The incoming class of 2014 was proclaimed to be the most diverse class in history. Of the 2,043 first-year students who enrolled, 52 percent identified as a race other than white or non-Hispanic. But in certain schools on campus, diversity, inclusion and representation are works-in-progress, especially in the performing arts.
For a student of color involved in theatre, racial identity is a mixed bag. On one hand, there are hardly any parts that require the actor to be non-white. On the other, the chances of being cast in a non-white role are high due to lack of competition. Kori Alston, a sophomore theatre major, recognizes this catch-22 as an actor and as a playwright.
His original play, The Alexander Litany, will premiere in the winter and feature a dominantly non-white cast. Casting such a racially specific play from a pool of mostly white actors comes with obvious difficulties.
“There are four characters of color in the play. The director and I have started reaching out to different student groups because there aren’t enough people of color in the theatre department to be able to cast this show,” he says. “It’s only four.”
While playwrights have the autonomy to create completely original works, producers are the ones with the power to bring the play to life. And if a producer is white, or is not interested in telling stories about race, then the chances of a racially specific play being produced falls.
“[Playwriting] has made me question the types of things I can write. I want to be produced on this campus, but if I’m writing parts for people that aren’t here, it’s hard,” Alston says. “That’s something I’ve had to balance: writing what I want to write, but also being able to cater to the lack of diversity that exists within the department.”
This mentality that students lack the resources to produce diverse productions deters them from trying in the first place. However, Henry Godinez, a Communication professor, believes, “If you do the work, we will get the students.”
Godinez, a Cuban-American actor and director, has a long history of working in Latino theatre in Chicago. Fundamental to this attitude is the foresight to keep future generations in mind, especially potential students.
“There’s value in producing a play by a playwright of color, even if you don’t have the right students to cast it,” Godinez says. “Prospective students of color will look at our website and go, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re doing that play. That play is about me. Maybe I should go [to NU].’ If you wait to have the students, you never get the students.”
Communication senior Aurora Real de Asua says technically anybody should be able to play any role in theatre, but that becomes complicated when race enters the picture. Race becomes a limitation in a medium that is meant to be liberating.
“Theatre walks this fine line, where in one way, it should be imaginative and it should explode barriers and defy race. Those things shouldn’t exist on stage,” Real de Asua says. “And yet at the same time, a huge aspect of art is unpacking the world we live in and why it is the way it is. That is where race becomes a very important issue.”
Real de Asua says that if theatre existed in a nonpolitical void, then colorblind casting would be fine. While she says the classroom is “apolitical,” or a place where students can learn to play roles outside of their comfort zones, the stage is not.
“[As a director] I don’t want to make my work political, but in a way, every choice I make is,” she says.
At Northwestern, casting is a laborious and complicated process. After general auditions, department shows produced by the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center have priority over casting. Once those lists come out, then student theatre boards can determine which shows get which actors while considering the actor’s preference sheets. Communication senior Tristan Chiruvolu describes this process as an “algorithm” that tries to create the best outcome for all parties. When trying to cast a multiracial show, the process becomes even trickier.
“Let’s say you have three people of color at the top of your list. You can’t guarantee they’ll be in your show because of how preferences work,” Chiruvolu says. “So even if you make an effort with a whole cast of race-nonspecific people to have a diverse cast, it’s not up to you.”
Student theatre is still making strides toward greater diversity. Lovers and Madmen’s production of Titus Andronicus, a classic Shakespearean play, features six actors of color and will open during Winter Quarter. Lipstick Theatre cast six black women in their production of For Colored Girls, which opens this fall.
Students may not have control over the theatre department’s admissions pro- cess, but they can still dictate which shows to produce on campus.
“Diversity and inclusion is enriching without being threatening,” Godinez says. “[They] give you more opportunities of looking at and understanding the world.”