BWW Blog: To Northwestern Theater and Beyond - A Call to Action
"I'm so grateful to attend a school in such a bubble of equality and inclusivity with activist minded, well-educated peers."
This is a quote that I've said more than a few times since returning to the Philadelphia suburbs from my beloved second home of Northwestern University. I have expressed to my friends how grateful I am that even though my hometown may not be as educated and vocal about the systemic racism deeply rooted in our country, at least my school friends are.
I have always loved Northwestern. In my eyes, and in the eyes of many of my friends, it is an uber-liberal, inclusive, safe and supportive, educational home. I am a Communications and International Studies double major with a minor in Chinese, yet I am actively involved in our theater community, so much so that people mistake me for a theater major on a daily basis. I am also a white female from an upper-class family. I have heard pieces of stories about microaggressions in the past, and just the mere population of the theater class that is POC (about 10%-15% in a 100-person class), is an indicator of the racial injustices of our theater program. As nothing is perfect, I've always known Northwestern has flaws - but I had never fully noticed the flaws I'm here to write about today, as my white privilege had never forced me to. It was not until I began speaking to my POC peers about this topic that I truly began to see that the safe, inclusive, home of equality and activism label I gave my school had been far misplaced.
Before sharing these stories, I want to give a picture of the unique theater community that beats at the heart of our campus. We put on more than 80 productions a year. A year. And mind you, the majority of these are run by students through the Student Theater Coalition, or as we call it, StuCo. StuCo includes 9 different theater boards, each made up of 10-20 students abiding by their own mission statement on the art they set out to produce. Then you have Wirtz, short for the "Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts", a laboratory or clinic that allows for artistic and managerial experimentation. The center is run by professional staff in collaboration with the School of Communication faculty and staff. In addition, various professionals/guest arts are also brought in from the industry. Faculty members teach all of the theater classes at Northwestern, and the professional staff manages all Wirtz shows, unlike in StuCo, where everything - including directing, show selection, casting and all designer roles - are held by students. Northwestern is also home to the Dolphin Show and The Waa-Mu Show, the nation's largest student produced musical and the nation's largest original student produced musical, respectively. Further, there is an avid comedy and acapella scene that gets the attention of everyone on campus. These groups, just like StuCo, are all administered by students.
For one of my POC peers, the first instance that popped into their mind of racism in the theater department was that teachers had constantly, for entire school years, been misnaming Black students and other POC students both to their face and from a distance. This student in particular had recalled being mixed up with three different Black students at Northwestern. Having experienced this early in her sophomore year, she explained this was "just something I never thought would happen here, and was really an eye opener for [the entire Black theater community]." Another student explained that she was called by the name of another Latinx student in her class, in confidence, in front of all of her classmates. This account was echoed by another Black female, who explained that "the most obvious response to
racism at NU is that I've been consistently confused with other POC students. The current chair of the theater department did this every single class and never apologized."
When people (usually white people) slowly begin to learn about these microaggressions and blatant forms of racism, their first question is always this: if they exist, why has no one talked about them, and why was I never made aware? This was something I was beginning to ask myself in my head, and it grew increasingly louder as I talked to more of my peers.
We all know that a director has power, but there is an aspect of a director's power that dictates the function of race in theater that I had never considered. While all StuCo shows are directed by students, the directors of Writz shows are MFA Directing candidates, faculty or industry professionals. One of my peers touched on a casting experience this past year that highlighted this power. She explained the process of auditioning for one of two musicals being offered by Wirtz this year, "Legally Blonde", was one of her "worst experiences." The director was Black, but held a traditionalist point of view on how to cast certain roles. After seeing the callback list - where her name was only under roles that are typically played by POC - it became clear that she wasn't going to be considered for certain roles because the director wasn't going to look past the fact that she wasn't white. She said it sucked to look at that callback list for "Legally Blonde" where she felt like choices were made that were only stereotypically palatable, especially because this is college, and is supposed to be a learning opportunity where people are given equal opportunity. It was heartbreaking to audition for one of only two musicals available in the season and feel like you've automatically been shut down on what feels like the mere principle of your race, she told me.
Another one of my peers also discussed the tough navigation of the casting process. They explained that they have felt Wirtz is only inclined to put POC in spots because they feel they have to, viewing it as an obligation rather than a responsibility. They describe how brutal the casting process is for them, in both StuCo and Wirtz productions, as they constantly have to interrogate why the directors actually want them, asking themselves: am I actually talented for getting cast, or am I a commodity for people to pride themselves on casting?
While the power of a director can lead to racial injustices and feelings of oppression from POC students, it also has the power to inspire, uplift, and give a voice to marginalized students. Emma Griffone, a biracial female, discussed her experience working on "Fun Home" for Wirtz's fall musical. She told me that the "Fun Home" process was probably the "greatest racial experiences" she has had on campus. The director, a Black man, had recently joined the musical theatre faculty at Northwestern. Emma explained that he saw the world in a different way and didn't care that she was a biracial woman. It was during this process that her eyes became "open to the fact that directors make the conscious choice to not see POC, particularly Black students" for certain roles because they do not think it will fit. This was so significant, because even though Emma's character, a white female, actually existed in real life (the musical is based on a true story), the director knew it was not the color of her skin that was important, but the story she was telling as an actor.
Backstage at "Fun Home", Emma recalled a moment when one of the freshman crew members expressed to her that seeing Emma, someone who looked like her on stage and in this lead role, was the most
inspiring thing, because it meant that she could be up there too. Emma recalled that she immediately burst into tears, for she wished she had the same opportunity throughout her time at college to see more Black women on stage in not only traditional Black roles.
Another one of my Non-Black POC peers explained that the first thing that came to their mind when asked to contribute to this piece was if it was anonymous or not. My peer has often been told that no matter what the circumstance, they should be grateful for where they are and not push for things to change. Building on this, they explained that they are constantly being bombarded with the rhetoric of how being a POC was a huge coveted asset. When auditioning for selective musical theater programs and shows, they would hear from their peers, "you'll have no problem getting in", because of their race. This student explained that it's as if it is a novelty for someone to put you out into the world in their show and say "look what we did", and these white students and faculty expect to be congratulated by casting a POC. They further explained that they were met with this weird and false message that being a POC was the only way to work in musical theater, yet that the people saying this never actually interrogated where that thought came from. On campus, a lot of white people will describe what being a POC means in the current day of theater, yet there's no way of really knowing unless you are going through that, they said.
The notion of white theater students assuming and dictating the voices of their POC peers is a prevalent flaw of StuCo show selection. When discussing show selections on campus, a Biracial student explained she often suggests shows telling POC stories and show them in leading roles, not just ensemble ones. To this, the response is something similar to "we don't have enough POC to do that", or "that show will just take all of the POC and leave the other shows with only White actors." Some people also believe that doing these shows that call for POC would require forcing POC in these roles. While my peer acknowledged this could kind of be true, she explained that a lot of people would love to be in these roles because it is finally an opportunity for them to play their true identity in a leading role.
It is also important to ask, why is this the case? Why, when we have a 400 person theater community, would doing one show that highlights POC mean that there wouldn't be any POC students available to be cast in other shows? The root of this problem lies in the number of POC students being admitted to the Northwestern theater program. When POC students have brought this to the attention of faculty and administration, they reply that they are doing everything they can. To this, a POC student explained their frustration and said that if the administration were truly doing everything they could, they would just be admitting more people of color, and not simply because they are POC, but because they deserve it just as much as any white person would.
Microaggressions in the Northwestern community can be seen in all forms. It can be seen the way my Lantix female friend told me that she's been called "too light" to be a POC, or how she said she was called "Gomez". It can be seen in how my non-Black POC theater friend told me she had been instructed to just "play the maid, duh", by a white peer or "you're so lucky you're ethnic because you'll get cast in all of the Wirtz shows." When she told me that her white peers complained that "there are no white roles left because everyone is mad about diversity again", and when another one of my non-Black POC peers told me she heard that a white peer had said "Slumdog is sensitive, she can't hang", referring to a non-Black POC student. It can be seen when multiple of my Black student peers expressed racism from a theater
faculty's dog barking at them, to which the professor defended the dog saying his dog didn't like the student, because the student looked like his cleaner, and the dog hates the cleaner.
If this is happening in what I and many others think of an inclusive and safe bubble, I can assure you it's happening in your theater communities too. And not just in colleges, but in every aspect of the industry. And why are we just beginning to learn about it now? For the same reasons my friend who is now graduating was too scared to hold her professor accountable for the blatant racism he had exhibited during her entire college experience. White privilege gives many the power to hand out opportunities that can make or break one's career. In the past week, I've heard many Black Broadway artists speak out just now for the first time about their experiences with racism. I love Broadway, do not get me wrong. But, similarly to Northwestern, there are flaws in the system. The flaws in the industry begin with the flaws in our education system. Our educational theater programs need to do better to fill these classes with POC and specifically members of the Black community.
While I have learned so much from these conversations with my peers, it is not their responsibility to educate me on their own history of racial injustices. It's on the administration to not only admit more POC students to these programs, but to also hire more POC theater faculty. POC teachers, as my peers described to me, were able to have conversations with them about race and the industry that they had never had before. These teachers know how to have these conversations also with their colleagues, and will be able to call out their co-workers on the microaggressions that students become apprehensive about out of fear of retribution. I encourage any white educator reading this to listen to your POC students, reflect on mistakes you may have made, and take the steps to educate yourself on why you made them and how to avoid them in the future.
And to my white peers, we must have these conversations. Talking about race is scary. You don't want to mess up, or say something that might be racist. I know, and I am guilty of it too. But it is only with this discomfort that change can slowly begin. In just the past three years, there have been conflicts regarding race with both The Dolphin Show and Waa-Mu. I was personally aware of the latter situation, as this happened when I was a student, but not the former. This brought to light how the white theater community is so quick to sweep these stories under the rug, out of fear that they will scorch the name of these organizations with renowned reputations. A POC student explained that people, and white people specifically, need to not be scared of these stories, because yes they suck, but it is in sharing these moments that change happens in both the theater department and in the greater community.
I encourage everyone reading this to look at their own theater communities, places usually praised for being a space of equality and inclusivity, and ask yourself if you are blindly labeling them with your white privilege as I did. Take steps to educate yourself not only on the microaggressions ingrained in your daily lives, but also about the history of the systemic racial injustice of our country. We must know what we are fighting about before we can fight. I thank everyone who took the time to read this and especially to my Black and other POC peers that reached out and shared their experiences. I pledge to do better, and I hope anyone reading this will join me.