JiaLi Deck is a junior at Clayton High School. She is very excited to continue writing for the magazine, but this year especially she can't wait to increase her contributions to...
The Role of Race in Theater
February 11, 2022
I. Issues Arise
When students auditioned for Clayton High School’s 2022 main stage musical, they didn’t expect any curve-balls. The theater department set out to perform The Drowsy Chaperone, a show parodying an early 1920’s musical comedy. The show wasn’t perfect to begin with; the act two opener features a song overtly making fun of Chinese culture called “Message from a Nightingale” and the show also includes other “tongue-and-cheek moments,” as described by Kelly Weber, the show’s director. The theater department had no question they were to cut these elements, as they offer no real development to the plot, however they missed a key step: telling people.
The department states that they have known that they were going to cut ‘Nightingale’ for months but didn’t inform any students.” — Charlie Rubin
The department states that they have known that they were going to cut ‘Nightingale’ for months but didn’t inform any students.”
— Charlie Rubin
Charlie Rubin, a student performing in the show said at the beginning of the rehearsal process, “The department states that they have known that they were going to cut ‘Nightingale’ for months but didn’t inform any students.”
In future shows, Weber wants to prevent this issue by being more transparent with students about script changes prior to auditions. She also said, “We’ll have opportunities for students to ask questions about the script along with an audition workshop.”
With the problem of racist elements creating speculation that the department was leaving them in script, it wasn’t long before another issue with the casting of the show arose.
One role in the story is Trix the Aviatrix. The brave and sassy character has featured moments at the beginning and end of the show. The character was not written with a specified race for the actor; however, the role was originated by Kecia Lewis-Evans, a Black woman. Weber was not aware of the original casting of the show and casted Claudia Taylor, a white student, to play the role.
Taylor turned down the casting, saying, “My personal belief is once a role has been originated by a person of color it should stay that way since there’s so few roles that are created for people of color. Even if it’s possible for a white actor to play that character, I think that those roles should stay reserved for actors of color.”
Weber was very supportive of Taylor’s choice and told the cast, “I will also admit that prior to Claudia telling me, I did not know that the role of Trix originated from a Black woman. I had seen productions where she was Black and where she was white. So though I can’t tell you what I don’t know, I should have researched more thoroughly.”
While these issues were mostly internal among the theater community, word spread quickly into other circles of the school. During one of the first rehearsals for the show, a message was received which reported about the rumors. It read, “Apparently, [the theater department] is doing a show that has a role made for a Black actor, but they cast a white person — who quit, so they cast another white person. The show also has some racist undertones, too, it sounds like.”
The purpose of the message was not to create more controversy, but rather to make others aware of the rumors already being propagated through the school. Despite this, many interpreted it as the opposite and assumed it had the intention of spreading false information about the theater department.
After the post began to worry theater members participating in the show, Weber decided a complete change of course was necessary. “We had to change the musical because there was an important role that we couldn’t cast,” Weber said in reference to Trix, “It had been cast, but after an inflammatory post […] created fear and rumors, we were left with no options. We couldn’t cast a white actress nor could we find, only to tokenize, a Black actress that had not auditioned.”
To prevent an issue like from occurring again, the department plans to be more intentional about the casting breakdown of each role. Prior to auditions, characters will be listed with descriptions describing the desired act or. For example, “this role can be any race and any gender identity” or “This role is any gender but it is mandatory this role is played by an Asian actor.” Weber believes this would have prevented the problems with Trix this year. She said, “The role of Trix would have been listed as female identifying, Black actor preferred but not mandatory.”
Instead of performing the planned musical, Weber worked to write a new show that follows the same format as Drowsy Chaperone. The new show will be a composite of various songs from Drowsy Chaperone, Anything Goes, and other popular musicals from the time period. In addition to musical numbers, Weber said the show includes, “A bit of a narrative and also some teaching elements about the history and the context of the time in which the shows were created.” The title of this unique show is A Deconstructed Melody.
This is not the first time the department had to deal with problematic racial elements within a show.
The company’s fall play was The Miracle Worker. The show was chosen to feature a blind student who is continually involved with the department. Adapted by William Gibson, the play follows the story of Helen Keller’s governess, Annie Sulivan, as she teaches Helen discipline and how to speak for herself. The touching story features a maid named Viney. Elleanor Schwetye, the director of The Miracle Worker, explained that the character was very problematic, “Her dialogue follows a patois that is offensive [to Black people]. Viney is written with very little agency and no character development.”
The character was not cast in Clayton’s production, but was voiced by the only Black actress in the show: Kendall Turner.
The conversation around modernly unacceptable depictions of race in the media have been brought under intense public scrutiny in recent months. When examining art of the past, modern viewers are faced with a tricky balance between recognizing the reality of the country’s racist past, and respecting the current culture and lives of those who have been oppressed.
Nate Slaughter, a former member of the CHS theater department, believes racist elements in shows should be left as they were written, “I don’t see a problem with art being racist,” he said, “[…] If it were up to me I don’t think those elements should be reworked or taken out. They provide a platform for discussion and learning.”
For the The Miracle Worker, Schwetye disagreed with this sentiment and decided it would be wrong to not change anything about the character “We can’t just say, ‘Well, that’s the way things were back then,’ and just ignore what’s not right,” she explained. “We have a responsibility to point out why they’re not right, and work to reflect on how we are changing the narrative.”
With this in mind, Schwetye, Weber and David Blake, the scenic director, had numerous conversations about how to deal with the issue. As a part of this process, the group consulted Cameron Poole, the school district’s chief equity and inclusion officer about the character.
Poole didn’t give the department a concrete solution about what to do, but rather used his perspective to ask questions and allow the directors to come to their own conclusion about the issue. The group diologed about the intention and importance of the character, as well as the vital role Black slaves had in cartaking of white children at the time. Poole pointed out, “Even though Viney was not a major role in the play, realistically she was the one who essentially raised Helen Keller.”
The department ultimately decided they should not cut the character entirely.
“To whitewash it, or to cut it out, was not what we wanted to do,” Weber explained. “It was more about finding the humanity in the character, and letting it be interpreted by the actor, as opposed to the playwright, a white man from 1957.”
Instead of traditionally casting the role, they created a narrator to voice Viney, read stage directions, as well as play additional smaller parts.
“The narrator can voice several roles, including Viney. And then to put a Black actor in that role doesn’t diminish them by placing them in that kind of stereotyped position, but empowers them to play all kinds of roles,” said Weber.
When Turner was approached about the character she remembers being told, “You would know [Viney] was serving people and you could sense she was Black.”
She didn’t fully grasp the importance of the situation until after having a conversation with her parents. After talking with them, Turner realized that in some situations she needed to advocate for change about the role. “There were moments where I had to speak up because I was the only African American in the cast and the only one who knew the effect of [the racism in the show],” said Turner.
Schwetye listened to Turner when thinking about how to rework the character and worked to neutralize Viney’s stereotypical language; however, a stereotypical southern Black accent was still used in the final production as a personal choice by Turner.
To some, the department had done a good job dealing with the issue. Taylor said, “My perspective was that it was handled beautifully with the editing of the racist material and the highlighting of people of color in that show.”
To others, the role made them uncomfortable. The use of the stereotypical accent as well as the fact that Turner was the only Black student in the cast left a few students uneasy about the situation. In retrospect, Turner has some regrets and said she wishes the character would have been cut entirely, “Some scenes with Keller, when he’d yell at Viney or do something like that, and even for me, as a personal choice, doing the stereotypical voice… she just should have been cut.”
This year, as the theater department grapples with how to deal with modernly unacceptable depictions of race, other questions about diversity have arisen. Students and teachers within the department have all noticed there is a significant lack of diversity.
“This year, the majority of the people participating in theater, especially upperclassmen, are white. We have more diversity when it comes to gender and sexuality […] but we don’t have a lot of racial diversity,” said Kathryn Davis, a senior in the department.
Among smaller groups, racial diversity matches that of the greater school population. In Miracle Worker, three out of the seven students cast were people of color and three out of eight on the production team were people of color for the fall plays. Within larger groups, diversity is much more lacking. The department’s second fall play, Our Town, had a majority white cast. Out of the 38 students who auditioned for Drowsy Chaperone, only four of them were people of color. Two were in the original cast, but after reworking the show two additional students of color were added to the cast.
The deficiency in racial diversity this year is not a recurring trend. In past years, the theater department has been one of the most diverse extracurriculars at Clayton. Based on data collected by the department, in 2017-2018, 29 roles were played by students of color. Recently, when the department performed Chicago, white students actually made up a minority of the cast.
Kamal Lado, the thespian troupe’s former vice president, remembers how it seems the diversity in the department fluctuates “There were shows where I was the only person of color in the entire cast,” said Lado. “Other times, shows seemingly were chosen to highlight and grow the diversity in the department.”
The fact that this year only two students of color were originally cast in the main stage musical is a dramatic low for the department. The reasons for such decrease are complicated, but can be attributed to a general decline of diversity within the school population as a whole. As the district phases out the Volunteer Student Transfer program, fewer Black students are able to enter Clayton schools.
The Volunteer Student Transfer program was designed to increase opportunity for students living in lower income areas. Through the program, students living in the city are bused to and from Clayton so they can attend school. The program was not as successful as hoped and, as a result, it is being discontinued.
Poole explained the impact of rolling back this program will be dramatic in affecting diversity. “Our district is about 14% Black. A little over 7% of our Black students of the district come from the Voluntary Transfer Program. So you’re talking about cutting our Black population in half when the program is removed.”
As a result, almost every extracurricular program will struggle with diversity; however, the lack of diversity in this year’s shows is striking and suggests that there may be other factors at work.
Weber expressed that student social dynamics are key, “In the past what has made the most difference in the diverse makeup of the theater department is when there is more diversity in student friendships and relationships in the school population in general.”
Students, on the other hand, aren’t as convinced by this idea. “I don’t think the diversity of friend groups is necessarily the issue, but rather the lack of information about what the department is going to do about the blatantly racist elements of the show,” said sophomore student Angela Chen.
One thing that’s agreed upon is the importance of show choices when it comes to diversity. Weber said, “I think the shows we choose definitely have, probably, the most influence on how diverse our cast is.”
In the past, when the department chooses shows that offer roles written for multi-racial casts, there is a greater number of diverse students interested in participating. For example, in 2017 when the theater department performed Hairspray, it wasn’t a challenge to find Black students interested in being a part of the production. However, this year, when shows with racist undertones were selected, some believe it made non-white students less eager to audition.
“The fact that they choose racist shows is the reason why a lot of non-white people don’t want to do theater,” Chen said.
The process of choosing a show is not an easy task. The directing team had numerous conversations about the topic and they took many factors into consideration, including abilities of current theater members and the variety of roles available. Weber expressed a wish to do more shows that include diverse characters, but is limited by the need for full orchestration.
“The shows most likely to be written specifically for multiracial casts tend to be modern, and modern shows often have small cast size and very limited orchestration,” she said. “These shows work for the Student Run Musical but don’t fit the needs of the main stage musical.”
Moving forward, Schwetye said the department also hopes to get feedback from the student body when choosing a show to ensure students of color get a voice in the selection process.
Ultimately, creating a continuously diverse theater department goes beyond just choosing the right shows. “If you’re new this year and have no experience, or just don’t know how to communicate to who’s in charge, it makes it harder to get involved,” Turner explained. “It kind of feels like a closed community.”
According to Rubin, even if a new student had an interest in theater this year, many were discouraged by the abundance of racist elements in the show, “Those who are new to the district and want to join theater would be turned off the moment they decided to put the show’s name in Google and looked at the plot synopsis,” he said.
Moreover, being a cast member requires vast time commitments that many less privileged students are unable to fulfill. Poole explained that this can be a key factor in maintaining diversity, “A lot of it comes down to access; what does it mean to be a part of a club? What are the gatekeepers in terms of requirements and expectations that need to be met?”
Although it is free to participate in shows at the high school, the expected commitments for students are intense.
“It takes a lot of money to get really into theater,” said Davis. “Between pressure to take dance, voice, or acting lessons and the large time commitment which makes getting a job nearly impossible, theater is fairly inaccessible for those without privilege.”
Poole, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on participation in extracurricular activities in high school, recognizes the importance of involvement in clubs and activities like theater. “The more activities a kid is involved in, the more they achieve, academically, attendance wise, socially and so on,” he explained. “[…] When kids see a club or an organization, and they see someone who shares a common experience, they’re more likely to be a part of that.”
When a student doesn’t see others who share their experiences, it can make them feel out of place. Lado remembers struggling with their identity as a Black person in an overwhelmingly white school.
“I felt I had to assimilate— erase a part of myself to find ‘success.’ Be it in the classroom, on stage, or with my friends, I put myself and my identities second,” Lado said.
In the department today, the few faces of color within overwhelmingly white casts agree that race can unintentionally play a large part in feeling comfortable within the community.
“When I’m in a cast and I’m standing next to everyone that is white, it makes me think more about my race than I’d like to,” said Turner.
Chen too wishes casts had more racial diversity. “I really love theater, and I also feel proud to be Asian,” she said. “I wish [the department] was a lot more diverse, and I know it could be, but it just isn’t.”
Sometimes, she feels being a person of color would inhibit her from having success on Broadway or pursuing theater professionally. “There are so many white people in theater, especially at Clayton,” she said. “It gets me in my head a little bit about what I’d be able to do in the acting world.”
Teachers are aware of the problems caused by lack of diversity and are doing what they can to make change. “We know we need to be better and are working to rebuild the department,” said Schwetye.
In addition, student officers are also initiating plans to improve diversity. While students don’t have control over show choices, Taylor is using her power as head of social media and public relations to increase diversity. “My first and most important priority as a director is to start activities […] that are not theater related so people can get to know the very closed theater community.”
She has suggested having community events like picnics or karaoke to get to know students who may have an interest in pursuing theater. She recognizes that auditioning for a show can be intimidating but is hopeful that more people can have the joyful experience she has had within the department. The theater department is a place that is near and dear to my heart. It deserves to be a more diverse community with people who get to share that experience.” — Claudia Taylor
The theater department is a place that is near and dear to my heart. It deserves to be a more diverse community with people who get to share that experience.”
— Claudia Taylor
“The theater department is a place that is near and dear to my heart,” Taylor said. “It deserves to be a more diverse community with people who get to share that experience.”
With the increase in acknowledgment of racist shows and lack of diversity within the department this year, students say conversations need to happen in order to begin making change.
“[The department has] not had a big discussion [about racism], not one where everyone who is a person of color is included,” said Turner. “I think that’s something that needs to happen.”
In the past, discussions about racism were brief. In Lado’s experience, “Hairspray […] was one of the first true encounters with race in the theater department. Beyond that it really never came up.”
Based on her time in the department, Davis said, “From what I’ve seen, there haven’t really been conversations about anything other than the fact that a show has some racist things in it.”
During the Miracle Worker Schwetye said, “Even before casting and throughout the rehearsal process, as an ensemble, we had discussions about not only the racist aspects of the show, but also misogyny, socio-economic bias, Nativism, ageism and ableism.”
Despite this, Turner and Chen felt the conversations around race were not discussed in depth enough. “There are always tiny little conversations, but they’re always glossed over very quickly,” said Chen.
Chen thinks the lack of thorough discussion is because directors and students have a fear of offending people or feel too awkward about the topic.
“Whenever I bring up subjects of race, people always get uncomfortable because it’s not something they’re particularly used to talking about,” said Chen.
Poole said having open-minded conversations about racism is key to finding solutions to difficult problems when they arise, “When we think about equity and growing from a culturally competent mindset, every part of the educational system must be able to work together and grow.”
Beyond the Clayton theater department, our country as a whole is just beginning to realize the importance of conversations around racism. On Broadway, many classic shows are being reworked to portray people of color for more than their traditional stereotypes and some have been closed entirely.
As a professional actor, Lado says they have experienced the discussions that are taking place first hand, “Like all industries, in the past year there has been a major reckoning. […] I have found that in professional theater, at least as I have gone back to work, identity is at the forefront of every conversation.”
Actors and theater-goers are calling on the industry to do better in their depictions of race and on including non-white people. Although theater has been continously progressive when it comes to embracing various gender identities and sexual orientations, discussions about race are just beginning to bubble to the surface. Clayton’s reckoning with racism reflects a much broader conversation happening in the industry and the country. By using theater as an inlet for discussions about race, the theater department has an opportunity to inform and have important conversations with students.
The theater department has scratched the surface in initiating these difficult discussions. On Nov. 16th, prior to the show change and after the circulating rumors, the cast members of A Deconstructed Melody had an almost hour-long conversation about diversity and inclusion. Students felt glad that their voices were being heard but still felt discontent with the way the discussion was approached.
“It felt a bit like damage control,” said Rubin, “I feel like what they should have done was have a discussion like this well before auditions happened and the show began.”
Turner and Chen, who were also a part of the conversation, agreed many seemed a bit defensive and there was a disconnect between the teachers and cast members about intentions and approaches to dealing with racism.
Nevertheless, directors in the department are glad the conversation has started.
“As teachers, we are grateful to our students for starting the dialogue around difficult topics, and putting in the work to make the department a place for everyone” said Schwetye.
Ultimately, while difficult, this conversation was productive and offered hope for the direction the department is going in.
“While I wish these conversations had occurred before auditions or even before the show was announced, I appreciate that the directing team is taking our feedback” said Davis, “I am confident that they will take more proactive approaches when they plan to do controversial shows in the future.”
As teachers, we are grateful to our students for starting the dialogue around difficult topics, and putting in the work to make the department a place for everyone” — Eleanor Schwetye
As teachers, we are grateful to our students for starting the dialogue around difficult topics, and putting in the work to make the department a place for everyone”
— Eleanor Schwetye
The theater department has, and will continue to be, a loving place for people to come together and share the joy of art. Although imperfect, the teachers leading the department are doing their best to listen and learn from students about these issues.
“Every conversation I go into, I know I bring with me my own biases […]” said Schwetye. “I have to check my ego, check my privilege, and come into conversations ready to listen to the students more than anything.”
The first performance of A Deconstructed Melody was Feb. 2, 2022. The journey to reach this point was difficult for many, but after long nights of script writing and whispered conversations about what comes next, the department has finally created a show ready to be performed.
The work left to be done in reckoning with the racism of our past and improving diversity is far from complete in the department, our school and the country. These issues are rooted deep in American society, and it will be an ongoing battle to make things better. However, this isn’t to say there is no hope.
Poole said, “Usually, when you’re open and you share perspectives, you’re closer to solving the problem.”