Exceptions to the Rule
When productions highlighting people of color are an exception — not the rule — the Yale theater community grapples with addressing a racial gap.
On Nov. 5, 2015, seven black students took the stage for the premier of “Exception to the Rule,” the first play at Yale with a cast and crew entirely composed of people of color. That same week, students’ demands for racial equality came to a head. On Cross Campus, students of color publicly denounced the discriminatory environment they had experienced at Yale, telling their stories as Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway listened in silence. After that day, many Yale students declared their commitment to pursue change. And the opening of the anomalous “Exception to the Rule” amidst this resurgence of activism called attention to one area of Yale’s campus where students of color have had an unequal voice — the theater scene.
As the 2016 Oscar nominations — which sparked the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite — can attest, the world of drama is far from diverse. Yale’s theater program is no exception. Undergraduate productions frequently receive criticism for featuring predominately white narratives in their scripts and white students in their casts and crews. Compared to the percentage of students of color in the student body, disproportionately few students of color participate in the theater community. The archives of the Yale Dramatic Association (Dramat) since 1991 indicate that the organization has only put up one show by a black playwright before this year, “From Okra to Greens” by Ntozake Shange in 1995. A cursory glance at the Dramat’s past several seasons reveals plays by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, but far fewer written by non-white, non-male playwrights.
The 2015–16 productions of Yale shows, both affiliated and not affiliated with the Dramat, has included a more diverse array of playwrights and roles than in previous years. In April, the Dramat’s Spring Experimental production will be “White History,” written and directed by Dave Harris ’16, the black playwright who also wrote “Exception to the Rule.” But riding on the momentum of Next Yale, students in the theater community are still grappling with how to address the problem of underrepresentation.
Harris has played a crucial part in recent efforts to address the racial gap in theater at Yale. He says he became disillusioned with the theater community and the white roles he was assigned to play after working on Dramat productions in his freshman and sophomore years. His perception of the Dramat as an exclusively white production company informed his decision to put up his first playwriting project at Yale, “Exception to the Rule,” without the help of the organization.
“We intentionally did not go through the Dramat because they would almost never do a show with a black cast,” he said. “We wanted to create our own family and space here with this show, and prize it as our own space like the Dramat is prized as a white space.”
Gineiris Garcia ’16, who directed José Rivera’s “Marisol” as her senior project this year, concurred that students of color often perceive the Dramat negatively, particularly actors who are turned down for roles because the director wanted to honor the playwright’s intention that the roles be played by white actors. “The Dramat is a well-established, elite, privately funded organization,” she said, “and a lot of us [students of color] have had experience or know people who have had the experience where we have felt outcast.”
Out of the dozens of shows that Yale undergraduate students put up each semester, the Dramat only produces three. But the Dramat gives students access to the campus’ largest theater venues, namely the University Theatre and the Yale Repertory Theatre, and hires professional directors for the Fall and Spring Mainstages. These spaces, combined with the Dramat’s funding, mean Dramat shows are some of the most large-scale, sold-out productions on campus.
Jill Carrera ’17, the producer of the 2016 Fall Mainstage, and a member of the nine-person Dramat Executive Board, said she was “not surprised” that students of color have felt outcast, remarking that “the Dramat of the past did very little to try and be an inclusive space for all students of color.”
Hannah Worscheh ’17, the current president of the Dramat, seconded Carrera and added that the Dramat would likely not have produced a show like Harris’ “Exception to the Rule” in the past.
“We used to think we didn’t have enough people in the Yale community to support that type of production, but now we know that is not an assumption we should have been making,” she said.
The Dramat’s selection of “White History” for the Spring Ex indicates progress, leaving those assumptions behind. The show is described on the Dramat’s website as examining “the pressure of America’s foundation and how we do and don’t talk about race today.” Harris puts it another way: “I don’t want people to walk away and not be haunted by this play.”
In spite of having felt alienated by the organization, Harris decided to give the Dramat another try when he submitted “White History” for consideration. The decision was last-minute, he says, and he never thought the Dramat would choose it. But he made up his mind to submit it because he believes the show delivers an important message in its bold confrontation of racial tension.
“I have one semester left to be as loud as possible on this issue,” Harris explained.
The lack of diversity in plays has historically been attributed to the absence of students of color from the audition pool. And in some cases, directors can verify this issue. Alcindor Leadon ’17, who was directing August Wilson’s “Fences” and “Radio Golf” this spring as his third non-Dramat production, remarked that he has had to reach out to people individually to ask them to play roles because of the “depressing scarcity of black actors.”
But according to Harris, new productions like “Exception to the Rule” have opened the stage to a number of theatrically inclined students of color who may have not previously seen a place for their talent because of the lack of racially diverse roles and casting.
Thirty students auditioned for six roles in “Exception to the Rule.” “White History” saw similarly high interest, competing with the Dramat’s Spring Mainstage “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” for acting talent. Nailah Harper-Malveaux ’16 said she had to turn away several impressive students of color who auditioned for her senior project production, Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” which went up Nov. 12, 2015.
The higher numbers of students of color auditioning may indicate that the choice of shows, especially ones written by non-white playwrights or featuring empowering roles for students of color can have a big influence on whether students of color try out.
Michaela Johnson ’16, who has directed a show each semester since her sophomore year, has never put up a show with the Dramat, because she prefers the freedom of putting up any show she chooses without going through the Dramat’s rigorous selection process.
“The Dramat has no restrictions on who you cast, but the kind of roles available are dependent on the shows the Dramat chooses,” Johnson said. She cited her 2015 production of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” as an example of a show that she thought the Dramat would “never do” because of its many race-specific roles, which she personally sought out black actors to play.
Jae Shin ’17, one of few Asian actors active in the Yale theater community, also believes the selection of Dramat shows can deter students from trying out.
“The Dramat’s plays and musicals are often pieces about Caucasians written by Caucasians for Caucasians,” he said. “I think Asian and Asian-American actors are discouraged and pushed away from the acting scene because most directors are wary, either consciously or subconsciously, of putting an Asian actor on stage for the sake of ‘sound dramaturgy.’”
Part of the problem, students say, has been the Dramat’s method for choosing shows.
In the past, only Dramat members could suggest shows for consideration for the Mainstage productions. They would compile a list of around 100 suggestions, then narrow it down to 10 shows after several rounds of voting. Finally, the Dramat Executive Board would pick the show from that list of 10.
In response to the demand for a more inclusive slate of shows, though, the Dramat announced in January that it would open up the selection process for the 2016 Fall Mainstage so that the entire student body could submit proposals for a show.
When the window for submitting suggestions closed this year, Worscheh and Carrera led a town hall-style meeting on Jan. 26 where student submitters could come and speak for their proposals. Around 25 students attended the meeting, many of whom were familiar faces to the Yale theater scene.
Before going through the long list of proposals, Worscheh and Carrera polled the audience to see what qualities people were looking for in the Fall Mainstage selection. Some criteria that attendees named as being important were a show that positively portrayed characters of ethnic diversity, had strong female characters who are not simply the love interests for male leads, and was not written by a white man. At this last suggestion, the room broke into applause.
Attendees cast their votes at the end of the meeting, and the list was shortened to 50 titles. This new list was publicized to the undergraduate community for further review and shortening. Forty-one Dramat members and 97 nonmembers voted on it, and the surviving 10 show titles received 70 percent of the total votes collectively. The Dramat Executive Board has since selected “The Wild Party” by Andrew Lippa as the 2016 Fall Mainstage, after soliciting another round of feedback from the student body through a Google form.
Carrera clarified that the new Mainstage selection process is “an effort to make upcoming seasons more inclusive and represent more voices.” She believes “The Wild Party” satisfies much of the criteria laid out by students who attended the town hall, saying the show has “extremely strong female leads and psychologically complex roles for people of color.”
As for her own experience in the Dramat as a woman of color, Carrera said the progress she has seen with the organization’s increased focus on changing its culture has convinced her to stay and hold a position on the executive board.
“I wouldn’t be a part of this organization if I thought it couldn’t change,” she said. “I feel so strongly about making the Dramat a more welcoming space for people of color that I would not and could not be one of the leaders of it without thinking we could change it or make a difference.”
In spite of the potential that a show like “The Wild Party” creates for a more diverse cast and crew, shows like it may not be enough to change the demographic of students who participate.
The 2016 Freshman Show “She Kills Monsters,” which was written by Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen, attests to the fact that a non-white playwright does not suffice to encourage students from minority groups to work on the production. Freshman Show Director Nina Goodheart ’19 acknowledged that it “does not have the most diverse cast and production staff,” saying, “We need to do better.”
Harper-Malveaux believes that the Dramat needs to engage more directly with the students they seek to include if Dramat productions are to become more diverse. “I don’t know if the Dramat is really making the effort to ask students of color what would be the best way to get a more diverse audition pool,” she said. “Show selection is a necessary first step, but I think the problem really does lie in lack of outreach from the very beginning.”
Goodheart noted that since she only had two days between learning that the Dramat had accepted her show proposal and starting auditions, there was little time to spread the word about the play’s Vietnamese-American writer and the availability of race-blind roles. Moreover, she said the Dramat cautioned her against suddenly reaching out specifically to students of color to encourage them to be part of the show.
“I think they were afraid of offending people. It’s not okay to just show up knocking on the door of the cultural houses and say ‘Now we need you,’ and not provide opportunities in shows on a regular basis,” Goodheart said.
While Worscheh and Carrera are both excited about the selection of “The Wild Party” as the 2016 Fall Mainstage, they are under no illusion that the new show-selection process will be enough to make the theater community more inclusive.
“Issues of underrepresentation on and off the stage have plagued the theater industry for years,” Worscheh said. “We [the Dramat Executive Board] realize we have been and are a part of this systemic problem, and we hope to work with the entire Yale community on improving inclusivity in theater. Problems that affect the entire industry cannot be solved overnight, but we are excited to have taken a step in the right direction and to continue to evaluate our organization and the ways in which it can change and progress.”
But the Dramat, albeit the largest, is not the only theater group at Yale, and is not the only factor defining campus theater culture.
The Afro-American Cultural Center and La Casa Cultural have tried to cater to their theatrically inclined members through their respective student-run theater groups, Heritage and ¡Teatro!. Heritage is comprised of 10 core members, hosting workshops on subjects ranging from acting to playwriting. Harper-Malveaux, who is a co-president of the Heritage theater ensemble, described the group’s mission as “embracing black theater and empowering that on campus.”
While a few members of Heritage have also worked on Dramat shows during their time at Yale, Harper-Malveaux noted that the group has not focused on aligning its efforts with the Dramat’s efforts to foster participation in theater within the black community. “We are adding a much needed voice to the mix, but we don’t feel it’s our job to unite the whole theater community,” she said.
Gineiris Garcia, one of the last remaining members of La Casa’s ¡Teatro!, reiterated the importance of having these cultural-house-specific groups as “spaces for people of color who want to do theater on campus.” She too does not think the cultural-house theater groups should assume responsibility for solving the issue of underrepresentation in the theater community as a whole — they are under enough pressure to maintain their own membership.
Garcia expressed frustration that the onus currently falls on students of color to create and sustain these cultural-house groups. With a lack of funding and a strain on students to commit their time, groups like ¡Teatro! may cease to exist if the students leading the initiative graduate and no one assumes responsibility. “It all comes down to the fact that the cultural centers are under-resourced,” she said. “If we want this group to happen, we [Yale students affiliated with La Casa] have to do it ourselves.”
Garcia added that she would like to see some of the increased funding for the cultural houses — which University President Peter Salovey announced in response to the list of demands set forth by Next Yale — go toward theater programs.
Michaela Johnson, the newly elected president of the Yale Drama Coalition, views it as the Coalition’s responsibility to address the problem of inclusivity that exists in the theater culture. She said she plans to reach out to every undergraduate theater organization, including the cultural-house groups, and seek advice on how the Coalition can best represent and support them to the rest of the theater community. Johnson also intends to hold town hall-style meetings throughout the semester which are open to the entire undergraduate community, and mandatory meetings between her, Coalition Vice President Aviva Abusch ’18 and the directors and producers of shows for each season before the casting cycle.
Admitting her own fault in selecting an all-white cast for this year’s production of “Twelfth Night,” Johnson highlighted the importance of “giving directors and producers a sense of responsibility for their casting,” since their casting decisions ultimately either preclude or invite students of color to the stage.
No single organization or theater group — not even the Yale Drama Coalition, the umbrella organization for Yale undergraduate theater — can take sole accountability and effectively alter a pervasive and persistent culture. As Hollywood and the theater industry at large face this same problem of underrepresentation, the solution to changing a historically exclusionary community remains unclear.
To start at Yale, Carrera said, “I would argue it’s all of our jobs, from the Yale Drama Coalition, to the Dramat to all other theater organizations on campus, to make sure we all take an initiative to work together in fostering a sense of community and acceptance.”
A past version of this article incorrectly stated that only members of the Dramat board could suggest shows for consideration.