In Focus: Northwestern theater community tackles representation challenges

May 25, 2016

As a student playwright, Kori Alston has experienced firsthand the dearth of diversity in the Northwestern theater community. While casting his play, “The Alexander Litany,” which explores black masculinity, the Communication sophomore needed four black men. At auditions this winter, only one tried out.

“We just put our feelers out there, we reached out to every student group possible, and eventually in about a month, we were able to find the four black actors we needed for the show,” Alston said.

Alston, president of Vertigo Productions, said the problem goes beyond one show or season. A lack of diversity is a systemic problem in NU’s theater community, he said. Vertigo, which is focused on producing student-written plays, is a board in the NU Student Theatre Coalition — an organization of student theater boards and dance groups.

In a school where theater has considerable influence on campus, limited minority representation affects more than just the theater department, said Prof. Harvey Young, the department’s chair. Young, who is African-American, recognizes the need for more inclusivity in theater at NU, from increasing the number of students of color on and offstage to improving dialogue about diversity.

“The department is moving increasingly in the right direction,” Young said. “Everyone should hear their story on stage.”

Still, how exactly to achieve that diversity in a majority white department remains a topic of debate, Alston said, but many agree it starts with increasing the number of people of color in the theater community. Eight out of 40 faculty in the department identify as people of color, according to University data.

David Bender, University enrollment business administrator, said the University Enrollment office does not release data on racial or ethnic demographics of students in specific schools or majors. Of all undergraduate students, roughly 50 percent do not identify as white, according to University Enrollment. It has been University policy for many years not to release racial and ethnic demographics by school or major, University spokesman Al Cubbage said.

Young also said he had difficulty accessing demographic information on the department. Still, he said an anecdotal sense can be as powerful as data.

“There’s this sense that there’s a lack of diversity, and there’s a desire for more,” Young said. “That is the clearest sign there needs to be a change.”

Difficult expectations

Communication senior Vivian Prieto, who identifies as Latina and Cuban-American, said although she has never experienced active hostility, insensitive remarks remain in conversations in the theater community.

“It’s disappointing when you hear people say stuff like, ‘Well we just don’t have actors of color on this campus who are good enough.’ Someone said that to my face,” Prieto said. “It’s so hard not to internalize those microaggressions. … It’s poisonous.”

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Prieto said many parts of the community actively work to be conscientious and inclusive. Her acting class, she said, is a supportive community that has celebrated rather than effaced her Latina identity. She is also happy to see more productions by people of color in student theater and in programming by the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, which produces and manages shows put on by the School of Communication.

Still, hurtful comments continue in less formal settings, Prieto said.

“The little conversations we have with our friends in the middle of the night, just hanging out — that’s also where the work needs to be done,” she said.

Prieto is not alone in feeling the weight of being a minority. Communication sophomore Jamie Joeyen-Waldorf said as a Chinese-American, she has felt the effects of the small number of Asian-Americans in the department. As a student producer, she recognizes how the small number of Asian-Americans impacts the kinds of productions that can be put on.

“At this school, they’re never going to produce something like ‘Miss Saigon,’” Joeyen-Waldorf said, referring to a Broadway musical featuring a Vietnamese woman abandoned by her American lover. “There are literally like six Asians in the department, and not all of us sing, either.”

Young said he can remember a time when there were no Asian-Americans in the department. He said increasing diversity of all races is important, but fulfilling the number of actors of a certain race needed for a certain production should not motivate increasing those numbers. Rather, there should be enough students that they do not feel required to play only in roles that reflect their racial identity.

“(It) is really important to me not to say, ‘Oh we have X number, which is the exact number needed for a David Henry Hwang play,’” Young said.

Often directors will conscientiously designate a role for an actor of color, Communication sophomore Lucy Godinez said, and although she appreciates the intent of giving actors of color a chance to be onstage, she said she feels this is a form of “tokenism.”

As the only Latina in her class in the Musical Theatre Certificate program, Godinez said she feels pressure to play people of color. Often those roles are not as complex as others in shows written by white playwrights, she said. When auditioning for the Wirtz Center’s fall musical, “Sweet Charity,” one of her friends told her there was a Hispanic character, so she was “all set.”

“And I was like, OK,” Godinez said. “But how important is she to the story? How three-dimensional is she? Does she just show up here and there and laugh? That’s frustrating.”

Choosing the right shows

When theater Prof. Henry Godinez, who is Lucy Godinez’s father, decided to leave his position at DePaul University for NU, one of his students questioned his move.

“When he found out I was leaving he asked me, ‘Why are you going to go to Northwestern? It’s so white,’” Henry Godinez said. “And I said, ‘Well maybe that’s why.’”

Godinez — who directed “Anna in the Tropics,” a Wirtz Center production that went up this Spring Quarter focusing on Cuban immigrants in 1920s Tampa, Florida — said diversity and representation are always on the minds of faculty in the department and the Wirtz Center. Producing shows that focus on underrepresented narratives is critical to effectively diversifying the theater community, he said.

Even if there are not enough students of a certain race or ethnicity needed for a production, it should be done anyway, Godinez said. Otherwise, these narratives may never have a chance to be heard.

“If we wait until we have the students to really, fully cast those kinds of plays, then we could be waiting for a long time,” he said. “I’ve always been a believer in being aggressively proactive in terms of diversity.”

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“Anna in the Tropics” featured a diverse cast including Latino, Asian and black actors, Godinez said, reflecting the racial diversity of 1920s Cuba.

Godinez said casting actors of color is not the only consideration for The Wirtz Center when selecting shows. He said the center also has to consider profits and its subscriber base, which could at times be antithetical to the mission of creating progressive and diverse theater.

“The income goal can be stifling,” Godinez said. “Any time economics, income or profits are a priority, it is always going to lean on the side of making the safest choices.”

Diane Claussen, managing director of the Wirtz Center, said profit and the center’s subscriber base do not limit it from putting on shows centering on narratives of color. Rather, its biggest influencers in what shows to put on are its commitment to diversity of all forms and the interests of MFA students who direct some of the shows, she said.

“Wirtz Center is committed to including in every Mainstage season productions written by playwrights of color as well as productions that offer roles for a diverse cast of actors,” Claussen told The Daily in an email.

For “Anna in the Tropics,” Godinez not only was able to find enough actors of color, but he even cast more than was needed. The show also proved to be a financial success, he said, with tickets “selling like crazy.”

The theater community should not view shows about marginalized identities as one-time obligations, Young said. The community needs to make a sustained effort to feature narratives of color, he said, and should not expect students of color to play certain roles because they fulfill the required demographic.

“(Students) should feel that if they want to play Medea or Juliet or Willy Loman, they have the right to audition for those roles,” Young said. “People should not expect them to be limited in having to appear in ‘the black play.’”

Careful casting

Casting challenges go beyond racial or ethnic diversity. When Joan Sergay, executive director of Sit and Spin Productions — a StuCo theater board focused on “risk-taking theater” — was considering pieces to direct last year, she found the difficulty of casting shows highlighting marginalized narratives to be “endlessly frustrating.”

One show she was considering, “Tribes” by Nina Raine, an English playwright, included a deaf boy. The deaf character was meant to speak differently from non-deaf characters due to his disability. Casting for that role, Sergay said, would have been a challenge, and she said she would have been uncomfortable casting a non-deaf person.

Ultimately, Sergay did not pitch the play to the Jewish Theatre Ensemble, the theater board she was working with at the time.

“I had truly an emotional breakdown because I was so upset we couldn’t produce these shows,” Sergay said. “So I met with Harvey Young and was like, ‘We need to do something about this.’”

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When casting shows, outreach often has to go beyond the department. When Alston was casting “The Alexander Litany,” he contacted “every student group possible.” Communication sophomore Mary Kate Goss, who directed the show, said the extra outreach needed to find the necessary actors disheartened her.

Though the small number of students of color auditioning can pose a challenge, outreach beyond the theater community itself can be good. Communication junior Ben Weiss, a co-chair of Lipstick Theatre — a StuCo theater board focusing on women’s issues — said he appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with a variety of organizations that are relevant to the message of the board’s shows.

Last Fall Quarter, Lipstick Theatre produced “For Colored Girls,” a play featuring the lives and struggles of several black women, and had little difficulty casting when the board reached out beyond the theater community.

“(Partnering with other groups) helps not only with the content, but the audience because the audience is also very important in student theater,” Communication junior Avril Dominguez, another Lipstick Theatre co-chair said. “It’s not a big deal whether or not they’re a theater major.”

Controversial efforts

Not all representation of diverse cultures has been well received. This May, a first-year MFA production of “‘O Guru Guru Guru or Why I Won’t Go to Yoga Class With You,” an autobiographical play by Mallery Avidon, a New York-based playwright, incited criticism from several students for its portrayal of South Asian culture. The play, which focused on a white woman upset with the commodification of yoga, included many scenes several students found offensive, said Weinberg junior Sanjana Lakshmi, a former Daily columnist.

Lakshmi and several of her friends wrote an open letter criticizing the play. The play included scenes that were insulting to South Asian culture, she said, including a scene with several white women in saris, a traditional South Asian garment, and an acting out of a puppet show version of the Hindu story of Lord Ganesha, a Hindu deity.

“It is ironic,” the letter said, “that a white woman is simultaneously decrying the capitalistic nature of the modern-day yoga industry while profiting off of a story and culture that is not hers.”

Despite the open criticism and several negative comments on the show’s Facebook page made before it opened, the show was put on. There were two post-show discussions on cultural appropriation and the representation of South Asian culture. Lakshmi said one of her friends who went to the show described its organizers as unapologetic and defensive.

Jeff Mosser, a first-year MFA student who directed the show, said he stands by the decision to put on the play and that its intent was to decry cultural appropriation of yoga.

“I really do appreciate that the open letter happened,” Mosser said. “I appreciate this is opening up a conversation to everybody.”

Working to improve

Despite the challenges, the culture in the theater community remains aware of, and is actively working toward, improving diversity and representation both onstage and off, said Communication junior Vatsala Kumar.

Kumar, a dance major, worked on Project NU, a play put on this month by Spectrum Theatre Company featuring interviews with about 70 students. Project NU is just one example of the theater community making an effort to increase diversity and listen to marginalized voices, Kumar said.

She is also a member of “NU POCIT,” short for NU People of Color in Theatre, a Facebook group of about 100 students of color involved in NU’s theater community. The group is meant to provide a space for students of color to discuss the challenges they face and promote each other’s work, Kumar said.

Communication sophomore Pauline Moll, head writer for Project NU, is also a member of the Facebook group and said it can also be a resource in casting roles of color or venting grievances.

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“Even though the theater community, more so than the rest of the university, is largely white, that creates a great deal of solidarity among people of color,” Moll said. “We are making our presence more known.”

Culturally within the theater community, students are generally very progressive and open to learning, Kumar said. Though it may be difficult to know how to discuss these issues or what vocabulary to use, Kumar said, students make an effort to educate themselves.

“I try to make a point not to say things about those things unless I understand them,” Kumar said. “It’s always better to admit ignorance and learn than to assume that you know what’s right and offend or hurt someone.”

That culture of focusing on self-education and improvement can benefit more than just theater students, Moll said. Discussions on diversity and inclusion in the theater community can radiate to other parts of campus as well.

From bringing in guest speakers of color to running training sessions for faculty on diversity, Young said the department works to ensure its faculty is aware and inclusive.

Professors also incorporate discussions on diversity and inequality into their classes, Young said. In his Theatre 140-1 class — a requirement for all undergraduate theater majors — Young led discussions on race, pay inequity and gender discrimination and has invited people of color to speak about their experiences working in theater.

Henry Godinez said he prepares his students for the realities of working in acting as a person of color. Godinez, who has worked as a professional actor on television, stage and film, said he faced prejudice numerous times during his career, being expected to play stereotypical roles.

“My students of color will tell you that I may be harder on them than on other people because it’s my experience that we don’t get as many chances to fail as the dominant culture does,” he said.

Because theater exposes students to new perspectives, Moll said, continuing to tell the same stories for generations defeats that mission.

“If we don’t make art that is progressive and pushing the field toward better representation and is telling new stories from people of color, from differently-abled people,” she said, “then we’re not doing our job.”

A previous version of this story misspelled David Henry Hwang’s name and misidentified the theater board that produced “The Alexander Litany.” Vertigo Productions produced the show. The Daily regrets these errors. 

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