Dramaturgical Work with College-Aged Artists around Race and Whiteness
In our current political climate, theatremakers are seeking better ways to address systemic violence and discrimination within our own industry and US arts education institutions, which sometimes unintentionally devalue People of Color (POC) artists’ culturally rich identities and perspectives. However, what methods and tools can we provide young artists if many mainstream US theatres and arts education programs affirm, develop, and produce mostly white American-European theatre?
In my final year of graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, graduate directing candidate Gabriel Harrell and I decided to workshop Dustin Chinn’s Snowflakes, or Rare White People for the annual New Play Lab for December 2017. This residency offers a professional playwright a stipend, two weeks of rehearsals with undergraduate actors, and four public readings of their new play. A political satire on whiteness through the eyes of POCs in the twenty-third century US, Dustin originally wrote Snowflakes in 2014 and shelved it until after the 2016 presidential election when it was workshopped by American Conservatory Theatre. The play follows museum employee Rigoberto as he assists Megan and Benedict, members of the dwindling white US population, to escape from Nueva New York’s Museum of Natural History, where the two live on exhibition in the Hall of Caucasian Peoples. The entire cast is performers of color, except for the two white characters. The show is a sharp comedic critique of white privilege and the resurgence of white supremacy in our contemporary national politics.
What makes the racial politics in Snowflakes both thought-provoking and accessible is its satirical framework.
Dustin, a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab and Ars Nova’s Play Group, said:
The play started as an inquiry. There was a study…that in 2042 white people would no longer be the “majority” in the American population. As the comedian Hari Kondabolu points out, that only makes sense if you group all ethnic minorities together as one entity. An “us versus them” situation. I just wanted to capture the general anxiety as the demographics in this country are radically changing.
“I think that just the fact that Snowflakes was a comedy about race excited me,” shared cast member Sabine Jacques. Actor Uno Servida added, “Unlike many theatre departments I know, we were producing a show with a mostly POC cast that was appropriately cast. It’s rare for me to see POC performers on stage openly discussing with white actors different facets of racism that I have experienced in my life.” Callum LeFrance, the white actor playing Benedict, commented: “When I first read the play, I was laughing and loving all of the content. It’s smart and edgy.”
What makes the racial politics in Snowflakes both thought-provoking and accessible is its satirical framework. “With this mix of science fiction and comedy, you could push things that might be more difficult in a straight drama,” said Dustin. In the first half of the play, the two white characters experience microaggressions that people of color typically experience. As the “caucasity” levels of Benedict and Megan rise, these aggressions become more and more hostile towards the POC characters by the two white characters, mirroring today’s politics. All the while with holograms, robots, flying cars, and phasers.
Before the first read-through, Gabe and I had to set a precedent of how to consciously conduct discussions around the play’s themes of racial injustice and white privilege. As a queer dramaturg of color, I wanted to collaboratively develop new artistic processes conducive to inclusive community-building and intersectional social justice work, while affirming artists of color and other underrepresented communities. I led the creation of the rehearsal room protocol and its execution throughout the entire play development process: 1) create an open space in which challenging issues can be wrestled collaboratively, with patience and without judgment; 2) affirm the cultural and individual differences of all artists in the room; and 3) find common understanding on the play’s politics.
Creating an Open Space
Each collaborator was asked to acknowledge their positionality to the issues through group exercises. “I had to think about who tells whose story and reevaluate my place of power as a white male director,” said Gabriel. The cast, stage manager, director, and playwright came together around a large poster on the floor. I deliberately asked the team to form a circle as it queers the hierarchy of power amongst the production team and cast that would be expected in a typical rehearsal room. It called into the room a sense of comradery and community, and the circle produced a feeling that we were all working towards a certain goal together. I then instructed them to illustrate moments of their lives when they felt acceptance and exclusion on the poster. I then asked them to walk around and see each other’s’ drawings, and to interpret the illustrations that intrigued them most. With consent, performers shared the narratives of their drawings, going deeper than the surface interpretation of what was described by others.
It was this initial exercise that the cast began to learn to trust and be vulnerable with each other. The exercise helped illuminate to them the complexity of their narratives and multiple and intersecting identities. We then created community rules, which centered on civil discussion and respect. For example, instead of “calling out” fellow artists who might say something disagreeable, artists approved to “call in” colleagues and discuss the issues openly, trusting that people were coming into the spaces with good intentions. Another rule was allowing artists, who might feel overwhelmed in the rehearsal process, to step out of the room for self-care. These student artists understood that these discussions around race and whiteness were challenging, but could be done in a manner that was productive. These conversations are difficult, but as Dustin reminded us: “The play is not interrogating individuals, but rather systems.”
Affirming Each Other’s Identities
In a following exercise, I instructed them to anonymously write a response on the poster to: What is your first thought when you hear the word “race”? What I was asking them to do was challenging as they were being asked to be vulnerable with collaborators that were still getting to know; however, the artists took a chance and shared even more deeply personal stories. Their written stories examined how race shaped ideas around beauty, colorism, self-worth, accessibility, and education, helping collaborators discover how everyone was genuinely invested in the politics of the play on and off stage. Nothing was off the table for discussion. Artists felt safe to share racial microaggressions that they’ve experienced in acting class, professional auditions, and even their thoughts on recent events, such as the presidential election. All of these discussions fed into the artistry, acting, directing, and the further writing of the play.
Actor Akira Rose shared, “The openness of the whole team made the hard discussions bearable… everyone's voices were heard, and importantly, POC voices were heard.” Gabriel followed, “Even though I was the director, I knew that my job in this discussion was to listen. All the white artists knew they had to make space and listen.” The student artists of color were making their existence known, and white artists were learning how to “take space and make space.” Actor Koko Balian agreed, “We entered the process with a foundation built on the pillars of compassion and camaraderie. We would share, we would connect, we would feel, and then we would act out those feelings.” Each person felt empowered, knowing that they were building an inclusive social justice centered community.
Finding a Common Understanding
As we continued the two-week long rehearsal process, all artists began to think of the play’s relationship to its audiences. “Although the play is funny, will it actually make the audience, particularly white folks, think about the role they play in perpetuating racial stereotypes, whether it be through macro or micro-aggressions?” asked Sabine.
In a critical scene, government officials set a trap to recapture Megan and Benedict: a Cinco de Mayo themed karaoke bar. The character Benedict decides to sing a Tupac song and sings the n-word against the grievances of a POC character. “It dawned on me… the terrible things that Benedict was doing throughout the play. Going into the first rehearsal, there was this pit in my stomach,” commented Callum. Following our community rules, the entire team spent an hour discussing the use of the n-word, weighing the pros and cons of use of the word in performance with the playwright. The conversation was honest, even one cast member challenging Dustin if he as an Asian American playwright can use the word. Actor Sandra Seoane-Seri said, “I expected some sort of retort, but instead [he] brought some reflection and understanding. Understanding how our identities are nuanced and complex really made discussing race and whiteness a lot more comfortable.” Dustin agreed it was a necessary conversation. “It was a gut-check. However, [the entire cast] encouraged me to keep writing the scene,” said Dustin.
All of the POC artists and the rest of the team agreed that the n-word had to be said because it reflected a common reality that they have all experienced in a mostly white populated campus. “The play was all about shining light on the different ways in which white privilege can demoralize and subjugate different marginalized groups… Snowflakes did a wonderful job of bringing awareness to these subtle cases of ignorance that exist within our culture,” shared Koko. The entire team made sure that the scene wasn’t a passing moment, but a critical moment in which the audience took time to process, recognize, and confront the racism and white privilege presented.
The UMass Amherst student body is predominantly white. However, younger and more diverse audience members from the local community started to attend shows due to the department’s “Arts, Legacy, and Community” program. Professors Priscilla Page, Judyie Al-Bilali, and Gil McCauley created the multidisciplinary program to diversify the department’s racial demographics, and to give all students a more critical lens on the escalating incidents of racialized violence across the US. Diverse crowds attended four sold-out performances and were treated to new material by Dustin, which he had generated from dramaturgical conversations in rehearsal.
“I will never forget all of the reactions from POC audience members. [They] energized cast members and me,” said Sondra. Callum added, “I can never forget the loud ‘yasss,’ ‘oohs,’ and finger snapping of support. Lovely boisterous boosts to our comedy.” He then shared, “The piece was challenging, particularly for audiences like my father, an older white man who sees himself as liberal and progressive.”
The success of the Play Lab readings of Snowflakes was rooted in our dramaturgical process and our collaboration to wrestle with uncomfortable issues with methods we had learned from our mentor artists and professors. Everyone in the process felt that they could trust each other, and find ways to affirm everyone’s artistry and differences. My Huynh shared with me, “I always thought people of color use theatre to represent their experiences and gain their own voice in a society that does not openly allow them to do so without violence and racism…Snowflakes, or Rare White People to me was exactly that, a way for people of color to make a difference by making people of all backgrounds think.”