How Change Begins
Such dialogue is part of the larger strategy by which BoCo’s theatre division hopes to transform itself into a more truly equitable program. The conservatory, which has been around for 153 years, was one of the first in the United States to admit African Americans and women, yet it was and is a primarily white institution (PWI). Though the number of students of color, as well as those who are gender nonconforming, has started to rise in recent years, the curriculum has not kept pace. A few faculty members began a movement to address this disparity.
Leading the charge was Theresa Lang, professor of theatre, who had first begun making anti-racism part of her practice a decade ago while still at Boston College. In 2018, she and fellow BoCo professor Jonathan Bailey Holland examined the racial and gender makeup of all artists (composers, librettists, choreographers, and playwrights) whose work had been performed at the conservatory in past seasons; the cumulative roster across the years was lopsidedly male and white. The duo pitched the notion of dramatically combatting that pattern by requiring that 51 percent of all artists conservatory-wide be from historically underrepresented populations. Their proposal didn’t fly, though the institution did commit to increasing gender parity and increasing the number of artists of color in all conservatory offerings.
Fear of “getting it wrong” is no small thing.
The theatre division decided to swing bigger, aiming for active inclusivity and what, at the time, it was calling “decolonizing” its syllabi. Patsy Collins Bandes, the department chair, felt they were at a point where they could either continue talking about doing the work or just jump in and start doing it. Starting in fall 2019, she says, they “implemented the expectation that at least 50 percent of the materials used in academic classes be written by underrepresented voices.” Every syllabus also now contains language about engaging with material outside of one’s own background and respectful practices for navigating that. Outside the classroom, the bar has been raised even higher: “After producing 98 percent men,” Collins Bandes says, “we are in the middle of producing our first season entirely written by women and people of color.”
Lang, Collins Bandes, and Scott Edmiston—the dean—put together a yearlong schedule of trainings and retreats to immerse the faculty in the work BoCo needs to do. This has included bringing in arts equity leaders, holding intimacy training, conducting workshops on inherent bias and inclusivity, hosting community forums on topics such as ethnicity in casting, and programming post-show talkbacks primarily featuring artists of color.
Brewer, an anti-racist theatre facilitator, director, and educator, was invited to help the faculty recognize bias and power play. She remembers feeling “how much more the faculty needed in terms of unpacking the harm they may have been causing.” In her response to the Raisin in the Sun question, she wanted people to gain a sense of agency when delving into culturally specific text, even when it’s not their own culture. “It’s okay to explore another’s lived experience with empathy and curiosity, and deep profound listening,” Brewer says. “And it’s okay not feeling comfortable.”
Brewer makes the case that the way to address this is to call things what they are: “It’s a problem to not say racism.”
Discomfort is one of the hiccups all of us in the BoCo community have encountered in the first year of this push. The learning curve has extended to every part of the process, starting with the language we use for what we’re doing.
“Decolonize” has been used in recent years to describe challenging entrenched power structures in educational settings, with the good goal of removing the default white and male lens. But every person of color I spoke to rejected the term, which has become too distanced from its origin in addressing the removal of Indigenous people from their land and the erasure of their cultures. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang wrote for the journal Decolonization: Education, Indigeniety & Society, “The metaphorization of decolonization makes possible a set of evasions … that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity.”
Brewer makes the case that the way to address this is to call things what they are: “It’s a problem to not say racism. You have to turn to face racism. Lacking clarity around an anti-racist policy allows it to persist, despite your intention.” When Michael J. Bobbitt, artistic director of New Repertory Theatre, came to speak on race and ethnicity in casting, he too described his work as anti-racist. It makes sense: the term has a clearer meaning and a more concrete call to action, which is vital to the situation at BoCo and similar PWIs.
Brewer created a framework she calls “Conscientious Theatre Training,” which is “dedicated to equitable anti-racist representation” while employing “purposeful inclusion of marginalized groups” and their “contributions to the canon of theatre.” Such a model also allows for attention to gender parity and the experience of students who are trans and gender nonconforming without diluting the power of anti-racist language. At the same time, Brewer’s use of the adjective “purposeful” (similar to BoCo’s use of “active”) to describe inclusion forestalls passivity.
A bunch of white people eternally talking about making change by themselves is a kind of white supremacy, but with better PR.
The Hard Work of Unlearning
The ongoing attempts to find the right language for this process reflects how much change is a necessary constant in this work. That is even more true when it comes to the curriculum itself. Collins Bandes notes that some professors are “resistant to changing the materials they have been teaching for twenty years.” Lang says “they’re committed to the idea but intimidated, and some are including new material just because they were told to.”
When teachers adapt a syllabus grudgingly, it shows. Sophomore contemporary theatre major Jordan Pearson notes: “Sometimes it feels force fed.” And when that happens, the result is the opposite of the intent. Students of color like Pearson can end up bearing the weight of the work. “‘Decolonizing,’ the way some have done it, is toxic. I feel tokenized. Students get asked to explain material and speak for a group. The school should make paid positions for us if it’s going to ask that.”
Lang recalls talking with a quartet of female students who said they had never felt as Black as they do at BoCo. “We have to stop expecting Black and brown students to re-experience trauma to educate our white students," Lang says. “How do you hold space that doesn’t sacrifice our Black and brown students for this?”
Her answer—and the one that BoCo is striving to live out—is that the whole educational process must be improved, not simply the material. Updating a syllabus is comparatively easy, but rewriting the system requires serious, focused, and multifaceted effort. As Pearson says, “If you want to make change effectively, you need to find different ways to do it.”
Anyone hoping to accomplish this must lay aside the fear of “getting of it wrong” and open themselves to a broader understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead. At BoCo, this means listening to the voices we haven’t been hearing instead of trying so hard to act like we think we should. That’s what the Conscientious Theatre Training workshop and similar retreats have been about it, but that’s only a start.