Muhlenberg’s attempts at equity in the Theatre & Dance Department

0
960

On Nov. 9, the Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance Department hosted Kaja Dunn; an intimacy professional, equity arts consultant and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Students were able to attend a “Race and the Arts Workshop” as well as a working/ listening session. Dunn also offered this workshop for faculty and staff members within the department in addition to her student-oriented work. This is just one step of the initiative to create more equitable spaces within the Muhlenberg performing arts community. 

“Though individuals in our department were practicing antiracist pedagogies prior to this, the seminal moment that caused the entirety of the faculty to direct collective energy toward a culture of antiracism occurred in the summer of 2020 when a substantial coalition of Theatre & Dance students and alumni [were] empowered and inspired by the nationwide frustrations around histories of anti-Blackness in arts organizations,” says Gabriel Dean, writer-in-residence and visiting professor of English and theatre. “Antiracism is at the heart of my pedagogy and centered in the body of work I’ve penned for the stage and I’m excited to be part of a department that wants to put it at the center of our values. Right now, the biggest challenge, in my estimation, is getting everyone on the same page about what antiracism actually means and what work it will entail collectively and individually.”

Professor of Dance Anito Gavino adds, “Theater and Dance in the US is historically white because dance and acting training in Eurocentric forms are systemically accessible to folx with economic access. These systems of inequities put upon to maintain power, which is the gist of racism, was emphasized in Dr. Dunn’s workshop. It was clear that these systems have benefitted the dominant group of European descendants and continue to persist through real estate access, healthcare, education, and yes, the performance arts.”

Dunn has been brought in to help Muhlenberg achieve this goal. The workshops helped to facilitate a conversation about how the department has been tackling topics such as racism and identity in their shows and the classes they offer. Dunn guided the discussion by asking engaging questions and helping students to formulate productive language to describe their feelings and experiences. She acts as a liaison between students and faculty in order to determine what has and has not been beneficial in terms of creating a truly equitable space at Muhlenberg. Professor of Theatre Leticia Robles-Moreno, Ph.D., comments, “We would be a stronger department when we all join difficult conversations willingly and actively, without getting defensive or shutting down potential dialogues to avoid being called out. And on this note, I think we would be a stronger department when we are able to call people in, to invite everyone to the conversation, because we all want, genuinely and in solidarity, to heal the harm that has been done, in order to create space for all.”

Dunn’s afternoon workshop was especially constructive, as it acted as an open forum where students could discuss their grievances. Many students came forward in speaking about their experiences, calling upon the department to put more care into the processes of developing curricula and show selections. They expressed that they hope to see more diversity training amongst faculty, more examples of causal representation, necessary discussions about equity in course curriculums and more workshops such as the “Theater of the Oppressed” held by Julian Boal, Ph.D., at Muhlenberg on Oct. 13. There was even a hopeful call for a curriculum which further encourages collaboration with other course prefixes (i.e ENG, HST, AFS etc.), which talk about different histories and identities within the department. 

 “What is a better tomorrow like? A community of true solidarity… Where dances and stories of diverse cultures are honored and celebrated…” says Gavino. “That technique is not limited to Eurocentric forms, that in fact the isolation of the hips in Gouyad and Whine of Dancehall, the polyrhythmic footwork in tap, hip hop and many indigenous dances, the partnering work in social vernacular dances such as Lindy hop, Bachata, Salsa, Latin jazz, the undulation of the spine in Yanvalou are all techniques that are worthy of study and practice.”

She continues, “I engage my own students in jazz rooted in the Africanist, exploring African American social vernacular dances through time, the  influences by Latine immigrants to the music and dance, Katherine Dunham’s exploration of the Caribbean especially Haiti as a big influences in the codification of the form, as well as stolen Asian influences, yet many students still prefer a Eurocentric commercial jazz style learned throughout their childhood offered through a privileged access of dance studio culture.”

Hannah Scarlatoiu ‘26 points out some positive experiences in department productions that she hopes to see more of. “In my experience with ‘Labyrinth,’ before even signing up to audition I emailed the directors asking if really anyone was allowed to audition…  The directors also said, before auditions, that they wanted a diverse cast. And they were successful in having that diversity (not even in just race, but in gender and sexuality, too). Diversity that was thoughtful of what roles students would play,” she remarked. “It’s the way these professors specifically handled not only the casting but the processes, as well. For ‘Labyrinth,’ there were lots of careful discussions surrounding any and all heavy topics (mainly suicidal ideation in transgender, gender fluid, nonbinary, etc. individuals. Also the eurocentric perceptions of the telenovela style), which says a lot considering it was generally a comedic show.” 

Scarlatoiu highlights show selection and casting processes from a student perspective, as well as the dialogue surrounding it. “The main concerns are about avoiding catering to the majority of white students and focusing too much on the traumatic history of People of Color (POC),” she says. “There are so many reasons pertaining outside of Muhlenberg as to why our theater department is mostly white students… Kaja Dunn brought up a great point in doing shows that call for POC so that prospective students of color can see that Muhlenberg is a place for them. So I find it a little troubling when I hear white students say that the department should be catering to its majority. In my opinion, there is no issue in having reserved opportunities for students of color because without them, we can only assume most shows will continue to be a majority of white students. I feel the issues come from approaches and processes, not characters of color.” 

There has recently been lots of emphasis placed on show processes. Many have called attention to who needs to be involved in order to truly create a more equitable space- intimacy coordinators, councilors, dramaturgs, etc. 

Gavino underscores the importance of an artistic platform and how it is used for change. “Dance is for everyBODY. It is the first method of communication. Theater and Dance has also historically been a modality for storytelling and transformative justice. In indigenous practices, it is a method of sharing news. It has the power to change minds. However, if we are not aware of its power, we can be sending messages of inequities- such as having one narrative, form, or style as more important than another.” It is important for the Theatre and Dance department to continue learning how to properly communicate this through their work. 

“One of Professor Dunn’s main goals is to help us create a culture around antiracism in the department, a shared language and understanding of what consistent practice versus posturing means,” says Dean. “I think the better tomorrow for Theatre & Dance is here with each and every day we show up and do the work and probably most importantly, support each other in this difficult work rather than shaming and blaming. White supremacy culture is centuries old, insidious, invisible and therefore largely unquestioned. It is accepted as the status quo. And so it is very difficult to undo. Holding each other accountable with love and grace will go a long way and make every tomorrow a better one. The goal in front of us right now, I think, is to have common parlance on what antiracism means, and to practice it in support of each other rather than weaponizing it to tear each other down. That goes for faculty, staff and students in the department, in my opinion.”

Dunn contributed to the forum by speaking about how Muhlenberg, as a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), frames the conversations we have about equity, emphasizing that it is important to speak from your own experiences as opposed to speaking on behalf of others and encouraging the community to reflect on the heaviness and responsibility placed on people of color adjuncts and guest artists to come in and fix our system. Dunn also talked about the challenges that come with making big changes to the way the department is structured, and the importance of taking small and careful, yet important steps in order to initiate effective change.

Robles-Moreno adds, “I always tell my students that anti-racism is a long-long-term project. We will not ‘solve racism’ with a workshop (even with such an amazing person as Kaja Dunn). There will be ups and downs, productive moments and moments when microaggressions and white privilege will tear us down. But the anti-racism work must continue, within Muhlenberg and beyond. I hope our students can bring anti-racist action wherever they go, and that we are more and more equipped to offer them tools to transform the theater industry.”

Bringing in Dunn was just one of these steps, but the Theatre and Dance Department continues to introduce more, namely the formation of The Department of Theatre & Dance Anti-Racism Action Plan Working Group, headed by Dean, Robles-Morena, Gavino, Professor of Theatre Troy Dwyer, and Professor of Theatre Matt Moore, Ph.D.

Our task force was created last year to be a proactive body of faculty representatives that will continually and consistently address and bolster antiracism education and practices for our faculty, staff and students,” stated Dean. “We brought in Natashia Lindsey, Ph.D., from Central Washington University last year to help our faculty and staff begin to name the ways in which systemic racism and white supremacy culture has shown up in the department historically and in the present tense and to begin collectively dreaming antiracist ways forward, ways of unlearning and ways of reparation. We also hosted a couple of roundtable discussions among faculty and students about practices of identity conscious casting.”

Many faculty members see clear areas of improvement within the structure of both the curriculum and the department itself. “We know we need to make changes both in the curriculum and the co-curriculum to decenter whiteness and to engage meaningfully with cultural and theatrical traditions that are not Western-centered,” says Robles-Moreno. “There is a slow but sustained move towards decolonizing our syllabi, and to bring different voices to the season selection, so that students from the global majority are not tokenized and/or isolated. In an ideal world, anti-racism wouldn’t be reactive (meant to undo harm after it has been done) but a form of world-making (creating an environment where race relations exist as a form to build from difference and not pretending to not see what makes us unique).”

As for Dunn, she plans to hold Zoom meetings with theatre and dance faculty to talk about policy, and hold forums where they can express what they hope to see in the future of the department. She also plans to return in the spring to hold more discussions.

That being said, there is much more progress to be made in terms of general equity. Students and faculty continue to navigate the creation of safe and inclusive spaces, with a collective hope to create an environment of approachability and collaboration. However, this does not mean that the problems have disappeared. In fact, people have already expressed concern about the casting process for next semester’s season– specifically for “Head Over Heels,” a musical featuring transgender and gender non-conforming characters. 

“Change takes time,” Gavino strongly states. “I plan to change this through tenacity, consistency, and vigilance. I hope that this article can also help reach out to the theater and dance community that we need active engagement in these conversations as an important first step to change. The fight against racism should not end after the pandemic ended, after BLM protests, after things returned to ‘normalcy’.”

Dean encourages students to continue with their involvement and avocation about these concerns. “Participate! Come to all the events with Kaja Dunn and any roundtables the department will be holding in the spring! More info about that will be forthcoming. The best way to help create the culture you want to see is to get educated about what that culture actually is and the ways in which we can go about making it together. It takes the entire community doing this work for it to be most immediately effective. True community is not top-down. It is a big table where everyone has a seat and everyone has enough to eat.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here