I guess this is an informal but a formal note to the Theater Department at Clark. And to anyone else who might be reading this: welcome! This is for you, too.
We are in the midst of Fall Semester. Most of us are unwilling to accept this fact, but the research paper and project deadlines are nearing. A lot us have already spent sleepless nights with our noses to the books, in hopes of cramming in information for midterm exam on the next day. But on top of the academics, there exist a few warriors who are memorizing lengthy texts that are beyond their curriculum: they are the Clark actors! As a student who has acted in a couple of Clark productions, I know it’s a commitment not everyone can make. But for me, it has been one of the most fun and rewarding experiences.
Coming back to Clark to start my senior year after being away from campus for 8 months (winter vacation, plus study abroad, plus summer vacation), I was incredibly excited to participate in Clark activities that I had missed. The one I looked most forward to was acting in the Little Center. But once I assimilated back into the Clark culture and adjusted back into classes, I have fallen out of love with the idea of getting back into acting at school. After a lot of thought on this matter, I know it’s because of the lack of diversity that the department features.
What I mean by “lack of diversity,” is mostly the lack of variation in the plays that are produced. There rarely are plays that are written with ethnic/racial diversity in mind. This, in part, is most probably because Clark as a whole doesn’t have a large population of students of color. Another reason could be that there isn’t a strong encouragement for the students of color to participate in the Theater Department. As a person of color, I can attest to the common narrative of feeling like some things just aren’t tailored for me as a person of color.
I’ve felt this way more this time around because of the reverse culture shock that I’ve felt since coming back to the US from being abroad in Namibia. I was a part of the majority population for four months, and readjusting to being a racial “minority” again has been much harder than I thought it would be. Another factor is that my last acting experience at Clark was with a production that was meant to highlight the talents of students of color. Lenelle Moise, who is a Haitian American award-winning poet, playwright, and musician, directed her play, K.I.S.S.I.N.G, at Clark during the spring of 2014. I had an incredible time acting in her play because for once the characters felt more tangible. Like they were written for “us”. I’ve come to know that plays like hers are a rarity at Clark, and as a budding actress of color, this is disheartening.
Just before Lenelle Moise came to Clark, a former Clarkie acknowledged the lack of diversity in the Theater Department and contributed to the effort of bringing about a change. This student is, Frania Romulus. Frania is a profoundly creative and vibrant artist who wrote the play, “La Negrita,” which was first produced at Clark in the fall of 2013. Her play is a satire that loosely chronicles her experiences at Clark as a woman of color. The play handles painful subject matter like sexual assault, racism, and prejudice. I saw it and sure enough, there were moments where I burst out with laughter and others where I could feel tears welling up. Her piece was, and still is, so important to me because it showcased a story which I could see parts of myself in. To top it off, Frania had a cast of mostly students of color. She was an agent of change and created more acting opportunities for the “minority” students. “La Negrita” had a revival showing this past spring in Providence, Rhode Island, and was very successful.
The amount of shows like these is so minuet compared to the mostly-White productions that go up year, after year. This disparity doesn’t only exist at Clark. It exists at most of the largely White institutions across the country. It exists in the professional acting world. There aren’t many opportunities for actors of color. What exist predominantly are the type-casted roles of the “Black best friend,” the prevailing mammy characterization, and many more stereotype-based roles across different races and ethnicities. A story on NPR that I heard during the summer shared information about black-face stuntmen. Hollywood, throughout the years, has continued to hire White actors to play Black actors stunt double with black-face, instead of hiring Black stuntmen. It’s just that deep.
With this said — I think we can do better, Clark. If it’s possible, try and bring more writers of color to produce their work here. Dig a little deeper to find scripts with characters of color. Partner with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Black Student Union, Caribbean and African Students Association, Latin American Student Organization, South Asian Students Association, and other resources on campus to bring other people’s stories to life. Help people of color become more empowered to say, “Yea, that’s for me”. We need some more Viola Davis’s in the world.
This isn’t an anger-fueled criticism. It is just a formally informal note of concern. I’m looking for change.
*Additional reads: No ‘blacking up’ in new Al Jolson musical (The Telegraph, 2009), July 2015’s New & Noteworthy Women-Created VOD/ Webseries: Black Actresses, Desperate Delivery Girls (Women and Hollywood, 2015)