Theatre department plagued by whiteness

Image courtesy of SCIT

The theater is white. This has ultimately manifested itself in a rather ubiquitous way on the Lewis & Clark campus. The lack of diverse bodies onstage has been an important issue on campus for many years, and it does not seem to be changing all that much. I believe this issue is two pronged: The theatre department needs to put on more explicitly diverse shows, and there needs to be a greater push for diversity in the department by faculty and students alike.

Granted, this is not a problem unique to LC. From the stories we tell, to the characters we portray, to the actors we showcase, there has been a concerted effort by Western theater artists to create and perform stories that at best, confirm their own biases and at worse, lead to the creation of new ones. The broader theatrical landscape has changed dramatically, with shows such as “Hadestown” or “Once on this Island” platforming a great number of creators who are BIPOC. However, in a lot of cases, the damage has already been done. The culture created by white Western theater makers has shaped the landscape of theater into one of exclusion, where the barrier for entry is so far out of reach that many BIPOC view theater as exclusively white.

At LC, the stories and messages we are showcasing contribute to the lack of diversity of bodies on stage. In the last six semesters, the mainstage has yet to put on a show by a POC creator with explicitly written POC characters. This is not to say this is solely the fault of the professors of the department, as I discovered during my time as an assistant director for the last school mainstage, “Passion Play.” Professors in the department are more than ready to cast POC actors in any story they are telling.

That begs the question though, if the professors chose plays that were made by and for BIPOC theater creators, would there be a larger BIPOC turnout at auditions? Or, are there simply not enough POC involved in the LC theatre program to even propose such shows? One of the largest issues facing the diversity of the department is this cyclical process of reasoning, as one cannot put on a diverse play without a diverse student body, and a diverse student body may be deterred by the lack of diversity in the performances and stories being shown on campus.

As part of the process to increase diversity, there has to be a more active push by students and faculty in the department to make the theater more accessible to those who have historically been and currently are underrepresented. After all, there are fewer than 10 BIPOC theatre majors, and it can be difficult to find community in such a small group. In the past, these efforts included events with Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement (IME) and Students for Cultural Inclusion in Theater (SCIT) performances. As the current president of SCIT, I hope to find avenues for POC at all skill levels to participate in public storytelling. When I say push, I do not believe theater should be forced upon those who are not interested, but instead that the effort should be made by those in the community to create welcoming spaces for those outside.

SCIT hopes to start a dialogue between the department and those outside of it about how to ensure that all voices are being heard. My goal is to create an inclusive space where writers, actors, directors and designers of color can collaborate and create art that represents their experiences through conversations, workshops, skits and full length plays. Furthermore, I am aware that this will be an ongoing process, as there is not just one neat trick that can solve the centuries of oppression present in the Western theater tradition.

Diversity is not just a question of the bodies we put in a space, but of the stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them. Theater is such a complex artistic process that there is the possibility for bigotry at any stage, and with SCIT I hope to make it so that conversations surrounding those issues can happen. Western theater is rooted in white supremacy, from the use of Blackness as a gag in minstrelsy to the gross history of cultural appropriation and violence perpetrated by the industry. The only way to deconstruct those systems is to build counter systems of inclusion and cross-cultural communication. While this piece does not solve the issues currently present in the Western theater, or even in LC’s theater, I am hoping this can be the first step towards platforming underrepresented voices and destigmatizing BIPOC artists getting involved in theater.

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