Discussion Attempts to Tackle Lack of Diversity in the Theatre Department

The Sarah Lawrence Performing Arts Center.   Photo credit: Joseph McFarland

The Sarah Lawrence Performing Arts Center. Photo credit: Joseph McFarland

‘Noon Day Sun’ by Cassandra Medley is a play about a woman named ‘Wendy,’ whose secret birth name is ‘Zena.’ Wendy is a black-identified woman who is passing as a white woman. A casting controversy began when the person chosen to play as Wendy for the SLC production was white. There was talk of audience walkouts, recasting, and even a rewrite of the story.

Some point out how there’s an overall lack of diversity in the SLC theater program, so it’s not the fault of the casting but simply a lack of available choices. Others point out how this doesn’t have to be an issue of authenticity, considering the character is supposed to be someone who passes as white. Others draw attention to the issue being a persistent reoccurring problem, pointing out the minstrel shows or lack of representation for people of color in theater. One thing that is mostly agreed upon is that this isn’t a simple ‘quick fix’ problem.

“We can’t just look at diversity as ‘oh we don’t have enough people of color.’ That’s not diversity. Diversity is body types, skin colors, abilities, backgrounds, nationalities, languages, and you know it extends far beyond just that, so I think that we have to work on our vocabulary and the way that we’re holding this discourse surrounding diversity,” says Julius Powell (‘18).

The SLC Theatre Program discussion regarding diversity on March 8th lasted for about 90 minutes. Undergrad Students, SLC graduates, faculty, and others joined in on the conversation. 

“The issue seems to be more about how to have [diversity] conversations. How do you deal with race and ethnicity and other aspects of the self in art,” Linwood J. Lewis, an SLC psychology professor, said during the discussion.

Irving Vincent, who mostly led the discussion with Cassandra Medley, drew upon his own experience as being a person of color who grew up in a time when black people struggled for any form of representation. He also spoke about how the idea of art in itself was about stepping outside your box, noting how Meryl Streep was able to take on a variety of roles: “Tell me one artist who didn’t break the rules?” 

The discussion went back and forth from a philosophical look at performance and playwriting to an agreeable plan for future casting. The discussion became less about finding solutions, and more about how to have conversations in the future that will lead to solutions.

“When we leave this campus, we don’t want this conversation to keep happening. We don’t want this to keep being a thing. [...] I just want to get to the conversation that moves this forward,” said Nja Batiste (‘18) at the discussion. 

The philosophical debate was on the issue of colorblind casting vs color-conscious casting, and the benefits or issues with each casting method. The general consensus of the discussion was to put forth a mission statement on the department as a whole. 

“I think we also have to craft a mission statement and in our mission we would be looking for plays that offer complex roles for actors of color and women. [...] You don’t want to create a pressure for certain people to audition for things because that’s not fair but you also don’t want to miss an opportunity for a great show,” said Laura Hawes (‘18).

Common Ground discussions put forth the idea of having a diversity committee specifically for the theater department. There is currently an SLC diversity committee which does not focus on what goes on in SLC theater.

“The diversity committee is very different than what’s happening in theater. [...] It would be hard to have a diversity committee for the theater, outside the theater,” said Al Green, Dean of Equity and Inclusion.

Marisol, a play that SLC performed recently, seemed to be appreciated by those looking for more diversity in these plays.

“It follows a narrative that has nothing to do with race. It had, statistically, the highest natural diversity percentage of any of the shows we’ve had this semester. It had the highest percentage of people of color. The lead actress was a woman of color. I think Marisol is what we should be aiming to achieve in our department,” said Powell.

While there is no quick fix to the issue surrounding diversity, the agreeable plan for the near future is to develop a mission statement and diversity committee for the theater department.

Joseph McFarland '16

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.