Following the controversy about the University “whitewashing” the cast of its only musical, the Theatre and Film Department held two town halls to discuss what changes will be made going forward.
Students, including English major Camila Piñero, brought a list of demands to the University. These demands were intended to hold the department accountable on race-conscious casting and reaching out to students of color.
The department also had a list of responses to this issue and that list had essentially the same thing as the student’s list, said Lesa Lockford, the department’s chair.
“I’m really happy that the students are committed and feel very powerfully about these issues. That matters a lot. I’m really welcoming of the fact that they felt empowered to be able to do that. I’d much rather they be vocal than be silent,” she said in response to the backlash.
The demands had three core issues they wanted implemented in the department.
The first was for the department to create a statement on the website that essentially states they will not put up whitewashed shows by Nov. 2. Though according to Piñero, there was some pushback on that idea.
“Those statements usually have to be approved, and they didn’t want the University associated with the word whitewashing — if you were to Google it, they wouldn’t want people to just assume without looking into it, but we were very adamant,” she said. “You see that and see, wow, they really care about it … that is the most basic thing you can do” to ensure students of color feel respected in the department.
The second demand was to put up workshops for students and faculty on the experiences of performers of color, casting and learning about these issues in theater and film. These workshops would be mandatory.
The third is the creation of a required course that deals with the same issues as the workshops, but the class may take years to implement.
The department agreed to all of these demands.
These issues and ideas are important to those students of color because they feel disrespected in the department. Piñero shared stories of friends who felt unsafe and stressed out by going to classes in the Theatre and Film Department, so much so that they left the department altogether.
“What is very sad to me is that I think a lot of students have been silenced; that’s what I’m hearing,” Lockford said. “Students created an opportunity to talk about these issues so that students won’t feel silenced, won’t feel disrespected.”
When talking about casting, Lockford said a “chief” part of the very long discussion about picking shows is “about whether or not we are offering roles for people of color, whether or not there is representation for diversity within the shows that we offer. Or, that we’re offering roles that any person could be in.”
However, this is only worthwhile to students if they are actually casting people of color in those roles.
In the case of this year’s musical, which Piñero says is highly coveted because it only comes once a year, the understudy parts for the “Urchins” were given to white women. This was harmful because those roles are traditionally played by black women, Piñero said.
Lockford did not have a hand in casting, but she said the idea by giving out understudy roles is to create a realistic environment, and to give out more parts because these shows have small casts. They did not think the casting of the understudies would be an issue because understudies are cast with the idea that they never perform for the public.
However, they are given one full performance before the show is put on, and Piñero says this show should also utilize actors of the race or ethnicity suited for each part.
“By implication you’re telling everybody you’re willing to let them go on as a street urchin in the event that one of the girls in the main cast can’t,” she continued.
Piñero, who identifies as both Puerto Rican and Latina, has seen very few roles for people like her, and even fewer actually played by people like her.
“For you to grow up and continue not seeing yourself in books, movies and TV shows and theater performances it kind of just makes you feel like your stories don’t matter and your people don’t matter. And in the case of miscasting shows, not only do you not feel important you feel like you are not even good enough to tell your own story,” she said.
Piñero said she wants to see more people of color showing up to auditions, and that means better marketing from the department, especially to students who don’t study theater or film. She thinks this will help the issue because the department is currently “fairly racially homogenous,” so adding more people of color to the pool of who is being casted will allow for people of color to be in their shows.