Last week, Nickolas Brooks ’17 agreed to take part in a reading of a play featured in the 2016 Yale Playwrights’ Festival. After thumbing through the script, he discovered that the piece was set in post-Civil War America, and he and all the other black actors had been cast as servants. As he continued reading, Brooks grew outraged by racial stereotyping that he found highly disrespectful of the African-American experience.
“There was one scene in the play where I was talking to another servant about wanting to beat my wife. This scene had absolutely nothing to do with the overarching plot, but it was very revealing,” Brooks said. “I was supposed to be aggressive, to disregard my kids and be violent towards women.”
He said the play’s misrepresentation particularly angered him because of his own familial ties to the era being depicted.
“Hailing from the South, my great-grandmother was a slave, and my grandmother was a sharecropper, basically a slave, so I’m not that far-removed personally from that period,” Brooks said.
In addition, he also felt infuriated that the play had been written by a white male.
“There’s no way that a white male could have real insight into the black experience in post-Civil War America,” he said. “The whole performance, all I wanted to do was leave.”
Despite finding the material flagrantly offensive, Brooks said he takes pride in following through on his commitments, and decided to stick with the reading despite having an opportunity to back out. Many minority and queer actors at Yale have complained that they are typically forced to play either stereotypical roles, or roles that erase aspects of their personal identities. This year, the Yale Dramat has faced increased criticism from queer students and students of color, many of whom have been vocal about their discontent with programming and the disproportionately high quantity of plays centering around predominantly heterosexual, white narratives.
This Monday, a small group of theater community members gathered in Linsly-Chittenden Hall to discuss inclusivity and diversity. The Yale Drama Coalition, which hosted the open town hall meeting, originally intended to address rising concerns among students surrounding representations of race, gender and sexuality. But the turnout was sparse, with roughly 12 in attendance and only a handful of students from outside the YDC board.
Still, according to Michaela Johnson ’18, president of the Yale Drama Coalition, meeting attendees suggested methods by which to encourage a more racially diverse undergraduate theater community. Ideas included hosting frequent, campuswide discussions on diversity and encouraging an ethnically diverse range of theater figures to come speak at Yale.
But Gregory Ng ’18, YDC training and career coordinator, said discourse has not been sufficient to solve the issue.
“Part of what YDC is trying to do is foster conversation, but we’re very much at or past that point where conversation is not enough,” Ng said. “There needs to be very strong affirmative action taken to ensure that there’s programming that reflects and represents the diverse places that exist on this campus.”
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Miles Walter ’18, who directed the Dramat’s Fall Mainstage, believes widespread distrust of the Dramat has contributed to the racial gap in casting.
“The fact that many minority actors feel as if the Dramat isn’t going to cast them means that far fewer of them audition for shows,” Walter said. “This often means that directors have a smaller pool to draw from.”
Even though a number of diverse narratives have gone up in Yale theaters in recent years, most of the productions were put on independently of the campus’ central theatrical institutions. Dave Harris’ ’16 “Exception to the Rule,” put on last fall, marked the first time the University had put on a play with a cast and crew composed entirely of people of color. Harris’ explicit intention was to cultivate a safe and diverse space, and he said he consciously chose not to act in conjunction with the Dramat, which he perceives to be a chiefly white institution.
The Dramat will, however, put on Harris’ play “White History” this semester. In addition, the Dramat has attempted to democratize the play selection process for the 2016 Fall Mainstage by opening up voting to all undergraduates, who can propose shows by filling out an emailed survey. Previously, only Dramat members could submit plays for the Mainstage. This year, the new process resulted in the selection of Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party,” a show that highlights strong female and minority leads.
Ng recently finished directing Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” as a drag performance. He said he was inspired to put on a production highlighting diversity after seeing “Exception to the Rule” and Nailah Harper-Malveaux’s ’16 “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enough,” both put on this fall.
Ng sought to reinterpret a canonized work as a story about both gender and racial identity.
“It definitely was a response to the lack of diverse casts and stories about people of color and queer people both. It seemed as if it were very much an either-or situation, and I wanted to do both — just because I am both queer and a person of color,” he said.
In the face of heightening controversy, gender- and race-blind casting has been put forth as an alternative to casting procedures some consider exclusionary.
Ng, though, said he does not think color- and gender-blind casting is a sufficient way to incorporate minority and queer actors into the theatrical world.
“I think they’re in fact harmful ways of going about doing so. A lot of the time when there’s colorblind casting, people are cast and asked to erase those characteristics that are used to limit them as a minority,” Ng said. “When somebody of color is cast in a white role, for example, the performer’s race is often never acknowledged in the play — it becomes a really bizarre viewing experience. There’s a clear disconnect between what is being said and what is being seen.”
Jacob Rodriguez ’18, stage manager of the Dramat’s spring semester show, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” said many problems have occurred when the Dramat brings in outside directors who are not open to unorthodox casting methods.
He explained that the Dramat’s attempts to close racial gaps in casting have been stymied by a lack of power over directors’ casting decisions.
Ng suggested that a more constructive way of incorporating queer and minority experience into theatrical productions would be in staging new plays that focus chiefly on identity, or in staging canonical works in different ways so that gender or racial issues are brought into the limelight.
“We need to be able to discuss these issues honestly and with integrity,” Ng said. “To have tons of plays that don’t represent Yale’s diverse population is just … inaccurate, and I think it’s that inaccuracy that makes the people of color on campus feel very dissatisfied. We know we’re here, so why don’t we see ourselves on stage?”
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After the YDC’s town hall meeting, Harris said the low turnout did not surprise him. While attempts to diversify theater on campus have been made — through formal and informal discussions or color- and gender-blind casting — Harris, and many of the actors, directors and playwrights interviewed, said efforts have fallen short. Members of the Yale theater community are willing to speak, they say, but less willing to act.
“People know what the issue is, and yet they turn around and make the same mistakes,” Harris said. “We talk about how we need shows that have roles for non-white actors, and we say we’re dedicated to making a change, and then we turn around and do the same shows that don’t offer genuine opportunities. Nobody needs another Shakespeare. Nobody needs another musical about white men. The major theater organizations are too self-protective and unwilling to take the larger steps to correct the problem.”