
“I had no formal background in the theatre,” he explains. “I wasn’t rich. And I happened to be at that time the only board member of color. There were many times I felt very, very alone.”
True to his profession, Womack is not a man who has trouble expressing his emotions. As he recounts his five-plus years of service at ACT, he leans heavily on the verb “to feel.”
“I felt at the beginning like I didn’t know what my niche would be,” he recalls. He joined the board at the behest of managing director Susan Trapnell Moritz, whom he had met while taking dance classes at a local studio with his family. Moritz was impressed with Womack’s “focus and clear-headedness.” Womack in turn was impressed with the dedication of his new fellow board members, “but I didn’t know them very well, and for a while I didn’t feel I was doing anything of import.”
Dealing directly with race
Womack attended meetings diligently, but resisted assuming a leadership role on the board. “After a while, I was beginning to wonder if this was the best way for me to be spending my time. I wasn’t unhappy, but I didn’t feel I was using my own skills and talents fully.”
The turning point came when Moritz asked Womack if he would be willing to chair an annual croquet tournament that ACT sponsored. “I said to my friends: ‘Can you imagine a black man dressed in whites running around playing croquet? It’s absolutely silly.’ But I did it, and it was fun,” Womack recounts.
Then, in the spring of ’93, Moritz told him about Theatre Communications Group’s diversity workshop in Los Angeles, and in Womack’s words “snookered” him into appearing on a panel there. “That gave me the opportunity to think about what my feeling had been over the past four or five years,” he says.
Looking back, he realized there were some things both he and the other board members could have done to help him adjust to the role of “first board member of color.” First, he could have been more resolved about what he wanted to contribute and accomplish. At the time he was worried about whether he’d have enough money, whether he would make friends on the board and whether other people would see what he had to offer. If he had to do it over now, he says, he’d worry less, and be more forthright about telling people what he wanted to do.
At the same time, it would have been helpful if someone on the board had asked. “Boards need to ask prospects where they think they fit in, not wait for them to speak up,” Womack emphasizes.
And a board that’s diversifying needs to deal directly and personally with the issue of race. Womack admits that his feelings about being the first person of color on the board were “complicated,” but, he says, “I never told Susan; I never told another board member about it; and nobody ever asked me.
“Boards need to connect with the new people they bring in. Without that connection, without a sense of community, they’re going to lose them. On our board, nobody ever talks about these things. Nobody says, ‘This is the first time we’ve done this; how is it working for you? Are you doing okay?'”
Now heading into his sixth year on the board, Womack is definitely doing okay. He has become chair of ACT’s diversity task force, and in part, due to his own recruiting efforts, he’s no longer the theatre’s only board member of color.
Understanding the world
But he’s still concerned with the slow pace at which theatre boards and staffs change. At a time when multicultural and crosscultural casting have become commonplace on stage, the behind-the-scenes picture remains stubbornly monochromatic.
Why? “I guess in a broad sense, it’s racist,” Womack says, “but I don’t see it in such stark terms. I see it as more personal: We only know a certain community of people and we’re not really interested in learning about other people. Most of us feel that if we extend ourselves in that way we’re going to lose something–time or energy. You really have to work at having a diversity of friendships, and very few of us do.”
Still, change happens, and Womack is “very excited” to be a part of it at ACT. He has much praise for artistic director Jeff Steitzer, and for his ability to articulate the theatre’s artistic vision. “ACT is very committed to contemporary playwrights and new plays,” Womack says. (Indeed, while most Seattle theatres have backed away from new works, ACT presented one American and two world premieres this season.) “Because I like theatre so much, it’s terribly exciting to have an opportunity to have input into what the theatre is.”
Moritz describes her colleague as a “fantastic theatre fan” a characterization Womack doesn’t reject. As he explains it, “Professionally, I do a lot of work with fantasy and images. And I’ve always enjoyed using those as a way of understanding the world. Theatre to me like books has always been an important way of understanding the human condition.”