Action for Racial Justice in the JMU School of Theatre and Dance

Action for Racial Justice in the JMU School of Theatre and Dance

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Colton Mercado started this petition to James Madison University School of Theatre and Dance

The role of the educator is arguably the most important position in a community. Educators are the ones who help mold our minds, with the clay that we ourselves have provided. From them, we learn how to behave, communicate, respect one another, work together, and build our own opinions based on how our minds are sculpted. How dangerous, then, for the mind to be sculpted by a singular, cultural voice. To be void of color. To be silencing. To be discriminatory. This is why we expect so much of you. 

We expected you to be screaming, kicking, and slashing for the black community during this pivotal moment, and every past moment. As our educators, you are our family, our mentors, our friends, our role models. We look to you now for support and action. Shame on the Forbes community, the faculty and staff, current students, and alumni for perpetuating an environment that has consistently left our black community, and all students of color, unheard. Sadly, there were many times we could have done better. Our community has lacked the kindness, patience, empathy, and inclusivity necessary to create a safe place. 

The statement released by The School of Theatre and Dance was, quite frankly, late. It was also safe, something that the Forbes faculty taught us never to be. There was no acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement or recognition of the racism within our own educational environment in the Forbes Center. It is time to listen to each other, and take action. We, as students, were moved to come together and speak up, as you taught us. Now we must take action, together.

Demands for Actionable Change

Change the Mainstage season selection process. While the faculty claims to care about the importance of diversity and authentic cultural voices during the selection and execution of our season, we feel the students of color are neglected. Shows with cultural significance have been consistently selected without cultural representation or guidance. This failure points a finger at the lack of diversifying our student body and treating the existing minorities in our department with visibility, respect, and equal opportunity. It must also be noted that there is nothing productive or inclusive about limiting students' involvement in selection to a group of ~10 speaking for the collective. It seems as though these students in season selection are there more as a performative gesture rather than a productive inclusive group. The process must be more democratic and representative of all student voices, especially the minority students who are represented on our stages disproportionately. JMU is an educational institution, but that does not mean appropriating cultures is okay. In fact, that should not be included in anything educational, because it teaches that it is okay to perpetuate. Although some playwrights and lyricists are okay with white people performing cross-racially in roles written for people of color (such as In the Heights and Once on this Island Jr), we do not support this practice. Additionally, students are reprimanded if they do not audition for these shows due to personal opposition with the casting of white people in roles written for BIPOC (as well as the practicing of blue face which was almost implemented in a mainstage production and other racist representation), which is frankly unethical. The School of Theatre and Dance boasts an, “open door policy” with intimate and trustworthy relationships between student and faculty; however, in recent seasons, faculty have explicitly used intimidation to coerce the student body into auditioning/participating in shows in which we are uncomfortable performing - such as directly informing students that their future opportunity to be cast in productions can be revoked as consequence for turning down a role.

A new scholarship for BIPOC. STAD gives out a wealth of scholarships, both to incoming first-year students as well as to current students. However, there is not currently a scholarship that specifically allows for BIPOC to continue higher education in theatre. The School of Theatre and Dance overwhelmingly has more white students than people of color, but these statistics can be changed with a new scholarship specifically designed to assist and uplift students of color. There can be no excuses of “insufficient funding” because, in the past, several scholarships have been used to incentivize white students who frequently lack financial need. The money is there, and it is being used in ways that, whether or not it be intentional, perpetuate the whitewashing of our department.

Diversify the faculty. More faculty members of color must be hired. This allows all students to learn from their experiences in the classroom and provides the opportunity for students of color to be able to talk to a faculty member with similar experiences in the theatre world and life alike. In the academic year 2019-2020, only three out of thirty-five faculty members throughout the School of Theatre and Dance were non-white. Considering the open positions the department is currently seeking to fill, there is no excuse not to fill these positions with voices from BIPOC communities. In the past four years, we have witnessed an annual search for new faculty from across the country, these searches must become intentional; diverse voices must be represented in the faculty. Diversifying faculty should also mean diversifying the directors and designers hired for the Mainstage, as these guest artists are usually white. It is essential for JMU to have more black artists telling more black stories, both onstage and off. This is not to say that hiring a guest artist of the culture we wish to portray on stage justifies the whitewashing of a production, but it would definitely provide a truly educational experience in some capacity.

Hire experts. Moving forward, JMU must hire experts in black and otherwise non-Westernized theatre to teach workshops and skills from theatre around the world. This does not mean our white students can then put on a show using these techniques. If we have enough of a certain demographic to correctly cast a show (as well as participate in the production behind the scenes), then perhaps we could produce a play reflecting this specific culture with the help of these experts. If not, these techniques belong in the classroom. Perhaps a required class can be implemented that’s completely devoted to the study of non-western or Eurocentric theatre, taught by these experts.

Stop cultural appropriation. The community in Forbes must stop appropriating cultures and be held accountable for times they do. For example, the Forbes community has participated in whitewashing, both in classes and on stage. Within Forbes, tokenism has also taken place. Tokenism is defined as, “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce”. Oftentimes when casting shows, tokenism is implemented, creating animosity and feelings of only being cast because of one’s race. Now, this only happens when there is little to no diversity in the student body, which makes tokenism inevitable. Also, in response to accusations of cultural appropriation, we have been fed rhetoric from faculty members (some who staunchly oppose the idea of “appropriation”) that by performing these shows we are expanding our horizons beyond the “white male perspective” and including other voices. If the faculty wishes to diversify the cultural voices on our stages, they must first diversify the student body and faculty, as stated before, and include  students of color already within Forbes. There is no excuse here. 

Foster effective communication. If someone, especially a student, is offended by something spoken or done, LISTEN. It is one of the most important things one can do. Several racist remarks have been spoken about and to people within the department, and we can no longer stand idly by when this happens. Listen, and then implement positive change. In order to foster a community of trust, faculty must humble themselves by staying open and receptive to criticism of their actions and words. “True collaboration means constantly challenging each other”. We think it's time to hold each other accountable so that collaboration is possible. 

After reading our call to action, the instinct may be defense. But, we urge you to remember this is not about putting you down, it is about lifting up future generations in the Forbes Center for the Performing arts. Denial is built into the structure of racism, and we have all engaged in denial. “Racism” is not a pejorative attack, but a conscious/unconscious bias built into every aspect of our culture, and all of our institutions. In order to actively engage in anti-racism, we must see past the discomfort and confront the issues within our community. We all have a duty to begin this work. No more compliance. No more silence. No more performative solidarity; It is time for action.

This petition was crafted in a collaborative coalition of students from the class of 2020.

Black Lives Matter.

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At 2,500 signatures, this petition is more likely to get picked up by local news!