Arts & Culture, University News

Students, faculty push diversity to center stage

Members of theater community weigh in on necessity of representation in theater on and off stage

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2015

Students and faculty members agree that the lack of diversity in theater is a prevalent problem but that those involved are taking steps to ensure greater inclusion of people of color in productions.

“Places!” The excited chatter that filled Stuart Theater immediately started to die down as the four-hour rehearsal began. “Let’s have a good one, y’all,” Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Kym Moore said from the middle of the theatre. A couple of seconds later, a series of drums started to play as students dressed in their usual weekend attire — sweatpants, plaid shirts and cotton t-shirts — looked perfectly natural coming out onto stage with brown boots on their feet, surrounded by bales of hay, crates and barrels.

The show “The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry” — premiering the weekend of Nov. 5 — will be the second main stage show of the semester for the TAPS department.

“We’re telling stories that need to be told, and (‘The Road Weeps’) needed to be told,” said Moore, the show’s director. The plot details a myth about a conflict between the Seminole tribe and black freedmen in Oklahoma, Moore said.

“The Road Weeps” tells a unique story that enables people from diverse backgrounds to be on stage, a priority for the TAPS department when it selects new shows each season, said Patricia Ybarra, associate professor of TAPS and chair of the department.

The TAPS department currently “does pretty well in terms of diversity,” Ybarra said, adding that there are “peaks and valleys” throughout the years where the diversity of the students and faculty members in the department fluctuates, and this is a “good moment.”

While many sources said diversity in theater at Brown fares well compared to that of the industry, it still does not reflect the diversity of the student body. There are many things being done to increase the variety of experiences and histories represented — including featuring shows written and directed by people of color — but students and faculty members agree there is more that can and should be done.

Seasonal offerings

“The Road Weeps” is one of the four main stage shows that Sock and Buskin’s board — which selects the company’s repertoire — chose for this academic year. In addition to these four shows, the season also features a “senior slot” show that is written and directed by a senior, according to the TAPS department website. This season’s senior slot will feature “The Red Paint,” which was written and will be directed by Sock and Buskin Chair Nika Salazar ’16 at the beginning of December.

The show “deals directly with the Mexican-American identity,” Salazar said. When writing the play, Salazar’s priority was to create a story that Latino and Latina students can identify with, she said. Theater at Brown lacks representation from Latino and Latina actors, writers and directors, which calls for more shows that deal with their culture and heritage, she added.

“It’s interesting because everyone knows (diversity) is a problem, but people still shy away from talking about it and shy away from doing anything about it,” Salazar said. She said she has dedicated her work in theater to “making spaces for people of color.”

Though Salazar worked in theater while in high school, she noticed there was a separation between people who had formal training in theater before coming to college and those who had not. Those who receive training before coming to Brown are typically white, she said.

“My freshman and sophomore year (at Brown), I was terrified. I went to see shows, and there weren’t many people of color,” Salazar said. “I thought to myself, ‘How could this be a space for me?’”

Finding space

One of the struggles for people of color in theater is predicting what shows they will be cast in, said Crystal Kim ’16, academic outreach and social co-chair for Sock and Buskin. Whether the director is looking to be inclusive and diverse is “a conversation that happens every time you go into an audition,” Kim said.

As an Asian-American woman, Kim has had difficulty auditioning for characters she can culturally identify with due to the lack of plays written with Asian-American characters, she said. During her time at Brown, there have been only two plays that specifically called for Asian-American women, she added.

“I just have to be fearless when I go into casting because I don’t see roles for me,” Kim said. “When I saw ‘The King and I’ over the summer, I started bawling my eyes out because it was the first time I’ve seen a woman like me on a Broadway stage.”

Kathy Ng ’17, who is the Providence engagement chair on Sock and Buskin, played a role in “410[GONE],” a show written by Chinese-American alum Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig ’05 that the TAPS department produced last spring.

“It was the first time that I ever felt like there was a show that I fit in. … This is such a rare thing,” Ng said.

While performances such as “The Road Weeps” and “The Red Paint” tell the stories of people of color, Ng said she wishes directors would cast people of color in more “mainstream” shows, which are also more heavily attended by those not involved in theater. This problem is especially prominent when a director — who is sometimes a student — may have previously “conceived of a cast that is predominantly white,” she added.

“It’s so important that these narratives on race are being told, but I don’t feel like that should be the only thing that students of color can be in,” Ng said. “They should be and can be in major stories that are not predominantly about race.”

Casting approaches

The mindset of the director is critical to getting more people of color in commonly produced theater, such as Shakespeare, Ybarra said. When casting shows, directors will usually take one of two approaches: color-blind casting or color-conscious casting.

It’s impossible to avoid seeing race on stage, Ybarra said, adding that color-blind casting attempts to disregard race and ethnicity entirely. For example, color-blind casting could lead to brother and sister characters being cast with actors of different races because the actors fit the roles best.

Conversely, in color-conscious casting directors are purposefully “making a claim about race or ethnicity,” Ybarra said. Both types of casting can lead to diverse representation in a show, she added.

Casting at Brown “depends on the director,” Ybarra said. But playwrights will sometimes write “culturally specific roles” that more or less require a certain type of actor, she said.

Particularly with intersectional representation in plays, diversity outside of race and ethnicity can add nuance to the casting process, Ybarra said. For example, she cast a white man with a disability as the lead character in “Water by the Spoonful,” a show she directed in 2013, even though the character was written as a Latino man with a disability. No Latino actors who openly identified as having a disability auditioned for the show, “so one had to choose one of the intersectional identities when casting, and that is what I did,” Ybarra wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

Moore said that by directing a play, a person is “creating a reality on stage” in which race and gender make a political statement. “I stopped acting myself because I was only going to play the servant at a certain point,” Moore said. “But if a play is realistic, then (a director) has to be really conscious of race.”

Sometimes not enough actors who identify with the race or ethnicity of the characters the show may call for audition, Moore said. The importance of producing a show reflecting diverse experiences overrides the need to cast actors that share the ethnicity of their characters, she added. This was the case with “The Road Weeps,” a show that tells the stories of Native Americans. Though there are no Native American actors in the show, people of color make up over half the cast.

While casting “Hype Hero,” which called for an all-black cast, there were not enough black actors to fill the roles, Moore said. But the show “needed to be done,” so, she said, she cast different ethnicities to present a “certain social dynamic that works in the world today.”

Not only does the TAPS department emphasize telling important stories, they also focus on giving actors of color opportunities to be on stage, Ybarra said. “We prioritize those roles as they’re written, but sometimes it doesn’t match up. … (Instead) you prioritize bringing actors of color into the room, even if they’re not exactly matching up with the exact ethnicity of the characters,” she added.

As a director of “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,” Salazar said she asked herself whether a white actress could portray a character of color despite her ethnic background. People were “really angry” about her decision to allow white students to audition.

“If there was someone who I believed could understand and connect with this text, then I was going to cast them,” Salazar said. “If I didn’t do that, I would be perpetuating the same system that exists that says, ‘Because I look like this, I don’t fit that role.’”

Making space

The Department of Africana Studies’ Rites and Reason Theatre was founded by George Houston Bass, a former professor of theatre arts and African-American studies. Bass believed theater and culture are “dynamic” and “constantly changing,” said Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74, artistic director of Rites and Reason and associate professor of Africana studies and TAPS. Terry-Morgan studied under Bass during his time at Brown and was able to see the initial stages of Rites and Reason’s creation, he said.

“We liked creating our own stories, and he helped us to identify them,” Terry-Morgan said. Bass especially emphasized studying what he called “New World theater” that presented the “Afro view of the world,” Terry-Morgan said.

“In terms of diversity, we just do it,” Terry-Morgan said about Rites and Reason, adding that the theater has developed the motto “the place to be who you are becoming.”

The basis of Rites and Reason is the “research to performance method” of play production, and the theater produces works that are “informed by research,” Terry-Morgan said. Each year, Terry-Morgan teaches AFRI 1050E: “RPM Playwriting,” which allows students to write a play after intensive research. The class requires students to research a specific area and explain why they are interested in writing that story, Terry-Morgan said.

The conversation around diversity in theater often is focused on the “black and white dichotomy,” but in reality it spans beyond race, Terry-Morgan said. In addition to teaching his RPM workshop, Terry-Morgan also teaches AFRI 0990: “Black Lavender: Black Gay/Lesbian Plays/Dramatic Constructions in the American Theatre,” a course that focuses on black playwrights who write about “queer content,” he said. In 2009, Rites and Reason first presented Black Lavender Experience, a festival that showcases plays and lectures from queer artists of color, he added.

Each year in his RPM workshop, Terry-Morgan selects one student whose show will be produced at Rites and Reason. Micaela Burgess ’17 is currently writing a play that will be performed during the Black Lavender Experience in April, she said. As a student in “RPM Playwriting,” she began her research for the play through an assignment in which students were asked to write a play on one picture from the “Eminence Gallery” that was on display in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center last year.

Burgess’ play deals with queer women who fall in love and must deal with cultural differences along the way, she said. The two lead characters of the play identify as Chicana and Jamaican, she said, adding that though they are both people of color, the way each culture treats queer women creates tension.

Along with connecting her experience as a queer Chicana-American to her writing, Burgess also intensely researched the way both cultures of her main characters treat queer women, she said. In Mexican culture, the sexuality of queer women is usually ignored, with some families encouraging women to marry men despite their coming out, Burgess said. In contrast, Jamaican culture sometimes tries to correct queer women through violence, she added.

“I’m lucky that there is a platform that is the Black Lavender Experience festival and (Terry-Morgan) saw something in me and in this play, and he wants to produce it and teach other people something from it,” Burgess said.

An indefinite problem

Like the Black Lavender Experience, there should be more platforms for people of color in theater, Burgess said.

People of color “have so much to say and so many stories to tell, and there’s so much talent that goes unseen,” she said. “Give them a microphone. Give them a platform.”

Though representation in theater has gotten better over the years, there is still a lot of work that can be done, Moore said, adding that she wishes there were more people of color who are playwrights and producers working in theater.

While the TAPS department tries its best to be inclusive by creating a season of shows by a more diverse group of writers, student groups should “set initiatives to get people of color into spaces,” Salazar said.

Despite working in multiple plays as costume designer, actress and director, Salazar still feels “marginalized” within the theater community, she said.

“If (people of color) don’t fight, then nothing’s ever going to happen,” Salazar said. “I really made this place my home, and I still don’t feel at home (here).”

Even though theater at Brown does not reflect the diversity of the student body, students of color and other underrepresented identities should continue to pursue roles even if “you feel there might not be a space,” Ng said. “There are people working hard to make a space for you in the theater community here.”

Kim said she believes she is “not fighting a losing battle,” but she wishes that things would change faster. “I want to go to a point where Viola Davis doesn’t have to have her Emmy speech be about diversity,” Kim said.

Salazar said with all the effort she is putting toward works for students of color, such as “for colored girls” and “The Red Paint,” she hopes that people of color will audition for shows that highlight the voices of people of color.

“It might not seem like it, but there are people in the theater community who are rooting for you … and they want you to show up to auditions,” Salazar said, adding that she “knows it’s scary.” But “your body being on stage is a political statement. Your body being on stage is a revolution.”

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