Baylor Theatre Arts seeks to diversify

The cast of "Shipwrecked" rehearses during the Department of Theatre Arts' fall 2013 season. Photo credit: Lariat File Photo

The spotlight isn’t color-blind, and Baylor’s Department of Theatre Arts knows it.

Sam Henderson, an adjunct professor of theater, said the theater program is lacking diversity – and students are suffering for it.

“Our students miss out on a lot of great opportunities because we don’t have the diversity in our department to be able to perform some of the greatest plays ever written,” Henderson said.

Facilitated by Henderson, The Department of Theatre Arts held a panel discussion on diversity in arts and entertainment on Friday.

The discussion was part of a mandatory workshop that theater majors must attend every Friday afternoon. Although most workshops are limited to just theater majors, this discussion on diversity was open to the general public to help spread awareness about the issue.

“We’re all better when we’re exposed to a broader spectrum of material,” Henderson said. “There are so many great plays that we read in class but can’t perform because we don’t have the students for it. It would be just as offensive to cast non-minorities in these minority plays as it would be to not do them.”

The panel included Sheila Tousey, a Native American actress and dancer; James Yaegashi, a Japanese-American director, producer, actor and author; Dael Orlandersmith, an African-American actress, poet and playwright; and Brisa Munoz, a Hispanic director and teaching artist.

The panelists discussed their personal experiences as minorities in the theater world and answered questions submitted in advance by students. They specifically discussed the word “diversity” and how they would like to see it implemented practically in the theater world.

“I like the word ‘inclusion’ better than ‘diversity’ because ‘inclusion’ invokes action,” Orlandersmith said. “’Inclusion’ is about more than seeing more diverse faces at the table. It is about understanding their experiences.”

The panelists all expressed the need for people of privilege to step up and fight for those without a voice within the industry.

“The first response is that this is a people of color problem,” Munoz said. “It’s an everyone problem; it’s a white problem. We are all responsible for unlearning the concept of whiteness and equating light skin to power.”

The panelists encouraged students to recognize their privilege if they have it and to find ways to expand their worldview and work toward inclusion in their own lives.

“Education is incomplete if we are not inclusive,” Henderson said.

Marion, Ill., senior Laura Pound said she thinks diversity can be a touchy subject at Baylor and within the theater community, but she is glad that Baylor is taking the time to talk about it.

“We need more education in and outside of the classroom, and we can only get it by looking at situations from different perspectives,” Pound said.

Pound said she believes racism is more prevalent than many people want to believe. She thinks for any progress to happen, people of power will have to recognize the problems and hold themselves and their friends accountable for not being inclusive.

“We can’t see the world in other ways if the only people talking all look the same and have similar backgrounds,” Pound said.

Baylor theater has never performed a play with an all-black cast. Henderson referenced plays such as “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry and several plays by August Wilson that Baylor students have not been able to perform because the program lacked the demographic of performers the plays call for. Baylor Theatre put on one play with an all-Hispanic cast in 2011 when they preformed “Anna in the Tropics” by Nilo Cruz.

“We want students to know that they are important, inclusion is important and diversity is something we take very seriously,” Henderson said.