Stephen Buescher, a former instructor and artistic team member at American Conservatory Theater, alleges in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the San Francisco theater company created a racially hostile environment and systematically discriminated against black artists, faculty, staff and students.
The complaint, filed by Oakland civil-rights firm Medina Orthwein LLP, alleges American Conservatory Theater (ACT) subjected Buescher and other black instructors and students to “racial profiling, tokenism, exploitation, racial casting, disparate treatment and retaliation.”
The complaint accuses former Artistic Director Carey Perloff, who ceded the role to Pam MacKinnon in 2018 after 26 years with ACT, of explicitly refusing to advance black artists because “black plays don’t make money.” It goes on to say black students were forced to play subjugated roles and “costumed to look like minstrels and mammies” in addition to being instructed to act “more ‘ghetto’” while enduring racial epithets from white actors.
Treatment of students at ACT, the complaint alleges, involved “segregated youth programs” where minority students were surveilled and “treated like criminals” while white youth went relatively unsupervised and were given door codes. Buescher himself was “physically denied entry to ACT theaters on numerous occasions” by white theater workers, according to the suit.
ACT Director Melissa Smith, according to the complaint, dismissed collective statements from conservatory students concerned about insensitive casting, as well as Buescher’s concerns about racial inequality throughout the institutions. After Buescher took his objections to the ACT board in a formal letter, the suit says he was ostracized and deprived of resources in retaliation.