The fight for diversity and inclusion efforts on and off the stage

The musical theatre and theatre programs work toward greater diversity and accountability

The fight for diversity and inclusion efforts on and off the stage
Sultana Qureshi (right) in a Department of Performing Arts production, pre-pandemic.

Senior musical theatre major Sultana Qureshi has never had a professor in the Department of Performing Arts who looks like them. 

“It’s difficult as a young person to be a part of something where there’s no adults who reflect you and that you can help use as a guide or a roadmap,” Qureshi said. “I can be a successful adult working in this field and still have my identity.”

The musical theatre and theatre program recently put forward several efforts to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and transparency, according to the program director Karl Kippola. Yet, some students still have problems with the department’s curriculum, production casting and faculty representation.  

American University at large is a predominantly white institution, which reflects the racial breakdown of the DPA. Over 53 percent of undergraduate students are white, according to the University’s 2020 Academic Data Reference Book.

2020 alumna Catherine Ashley said that the DPA has “not truly started to be anti-racist.”

“I think what the department is guilty of is microaggressions because I will reiterate that these are kind people that are not malicious,” Ashley said. “They try to present an equal opportunity. They just don't have the language or the knowledge really about what it means to be fully anti-racist to then move forward.”

As an Asian student without any Asian faculty members to look up to, Qureshi said students have not had many faculty mentors in the department. Instead, students end up mentoring each other, which has not been possible this year due to the pandemic.

“When there’s that gap there or that completely empty space, we end up filling it for each other, sometimes effectively, and sometimes [ineffectively],” Qureshi said. “We’re all students, and we’re all in our early 20s and still figuring ourselves out.” 

Senior Edmée Marie Faal said that as a Black woman, she is used to having professors that look nothing like her, “like that is the norm.” The first time Faal had a Black woman as a teacher was DPA professor Sybil Roberts Williams. Roberts Williams was unable to be interviewed for this article due to time constraints. 

DEI in the classroom

Qureshi recalls sitting in their theater history class, complaining about how Euro-centric the content was. 

“All we learned about was Europe, and we had one class on the theater of Africa and one class on the theater of Asia, which we all recognized was bullshit because we’re not dumb,” Qureshi said.

Musical theatre and theatre majors are required to take classes about stagecraft and the fundamentals of acting, in addition to two theater history courses, according to the course requirements site. A required “Rotating Topics in Theatre” includes the option of “Multicultural American Drama” for the upcoming fall semester. Qureshi acknowledged the lengthy process for curriculum changes to come to fruition, but said that they were at least glad “moves are being made.” 

For Ashley, the most telling sign of a lack of diverse course options is that none of the classes taught by Roberts Williams, one of two professors of color in the program, are required. Williams currently teaches “The African American Experience in the Performing Arts,” and “African Performance as Politics” according to her faculty profile. 

“I thought that was insane because not only is she more intelligent than all of us, but she’s a Black woman and the classes that she teaches are African American Diaspora in the performing arts,” Ashley said. 

Extending onto the stage

It’s a similar story with casting and productions, many of the students said.

“I’m a light-skinned Black person and I was one of the most cast BIPOC,” Ashley said. “So whether they want that to be a narrative or not, it is.”

The DPA debuted their rendition of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in fall 2018, and both Qureshi and Faal mentioned the DPA’s shortcomings in discussing how race played a role in casting. Faal auditioned for and was cast as Tituba, a slave.

“It wasn’t like they forced me to do that position, I auditioned,” Faal said. “But also, there weren’t that many other roles I could have played. I was being strategic because I knew there weren’t that many Black women in the department in general.”

For Qureshi, who was also in the production, there was a missed opportunity for discussions about what Faal’s casting meant for other students of color playing slave owners or powerful judges.

“We definitely could have had a conversation about it because we had a long conversation about gender,” Qureshi said. In the production, many traditionally male parts were transformed into female roles. “And when we did try and bring up race, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ but like we’ve talked about it since and I feel like everyone involved was like, ‘It super did matter.’”

Qureshi recalled another instance as a freshman when they were cast in a show among other freshmen as a Latinx character, despite not being Latinx. 

In the past year or so, however, Qureshi attested that the department is making improvements. 

“I think the department is getting much better about not just casting conventionally attractive Broadway-ready actors, which I appreciate,” Qureshi said. “But again, I think that’s a problem that is much, much larger than any one University’s theater department. I think that’s a culture-wide issue.”

While musical theatre and theatre majors have to audition to be students in the department, the productions are open for the entire university community to audition. Faal suggests that the program could extend efforts to recruit students from groups such as the African Student Organization, Black Student Union or AU PRIDE for shows. 

For junior Bret O’Brien, another needed conversation is about the perspective of LGBTQ+ performers, especially in what he calls “inherently a very queer community.” O’Brien said he’d like to see the conversation bring in perspectives from non-white and non-cisgender individuals.

“I think I’ve been typecast as the gay best friend a lot of times … I think that’s something that honestly kept me in the closet as well is just kind of that fear of being typecast,” O’Brien said. 

When it comes to gender, Faal said she thinks the department has done well with gender-bending in casting, but there is still room for growth, particularly for performers who don’t necessarily identify within the traditional gender binary.

Community feedback 

The program hosts community meetings where students and faculty discuss specific topics or open forums to share feedback. Once the pandemic hit, those community meetings moved to an online space. 

Once online, some topics the program discussed were virtual learning and race relations. 

Kippola said the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer “more urgently prompted us into action.”

“One of the things that students are looking for is a greater sense of transparency, of why we do the things that we do and why we don't do the things that students feel we should be doing,” Kippola said. 

A concern with the community meetings is the potential of repercussions for students who bring up a concern they have with individual faculty members or other students due to the power dynamics. 

“It’s one thing to tell people you are empowered to [speak out] versus in that situation when you have to be in that class with that professor or that student, you have to be in a production with them, they hold some sort of significant power over you,” Faal said. “At the end of the day, we’re in a higher educational institution, you’re giving me a grade, or they’re in my class, so I think that is something that the department will also have to parse through.”

Kippola acknowledges that there are power dynamics that he and the rest of the program are still trying to work through. 

One proposed solution is to have an anonymous online forum where students can articulate their grievances. Kippola said the program is still researching this option as many of the problems with the structure stem from a lack of personal accountability for students reporting. 

Kippola hopes students have at least one faculty member they feel comfortable talking to, who can then either share the student’s concern directly or anonymously with the program.

Faal said that the University at large, which trickles down into her program, often looks to the students for how it can improve. 

“I think that feedback is different than solutions,” Faal said. “I don’t understand how students should be responsible to give solutions … How am I qualified to give you a solution?”

A vision for the future

As the current seniors prepare to graduate in less than two weeks, some students are concerned the program’s traction towards more equity and inclusion will slow. 

“It’s gonna be a very white department when my class graduates,” Faal said. “And again, it’s always been a heavily white department.”

Committees have been formed on both a department and program level in hopes to keep the momentum and growth going. 

On a departmental level, the Committee on Equity and Inclusion is currently examining all the practices of the programs for reasons including but not limited to curriculum, student culture, faculty hiring practices, power structures and hopefully establishing a grievance committee for faculty and students. The committee is still figuring out its function.

Kippola also created a Curriculum Committee within the musical theatre and theatre program for all of the majors. The committee, comprised of just faculty members, is figuring out how to make the program’s curriculum less male and Western-centric in regards to the classes offered. 

“Our hope is that we can begin putting forward curricular changes next year, but those then wouldn't go into effect until the following year because that process is not fast,” Kippola said. 

Another committee in the program is the Committee for Season Selection. O’Brien helped run an election for student representatives to be on the committee. The student representatives currently on the committee are Kelsey Walker and Bekah Zornosa. 

For Zornosa, a junior musical theatre major, working on the committee has been an actionable step toward more communication between the students and faculty. The committee researches and looks into plays for the upcoming season based on many different factors, diversity being one. It’s a way to move toward a more “equitable season,” Zornosa said. 

Zornosa said another big question that the committee addresses is casting: “Do we have the people that could do this? And if we did, would it be offensive?” 

As a Latina student, it’s also a personal project for Zornosa, who wanted to join as a student representative after realizing that she had never played a role that represented her identity. Now, on the committee, she said she feels her professor counterparts are “really trying to make an effort,” especially after establishing that they all had an equal say on the panel in an attempt to dissipate any power dynamics. 

Still, the student representative position is not a perfect solution. 

“Kelsey and I tried to show meetings and no one showed up,” Zornosa said. “I think a lot of [students] do complain about it … we’re putting in as much as we can with what people are giving us.”

On June 8, 2020, a collection of BIPOC theatremakers launched a website called “We See You White American Theater,” which includes a 31-paged list of demands for both professional and educational theaters to integrate into their structures.

Kippola said he thinks the national shutdown of theaters has come at an opportune time to allow the theatre community to focus on issues of DEI. Kippola and other program faculty have worked to incorporate some of the ideas posed in the demands list. 

“We are preparing to come back to producing in person,” Kippola said. “In what ways can we actually be taking action rather than just making anti-racism statements and changing the nature of our mission, statements [and] values?”

Kippola said that he understands his students’ impatience for change, and if he was a student, he would feel similarly. However, from a faculty perspective, he wants to make sure that the program is making changes correctly, which takes time.

“I think it’s preaching patience, but that [is] not translating into, ‘Don’t stop bringing up the issue, keep fighting for the issues. Don’t stop being impatient,’” Kippola said. “You should still continue to fight for what is important and holding us accountable and demanding a sense of transparency. I think all of those things are vital.”

smirah@theeagleonline.com and cmulroy@theeagleonline.com

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