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Why Are There No Great Kids of Color in the Performing Arts?

A Black Artist and Arts Educator’s Exploration on Challenges for Kids of Color in Arts Spaces

As a Black performing arts educator and actress who has performed many theatre for young audience (TYA) shows, I have taught and shaped the minds of thousands of kids. Inspiring young people by way of performing arts is something I take great pride in—especially as an actress/educator of color who students might not otherwise encounter.

In my experiences in these realms, I have also seen some of the challenges that students of color face in the arts. In predominantly white performing arts spaces, systemic racism can have damaging effects on kids of color and also for teaching artists of color. Inspired by essays like Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” Michelle Wallace’s “Why Are There No Great Black Artists?,” and Janelle Zara’s “Why Have There Been No Great Black Art Dealers,” I have been pondering: Why are there no great kids of color in the performing arts?

Access and Exposure

For all young people (ages four to seventeen), exposure to the arts, and specifically theatre, is invaluable. This begins with having access to it in schools. When I was growing up there were no drama or theatre enrichment programs in elementary schools like there are now. Some options were presented in middle and high school, but not many. My mom had to do copious amounts of research for any professional acting classes I wanted to participate in and she wasn’t always sure where to look. And, as is true for many cultures, finding Black-centered theatre arts programs was a struggle.

It was also a rare occurrence for me to see theatre as a child and, if I did, I never saw performers who looked like me. For kids of color, seeing themselves represented on stage is truly a magical experience. After all, TYA/USA mentions that fifty percent of youth under eighteen in the United States are kids of color, so it’s odd to me that a diverse world onstage wouldn’t be presented to them. I am proud any time I am performing in TYA shows because just my being present onstage allows all kids to see diversity.

A few years ago, I made history in my city of Denver, Colorado, playing the title character in Sleeping Beauty. The number of kids whose worldview I was able to expand was indescribable. Not only did all kids have access to this show—specifically made with them in mind as the audience—but this version also provided many important learning opportunities. They got to see a Black princess, and the show reflected reality where different races and shades can make up a family. Experiences like interracial relationships and adoption (my prince and my parents were white) were normalized. With other major events occurring during the time, like the movie Black Panther and the royal wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, this was a defining moment for affirmation and representation for kids of color.

An image of two actors dressed in medieval period clothing having a sword fight.

lasiea Gray and Austin Lazek in Sleeping Beauty at Denver Children's Theatre. Director: Steve Wilson. Production manager/stage manager: Dan Rib. Assistant stage manager: Ashley Campbell. Scenic designer: M Curtis Grittner. Costume designer: Linda Morken. Lighting designer: Jen Orf. Stage combat: Samantha Egle. Special effects/masks: Todd Debreceni. Prop designer: Becky Toma. Sound crew: David Payne. Director of education: Emily Macintyre. Photo by Becky Toma.

So, with the makeup of youth of color in the United States being so great, and there being more opportunities for kids to participate in theatre, see theatre (field trips, tours, TYA plays), and take in more diversity on stage, why does that not translate to more students of color in performing arts spaces? With these spaces preparing to safely reopen this year, this is a question organizations should greatly be considering.

For the handful of kids of color who join these predominately white spaces, their “greatness” can’t be maximized because they often have to sift through many discomforts.

Hurdles in Predominately White Spaces

While there have been advancements, there are still many challenges for students of color looking to pursue performing more seriously. In addition to parents having to seek opportunities out, there are sometimes geographical hurdles like living far away from the coveted, “well-known” organizations. (I once had parents driving close to an hour from home just so that their child could take class with me.) There can also be financial deterrents such as not being able to afford the high cost of classes for a sustained amount of time.

Let’s say none of those hurdles existed and a student of color was excited to embark on their artistic journey in one of these spaces. The fact is, as Zara states in her New York Times article, “the predominantly white art world can still be an uncomfortable space for a person of color to navigate.” While she’s talking specifically about visual arts, this applies to the performing arts world as well—and especially for young people.

For the handful of kids of color who join these predominately white spaces, their “greatness” can’t be maximized because they often have to sift through many discomforts—ranging from disconnects with the material being presented, to how some teaching artists might engage with them due to implicit bias, to the sea of predominately white peers they are surrounded by. In my experience, students of color have shared being fearful of speaking up and being labeled. There are instances where their ideas are ignored and perceived as “abstract concepts” against the “traditional” texts and exercises being presented. They also have to navigate racially insensitive comments or “observations” by their “well-intentioned” peers (and teachers), while doing basic activities like warm-ups. These things start at the elementary age and only get heightened during middle and high school with the added layer of social status. Especially if the young person enrolls in a predominantly white performing arts school.

Image of an adult and child standing on a stage with recording equipment.

Ilasiea Gray with student Ramiyah on set for Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's CO2020.

At these organizations and/or schools, these older students of color will continue to endure microaggressions and blatant comments about their accent, their heritage, or their hair. While they will have a better understanding of what is happening, sometimes it might feel easier for them to just laugh it off to keep the peace. Similarly, they will have to go along with studying and performing white-centered plays or monologues (for example, focusing on Shakespeare rather than August Wilson) that often do not reflect the world they live in. Or, worse, they will witness their culture be appropriated without a second thought from the educators who selected the material. These instances can be traumatizing and cause students of color to develop a complex around what work is even possible for them to be involved in—making them feel even more invisible. Another obstacle I’ve witnessed is that when students of color do advocate for themselves and come together to create reflective work, they don’t receive full support to bring their projects to fruition and are told excuses like “lack of funding.”

Another obstacle I’ve witnessed is that when students of color do advocate for themselves and come together to create reflective work, they don’t receive full support to bring their projects to fruition and are told excuses like “lack of funding.”

Diversity in Performing Arts Educators

Having diverse educators in performing arts is crucial, not only to provide support and guidance for students of all backgrounds, but also for the predominantly white workspaces they occupy. The majority of times that I am teaching or directing, I am working with predominately white groups of students. I love all of my students the same and am also aware of the great responsibility I have to lead by example as the one Black theatre educator (or Black educator, period) some of these students will have. This includes the curriculum I present and offering many teachable moments around race.

Once, while teaching a post-show workshop for Sleeping Beauty, a white child expressed that I did not look like the character in the movie. I was able to have a lovely conversation with the entire group of elementary students about how princesses (and people) come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. I recall another time at an organization where I was ironically teaching step (the African-rooted dance form) to infuse more culture in curriculum. During one of these classes, a white student ever-so-curiously asked me why my hands were two different colors. I initially laughed because I had never been asked that question before! But it was clear that this second-grader’s observation was harmless, and she genuinely had no prior exposure to people of color (in person, on TV shows, in books) to understand pigmentation and that this is how people of color are perfectly made.

As an adult and an educator who is providing that representation, I am able to navigate these moments. However, my brilliant, young students of color don’t always know how to process similar comments that might be made to them. I believe it is empowering for kids of color to bear witness to educators of color handling such occurrences. These beautiful teachable moments also would not happen if children only see white educators and performers.

A collage of  three images featuring two actors. In each image, one actor is dressed as a flower and the other where's a bright yellow shirt, scarf with messy hair.

Ilasiea Gray and Rachel McCombs-Graham in The Little Prince at Denver Children's Theatre. Director: Steve Wilson. Production manager/projection designer/sound designer: Dan Rib. Stage manager: Zachary Madison. Assistant stage manager: Kaitlyn Lawrence. Scenic designer: M Curtis Grittner. Costume designer: Linda Morken. Lighting designer: Jen Orf. Special effects/makeup: Todd Debreceni. Prop designer: Becky Toma. Visual artist (projections and program): Kellie Lambert. Photo by McLeod9 Creative.

Those are lighthearted examples, but I have also had my fair share of blatant racism from students toward myself and students of color. Likewise, I have also experienced the traumatizing effects of systemic racism in my performing arts workplaces for speaking up about such instances. These experiences make it necessary for me to highlight another pressing issue that inadvertently affects students of color: Why is it difficult for teaching artists of color to thrive in performing arts spaces?

What does a scenario like this do for students of color who then lose an advocate for them in this space? The students are left feeling even more isolated and likely to follow suit in departing.

Oppression of Educators of Color

Many arts organizations have recently jumped on the bandwagon of anti-racism and equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. This is typically in theory, not in practice. The detriment of the lack of application of these measures has long-lasting effects for any individuals of color—students, educators, staff, and audiences—operating in these spaces.

Experiencing this firsthand, I left one of the largest arts organizations in the country due to systemic racism and oppression I endured for continuing to address how the education department handled blatant racism coming from white students, among other problems in the department. I saw the different set of rules and value placed on white children making comments like being “allergic to Black people” or not “appreciating brown skin” than for the kids of color they were harming in class. I personally was made to feel as though I had to accept students making racist comments to me as well as physical actions done by them after such comments. I watched white educators not only help develop but then allow racially offensive performances to happen in front of hundreds of students.

In post-show workshops for a TYA show put on by the department, I also had to field questions from school audiences about why the production that should have had an all-Black cast portraying the Black characters in the story, did not in fact have this accurate representation. How disappointing for kids of color coming to the space as audience members hoping to see themselves (and the characters they had just read about in a book) be reflected, only for it to be the opposite experience. These are things I could not defend.

As the only Black (and Black female) core teaching artist who had worked at this organization for many years, I learned very quickly the lack of value and respect that was also placed upon me. Many people of color would recognize this as tokenism—it is fine for us to be around for appearances, but we must not dare speak up about anything of importance. I genuinely thought I was amongst more progressive thinkers who would respect my exhaustive efforts to help provide perspective and solutions so the organization could improve. However, after being transparent and documenting with HR for a year, things only got worse for me. In an effort for the organization to stay swimming in white fragility, supremacy, and complacency, I was quickly “put in my place.” I endured severe gaslighting, a hostile work environment, retaliation, and attempts at silencing my voice. I was put on disciplinary action, had my job threatened, and was told things like I could “not be a resource to discuss race issues” and that I needed to be “kept close and in the building.” This was so mentally and emotionally taxing that I finally had to resign. Furthermore, it was such a toxic environment, for Black women specifically, that four of the five other Black women employed in different departments also left within a one-year timespan. The final one left shortly after.

An image of a person standing on stage in a school auditorium surrounded by elementary school students.

Ilasiea Gray and students post production of Wonka!

What does a scenario like this do for students of color who then lose an advocate for them in this space? The students are left feeling even more isolated and likely to follow suit in departing. The organization also misses an opportunity to take accountability and make improvements to prevent further harm. Unfortunately, a white-centered system is upheld, which ultimately impacts enrollment of students of color, relationships with their parents, retention of educators of color, and, in the case of the disappointed audiences, apprehension in coming back to see another show.

It is also a must that organizations hire teaching artists of color and, in doing so, respect the vast experiences and perspectives these teaching artists bring to the table.

What Does Support of Kids of Color Look Like So They Can Truly Be “Great” in Performing Arts Spaces?

Of course there are great kids of color in performing arts spaces, and there should be so many more of them. However, to truly flourish, these kids need more effort and support from these spaces. They first need access to the beauty of the arts, both in school and outside of it. In addition to my work with organizations and schools, I have spent many years running my own programming for kids, and who it is accessible to is of utmost importance. Thinking about geographical access (prior to and during COVID), I purposefully seek out partnerships with places like libraries and recreation centers to bring programming to a broader reach of kids. Being in a virtual world now is also helpful, though it’s important to recognize that not all kids have access to technology. From a financial standpoint, classes should also be more affordable.

Once in these spaces, students of color need more opportunity for their ideas to be cultivated and where they are encouraged to soar. In predominately white spaces, there needs to be active research of material that is more reflective of the world we live in, like presenting Hamilton in addition to Hamlet. If there are concerns about “not enough” material available to serve these students, the students should be encouraged and fully supported to create their own. In these spaces, students also need more educators who look like them or who are more diverse holistically. I’ll never forget walking into a preschool classroom during an outreach program and having a student from India shout out, “You’re brown like me!” Even if we were from different cultures, just having a brown teacher in the room made all the difference.

It is also a must that organizations hire teaching artists of color and, in doing so, respect the vast experiences and perspectives these teaching artists bring to the table. These individuals need to be equally supported so they can thrive in these spaces for all of their students. I understand the reality that there is not always access to theatre arts educators of color, and if that is the case, white educators who are available must do their due diligence to make sure their curriculum is diverse and inclusive both in thought and practice. These teachers must also equip themselves with an awareness for students of different backgrounds and be ready to swiftly take corrective action when instances of cultural insensitivity occur.

Finally, there also needs to be more spaces strictly for kids of color, with educators of color, so the kids can explore their creative ideas comfortably and freely—utopias, if you will. I have been fortunate to teach in many scenarios like this, including teaching arts programming at an African-Caribbean Heritage camp for students of adoption and being director of curriculum for a theatre camp aiming to empower young Black girls. I remember these middle and high school girls were so excited to devise an original piece on subject matter that spoke them, like Blackness and Black women’s history. They had never had the opportunity to speak those ideas out loud in theatrical space and for them to be received with open arms. I also often create opportunities for my students of color on projects I’m involved in like, “Outspoken: A Listening Project – Youth Voices of Black Lives Matter,” where I was creative director, and I recently involved some of my students from diverse backgrounds in CO-2020, a docutheatre/documentary project I co-created with Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.

There is a critical need for young people of color in the performing arts to have access, space, support, encouragement, and, above all, love. There is a lot of work to be done in the pursuit of legitimately making performing arts spaces more equitable, diverse, and inclusive, however my hope is that the next generation of young performers of color will be inspired, confidently stand in their light, speak loud, and create unapologetically. I also hope that all performing arts spaces take heed of such important considerations so that everyone in these spaces can truly feel, and be, great.

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