Race Issues: We See You, White American Theatre

Among the most remarkable things about the 2020 movement for racial justice was how it spotlighted the implicit behaviors that affect racial minorities on an everyday basis. In schools, workplaces and other aspects of public life, more institutions than ever were inspired to make changes in support of racial equity. One such action came from the theatre industry, when a coalition of over 300 theatremakers launched the “We See You, White American Theatre” (WSYWAT) website. On June 8, 2020, WSYWAT published their statement denouncing the white-centric state of American theatre, and outlined a list of principles and demands that would begin to rectify these racial hierarchies.

According to the coalition, the website received over 80,000 unique visitors within just 24 hours, and 50,000 more have since signed their petition. The movement was also well-received by members of the Department of Theater at Colgate University, who have since been attempting to honor the demands listed by WSYWAT. One facet of WSYWAT’s platform is a 50% quota for BIPOC presence in roles both on and off the stage, which would be ambitious given Colgate’s high percentage of white students. These challenges were put to the test in the University theatre’s first in-person production since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Juniors,” which ran last month from Nov. 12 to Nov. 17.

Behind the scenes, the BIPOC influence on “The Juniors” was strong. Director Kat Yen ’09 is Asian-American, and she regularly includes her experiences in the plays she writes and directs. Playwright Noah Diaz has been vocal about his Hispanic heritage. According to an interview with The Reader, Diaz wrote a play called “The Guadalupes” about his struggle with racial identity as a person of half-Mexican ancestry for an assignment at the Yale School of Drama. “The Juniors,” in a way, is a similar exploration into themes of race. The dramatis personae of the script explicitly states that four of the six cast members should be actors of color, including Asian, Black, Latinx and an unspecified minority group. However, Colgate’s production did not ultimately abide by these directions, and instead featured a predominantly white cast.

I believe that this choice was not made easily, nor was it intentionally disregarding the wishes of the playwright. Rather it came down to sheer numbers of who auditioned. According to statistics found on the “Demographics” page of the Colgate University website, students of color currently comprise no more than 32.2% of enrolled undergraduates. This clearly makes it difficult to meet the 50% BIPOC participation quota demanded by WSYWAT, and even more so to cast Diaz’s 67% BIPOC play. Beyond that, there is the possibility that BIPOC students could be less interested in participating in theatre and other fields in the humanities. As an English literature concentrator, I have found myself being one of few people of color in an English class on multiple occasions.

Many students rely on a Colgate education as a tool for economic mobility, and this may be a factor attracting minorities to popular concentrations like economics or computer science, and away from the arts and humanities. On the challenge of attracting a more diverse group to the University theatre, I spoke with Professor Christian DuComb, the current chair of the Department of Theatre. When considering the next steps for his department, DuComb said, “What we need to work harder at and in general is articulating to students how the kinds of thinking and learning they do in humanities and arts courses are just as transferable to what they want to do after graduation.”

All of this leads me to wonder what the campus climate could look like if we, as a student body, were 50% BIPOC. Though we may be far from this at Colgate, it’s something that Harvard University was able to achieve four years ago with its incoming class of 2021, according to BBC. If this, according to the WSYWAT campaign, is needed for an equitable presence of racial minorities in the world of “white American theatre,” who’s to say it wouldn’t apply to our “white American” universities? In this scenario, Colgate’s BIPOC students would see themselves more greatly integrated into every aspect of the school, be it academically or socially. So until institutional changes beyond the control of Colgate theatre are made, “The Juniors” will certainly not be the last play to fail to meet the WSYWAT quota, and the theatre will remain yet another marker of our predominantly white campus.