Mzizi: Waa-Mu’s Legacy Has to Include Black Creatives

Yola Mzizi, Waa-Mu Show Historian

Now that Black History Month has come to a close and the nation has celebrated the achievements and contributions of Black people in this country. We have also reflected on the injustices that are faced by Black people every day – injustices that, this past summer, moved us all to action.

In the spirit of Black History Month, Waa-Mu has uplifted the Black creatives who have been a part of this process and reflected upon the space we occupy, the stories we have told and the voices we have neglected.

Waa-Mu stands proudly as one of Northwestern University’s oldest traditions. Throughout the years, the producers, performers and writers have shaped what stories get told, what perspectives get highlighted and how those stories are then relayed to the public. The diversity of creatives, or lack thereof, is indicative of the voices that are privileged and those that are neglected.

On May 3, 1968, Black students on campus, after presenting the administration with a list of demands, staged a sit-in at the Bursar’s Office. The students demanded, among many things, greater representation of Black students on campus. This would require the admissions department to increase the enrollment of Black students “to a more realistic figure.” Prior to this demonstration and other pressures put on the administration, the enrollment of Black students was less than fifty per year. The lack of Black student representation on campus meant there was very little Black student representation in Waa-Mu, and in the 53 years since, the progress demanded by students has still not been fulfilled and The Waa-Mu show has rarely met equitable representation of Black students. Northwestern, NU Theatre, and the Waa-Mu Show are still lacking in our efforts to become a more diverse and inclusive community, but as an organization we are committed to change.

The 1968 show “The Natives Are Restless” sought to illuminate the growing unrest and political action on college campuses across the country. The Act II opening displayed a protest on stage with performers shouting:

The natives are restless, you know
Now we have our chance to show
That we can change it.
Not rearrange it.
Some things have got to go.

Better economy! Equal rights!
Vietnam! It’s illegal! It’s wrong!
Burn your draft card! March for peace!
Ban the bomb.

This show was a deliberate reference to the state of the world, the country and the campus at the time. However, the show neglected to make specific reference to civil rights, despite devoting several sketches to addressing the Cold War, Vietnam and even student class registration. This show paraded itself as being a reflection of the present moment. We have to ask, whose present moment? Whose reality is being reflected back to them?

The 1969 show “Present Tense” did a better job at addressing the experience of Black people on campus. This show’s programme warned the audience “we can no longer escape responsibility for what happened around us. From civil rights and poverty, to starving Biafrans … all are a part of OUR lives.” This messaging is eerily similar to what we have heard in the past year with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the increased involvement of non-Black people in calling for justice.

A sketch titled ‘Dialogue in Present Tense’ starring Earnest Morgan, the only Black performer on the show, highlights the experience of a young Black man in a predominantly white society.

I get the feeling I am not alone in this.
Other people want to be accepted for what they are rather than the way they are.
But how can you tell people this?
It’s like batting your head against a wall,
You tell them you want to be happy as a man, and they think you want to be happy as a Black man.
You tell them you want to be loved as a man, and they love you as a Black man.
I want them to see me as a man, first.

Earnest Morgan was a School of Speech student who had appeared in numerous Waa-Mu shows including “You’ll Get Used to It” (1967), “The Natives Are Restless” and “Present Tense”.

This year’s Waa-Mu team has been confronting this legacy of racism and harm. While we have seen growth in the diversity of our executive board and business team, that growth has not been reflected in our artistic team. We commit to push forward in our goals to bridge that gap and shape future shows in our commitment to diversity. This year’s team has begun its process of reckoning with our organisation’s past, one that has often seen diverse faces only when demanded by the stories told on stage. We acknowledge that real diversity is not dictated by characters and stories, but by conscious efforts of an organisation and its leaders.

As we look forward to future Waa-Mu shows, we are working hard to make sure people of all backgrounds feel that Waa-Mu is a welcoming space for them to make theatre. We have been working with the Office of Social Justice Education to examine our organization’s role – as a predominantly white space – in its goals of creating diverse new work and how to make the Waa-Mu team more actively anti-racist and pushing towards becoming an open and safe space for all. We aim to continue engaging with SJE, with our own past as an organization, and with our campus community in order to transform how the Waa-Mu Show makes theatre and uplifts the voices of BIPOC theatre-makers.

Yola Mzizi is a Weinberg sophomore. Her pronouns are she/her/hers and can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.