How to Survive Predominately White Academic Theatre
Cause a Disruptive Innovation
But someday somebody'll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me—
Black and beautiful—
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it'll be
Yes, it'll be me.
—Langston Hughes, Note on Commercial Theatre
Maya Angelou once wrote, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” It is that unfeigned self-reduction that has led me to this turning point in my life. After seven years of being on tenure-track in the field of theatre and playwriting, a personal metamorphosis is leading me away from academia and back to my true passion.
I remember being twenty-six and starting out on tenure-track when an African-American professor/mentor recommended a book that would help me withstand and fight the institutional racism I was about to experience as a black female faculty member in academia.
I joined support groups made up of women of color who were navigating these systems. These support systems are real. Black women are coming together to validate one another, share opportunities, and be heroic with their motivational timing.
I can recall going online to buy this book and seeing various other texts in the recommended reading column. From the online bookstore I took to the Internet where many articles came up addressing systemic racial issues at predominantly white institutions—providing advice on how to “survive” it all. I joined support groups made up of women of color who were navigating these systems while sharing pearls of wisdom and stories of survival. These support systems are real. Black women are coming together to validate one another, share opportunities, and be heroic with their motivational timing. These books, articles, conference presentations, and focus groups are necessary for the same reason black graduate student organizations exist. We need these communities of support for retention purposes and dream realization. The interesting thing about retention of minorities in predominantly white institutions is that it typically centers on keeping faculty and students of color happy so that they can physically remain on their campuses. I still don’t know if it’s all genuine or not. Black faculty and student retention in the arts is unique in that the aesthetics of personhood are so important. All in all, the struggle is real.
In truth, I have always grappled with seeing myself as a traditional academic. Many theatre faculty artists with MFAs struggle with this feeling. The artistic compromise one often feels when researching and producing scholarship is not where I, as a tenure-track professor, felt most conflicted. I wish that were the basic fundamental struggle. From well-intentioned colleagues casting African-American students in stereotyped roles and in roles that were unequivocally Eurocentric to strategizing mainstage season lineups that did not include African-American playwrights (i.e., stories about black people for other black people), the largest obstacle was the level of resistance to provide a safe space for black student artists to grow into their own authenticity through theatre.
Since being on tenure-track, cultivating resilience as a minority and being an unofficial diversity officer has been the nature of the job. White people’s need of me to help them understand my culture, my aesthetic, i.e., myself, was flattering for a while, I admit. It even got me believing that maybe I was “at home.” Was I “at home” because white people needed me for their own survival and vibrancy? Was being a minority and a diversity champion my assigned territory?
When I ask myself how did I get here? How did I find my way into a profession where I am constantly finding ways to survive? How did I, an HBCU graduate, end up in a workspace where there is such resistance to having serious conversations about diversity and inclusion? Where there is exclusion of one’s experience and survival is nearly impossible because you—because I—essentially don’t count, I ask myself again, is this how being “at home” is supposed to feel?
As an assistant professor, I wrote season selection proposals that intentionally called for more than what met the departmental eye in terms of black actors. Most of these proposals never stood a chance because of the status quo, but I submitted them anyway, emphasizing “recruitment opportunity.” I thought about boycotting seasons that did not include the black experience, but hesitated for fear of not being collegial. Maya Angelou also expressed how a significant event in her life caused her to stop talking for several years. She chose to become mute, and when she was ready, she spoke. For years, I too, lost my voice. I allowed racial inequities to reduce me to silence. Now, I must speak. I must ask questions. Why is there such an obvious exclusion of the black perspective in academic theatre? What institutional policies and procedures are producing bodies fashioning themselves after and are those standards enforcing cultural awareness on stage, in audiences, in theatre classrooms, and in production labs? Why is the focus of white faculty mentorship positioning assistant professors for success while mentorship for black faculty centers on retention?
To teach also means to mentor. As mentors, we have to know that asking a black student in a costuming class to build KKK hoods for a theatrical comedy is crushing and constitutes symbolic death. We have to know that even when we issue trigger warnings, even when we ask "are you sure you can do this assignment?” and even if the student’s reply is "yes," that there is more to it. It’s deeper than the yes and the student doesn't want attention drawn to their pain or anger.
We acknowledge that students don’t have enough life experience to understand the depth of certain human emotion; yet we believe that a black student is strong enough to work under circumstances that remind them of our country’s history of race hatred and violence? Sometimes trigger warnings work and sometimes they simply do not.
Color conscious casting at predominately white institutions often provide opportunities for students to play opposite white protagonists and in roles that allow them to borrow from their cultural identity rather than fully embrace their historical and cultural identity. We never talk about what this costs a black student or a black audience member who is on the receiving end of such a missed opportunity.
I have worked with a few well-intentioned white theatre faculty members who try very hard to be inclusive. I have talked with many who believe they are trying. I also know some who have not tried since the last time when it didn't work out. So they wait on black students to show up to audition so they can get plugged in to ensemble roles. Black theatre students are just like their white counterparts in that they will take any opportunity to advance to the next big opportunity and grapple with what it cost them later on. Black students, however, are the only ones who will be cast in roles that were written for whites. What hurts is watching them take pride in the fact that their acting skills superseded their authenticity and a role created for them in a story about them. They, too, need survival methods.
It was in January of 2016 that I finally got it. I was trying to force a disruptive innovation in diversity and inclusion with a community of creative scholars who have their own agendas; and I was outnumbered. My tenure track trajectory has been about fighting for change, fighting for diversity and inclusion as it impacts African-American students, myself as a black faculty member and conscious audience members. Whether passive or active, racism in academic theatre is equivalent to what we see in commercial theatre and it typically manifests in the exclusion of the black perspective or the erasure of the black body (presence). Perhaps wanting to see black students and black audiences take precedence was magical thinking, but it helped me to understand that I do feel a sense of loyalty to the African-American community. Universality and the human condition is often the default in American theatre, but for a black storyteller, that default encourages self-reduction.
Creative people spend a significant amount of time thinking about large ideas, chasing dreams, enlightening others, fighting for justice, achieving artistic autonomy, and trying to survive. I’ve dedicated time to all of these. At this point, I just want to quiet my mind and hear what I am really being called to do and what it means to be “at home.” Perhaps it involves educating, but being able to teach freely and not wonder about biases in student evaluations. I think it means being able to be myself and not wonder whether or not I will lose collegiality points or make people uncomfortable.
I believe the new minority in academic theatre is he or she who understands that systemic racism is alive in our field and refuses to subscribe to practices that do not bring about radical changes in their student recruitment, faculty hiring, season selection processes, audiences, and production protocols.
I believe the new minority in academic theatre is he or she who acknowledges and affirms self first. He or she understands that systemic racism is alive in our field and refuses to subscribe to practices that do not bring about radical changes in their student recruitment, faculty hiring, season selection processes, audiences, and production protocols. This is disruptive innovation. This is radical and necessary. I would love to be the one who continued to fight for change, causing one disruptive innovation after another on my way to promotion and tenure. But at what cost? How vibrant will I be after the endeavor?
After seven years of being on tenure-track in the field of theatre and playwriting, I am causing a disruptive innovation. I am walking away from predominantly white academic theatre to re-access what is truly important. I am finding that the pursuit of tenure has diverted me from what comes naturally to me. My passion is for black theatre and to create theatre on my own terms. I am reconnecting with the teaching artist I used to be: spiritually led, unbreakable, and more importantly, honest. Finally, I’m home.