Opinion: Lack of diversity in theater program creates problems outside of classroom


Daniel Tian/Daily Senior Staffer

A scene from last year’s production of “Anna in the Tropics,” which featured a cast comprised of mostly Latinx, African American, mixed race or Asian actors. The director has said it is important to put forward production ideas that provide opportunities for cultural diversity at Northwestern.

Ruby Phillips, Op-Ed Contributor

Growing up in New York City and now living on South Campus at Northwestern, I have been surrounded by the theater community nearly my whole life. Despite the fact that I plan to major in political science, almost all of my friends at NU are theater majors. Constant conversations with these friends about inequality and representation opened my eyes to how differently my white and non-white friends experienced their first quarter here, and I began to realize the extent of our theater program’s lack of diversity.

NU’s campus as a whole is also clearly in need of a more diverse population. This issue was further brought to light by the recently released Black Student Experience Report, which illuminated the frustration and dissatisfaction of black students on campus. I went to a predominantly white high school and am half-white myself, so the idea of navigating NU as a minority has never fazed me much. But the importance of greater diversity is heightened in the theater program — a place where students have the power to determine and shape whose stories are told on stage.

The fact remains that the largely-white theater department and its students must do what they can to make the environment more inclusive. I can only imagine how discouraging and alienating it might feel to look around the classroom and stage to see a vision that is “alarmingly white,” as Communication freshman Dora Grossman-Weir put it while speaking about her Theatre in Context class, a required course for theater majors. This problem is not just within classrooms; casting and show selection are also affected by the lack of diversity. Grace Dolezal-Ng, a biracial theater major who is half Chinese-American and half white, told me she hopes to direct a one act play this winter centering around Asian-Americans but doesn’t know if she will have enough people to actually cast such a show.

It would be hard to ignore the massive resurgence of focus on diversity in the national theater world. Shows such as “Hamilton” and “The Color Purple” provide budding actors with incredibly talented theatrical icons of color. How, then, will the NU theater community reflect this shift on Broadway if it lacks people of color to help tell stories on this campus? To me, theater is all about telling creative and impactful narratives. Almost every theater major I have talked to on campus expresses interest and passion for telling progressive and socially-aware stories. Interest in social justice might not be lacking on our campus, but actors of color who can speak to experiences of injustice are.

The student theater organization Lovers and Madmen plans to put up “White Snake” for the upcoming winter season. The show, written by a NU professor, reimagines the story of an ancient Chinese myth. Professional productions of the play typically have majority Chinese casts. However, producing the show in NU’s theater scene presents the risk of there not being enough Chinese Americans to cast. Casting white actors in roles outlined for people of color negates the importance of representation — actors of color must tell their own stories and experiences.

The idea of putting on “White Snake” this winter seems appealing, if the goal is to diversify the play selection in the NU theater community. But without the means to create a racially-diverse cast, the choice isn’t necessarily helpful. If minority theater majors are made to feel they are only called back for certain roles because of their race or that their race might limit their ability to be cast for other period-specific pieces, the theater department will become an even less-inclusive space. As an institution that claims to prides itself on diversity and acceptance, NU should be making it possible for theater groups to stage narratives that challenge racial and social norms.

There are certainly theater groups on campus, such as Spectrum, that are working hard to tell stories of social justice. “R&J,” this fall’s mainstage show by WAVE, explores heteronormativity and queer love through the lens of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” There have also been several efforts to bring awareness to social justice issues through theater classes, such as TAs showing a pie chart representing what percentage of the plays read in class are written by white men. This is not enough. NU’s theater department should expand its education about the misrepresentation of people of color in media and the history of racial disparity in theater and then actually proceed to include more students of color. It should engage with the greater NU community which has far more black students than the theater department. To have one of the best undergraduate drama schools in the country requires we hold ourselves to a higher standard of inclusivity.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.