Student letter regarding racism brings big change to ‘Berg theatre and dance

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The Center for the Arts. Photo used with permission of Muhlenberg Office of Communications.

On May 30, Charles Richter, professor of theatre and dance, was asked for a statement regarding the recent acts of racism and hatred in America by a patron of the Summer Music Theatre program. He responded with a brief message copied and pasted from President Harring’s May 28 email to the Muhlenberg community. On June 1, the theatre and dance department sent out the first response to its students. Initially, students were sent a short video from Troy Dwyer, theatre and dance department chair and associate professor of theatre, and a short message affirming the department’s support of students “as our nation is convulsed by grief.” Maereg Gebretekle ‘22 was dissatisfied with Richter’s and the department’s responses, so on June 4 she sent a letter to the theatre faculty addressing concerns of the department’s handling of race in both its curriculum and its co-curricular productions with several hundred signatures from Muhlenberg community members. 

Before the theatre and dance department had released any public statement at all, Gebretekle, as well as Elizabeth Muriel ’23 and Britney Jara ’23, had written a statement on behalf of the Muhlenberg Theatre Association (MTA) regarding the issues around racism in the department. Muriel currently serves as the inclusivity and equity chair of the MTA, and Jara is this year’s Marginalized Voices/Theatre Arts Festival coordinator. This written statement was sent to every member of the MTA on June 1 at 8:33 p.m. The statement shows support and solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, includes multiple resources and foundations for students to donate to and educate themselves and addresses how imperative it is to support diversity and equity at predominantly white institutions like Muhlenberg. The theatre and dance department’s first video response addressing the racial tensions of recent days came just under two hours later, with the short message attached. The department also sent out a longer written statement on June 2, which included a commitment to the principles of anti-racism. This statement mentioned both revisiting casting practices and looking at the historical racism of the field of performance, but it remained without any specific actionable points.

“The theatre community deserves more than a copy and paste,” Gebretekle asserted. “My goal was to start the process of change within the department, because this letter is not a one-stop shop to end racism. I hope that students and faculty continue to have these conversations and follow it up with genuine actions and a desire to understand the life of BIPOC students. I hope this is a start of a serious institutional change and that students continue to fight for what is right. Every single person has the power to stand up to injustice.”

Over 400 students and alumni added their signatures to Gebretekle’s letter in support of a more inclusive environment for all students and holding the department accountable for past racist practices. In the letter, she discussed multiple occurrences of racism in the theatre department, such as the all-white cast of The Importance of Being Earnest and the lack of classes centered around Black theatre and performance. Gebretekle also discussed concerns of whether conversations about color-conscious casting were being had, the “the lack of productions that centralize around the experiences of people of color,” the need for more professors of color and competency and bias training for all faculty and staff.

“As an Latinx theatre major, I have really seen how crucial it is for us to make some sort of change in my first year at Muhlenberg,” Muriel said. “After I got cast in my first production last fall, I got a lot of hurtful comments from my peers. One student even made an offhand comment about how amazed she was that I was ‘Hispanic’ and ‘talented’ as if the two were mutually exclusive.”

Theatre loves to show off diversity and be ‘progressive,’ yet consistently endorses anti-blackness. People of color get very few chances to showcase their talents and when they finally do get those opportunities, white people often complain as though something has been stolen from them instead of acknowledging the importance of showcasing stories by and about other cultures besides their own.

Elizabeth Muriel ’23

“This is exactly why the curriculum is so important, and I am very glad Maereg addressed that in her letter,” finished Muriel.

“Although it was only my first year, I could already see the lack of representation in the theatre department, curriculum, and season,” Jara said. “As a person of color, we have to work twice as hard to be seen in general, and even to be seen at the same level of a white person in theatre. I want to see more representation of all races and ethnicities. I should be able to speak to more than one person in the department about these struggles without being afraid I’ll be ‘blacklisted.’ The curriculum should require more history about people of color, and we should do more shows that are not originally centered around white people.”

“I signed the letter because Maereg [Gebretekle] is not alone in the questions and concerns she’s posed to the theatre department,” said Michelle Rajan ‘21, a neuroscience major. “That letter was an act of courage and my signature was a small way of showing that I stand by it. My signature means that I will aid in holding the theatre and dance department accountable alongside our black theatre students of color in any way that I can. Maereg [Gebretekle] is starting a conversation that requires the participation of all Muhlenberg students, even outside of the theatre and dance department, so that we can enact change together as a community.”

On June 4, the theatre and dance department responded to Gebretekle’s letter, taking responsibility for “the very real harm done to students, faculty and staff by the Department’s longtime failure to adequately adopt anti-racist practices, and for our complicity in systems that perpetuate white-supremacy.” The department also included a short video recorded by Dwyer, where he stressed the importance of these concerns as well as establishing a plan to start discussions about moving towards a more inclusive program for all students.

Over the course of the next two weeks, the theatre department sent out a variety of emails to students. On June 7, Dwyer acknowledged that they had been reviewing the letter, and provided some updates on their progress in meeting with other theatre and dance faculty in creating a response to students’ concerns. On June 9, Dwyer said students would likely receive a first draft of ideas on June 11, but that the process could be delayed. On June 12, another email, with a video update attached regarding faculty meetings, was sent out with assurances that an action plan was on its way and that the delays were in no way meant to quell the movement. On June 15, Dwyer said that both Brooke Vick, associate provost for faculty and diversity initiatives, and Lin-Chi Wang, associate dean of students and director of equity and Title IX, were being included in conversations about how to move forward more equitably. He added that a petition had been submitted by dance students and alumni requesting that an analogous process of reformation be considered for the dance program, which he said was being undertaken in part by Jeffrey Peterson, associate professor of dance and incoming director of the dance program. In total, theatre and dance students received five emails from the department regarding the letter over the thirteen days between its distribution and the release of the resulting plan.  

On June 17, theatre and dance students received an email from the department regarding a four-part action plan for the future, which included revamping of the current theatre curriculum for the incoming Class of 2024, requiring those students to take “at least one course about minoritized or marginalized theatre/performance traditions.” Current theatre and dance students’ introductory classes will also be centered around “the experiences, perspectives, scholarship, movement traditions, and performances of Black, indigenous and people of color, and people of otherwise non-Western cultures, and critiques of whiteness and white supremacy that underpin disciplinary work in Theatre and Dance education, technique, and performance.” In addition to new major and minor requirements, the department also addressed anti-racism initiatives for co-curricular activities as well, such as reevaluating the department’s plans for season shows and guest artists in the 2020-2021 academic year in order to include the experiences of people of color. The department also expressed that they will actively recruit more BIPOC, as well as establish diversity committees to ensure an accepting environment for all students. Two new Theatre and Dance Anti-Racism Advisory Councils will be formed, one group for students and one for alumni, with more information to follow in the coming weeks.

When asked what steps the department was taking to address race before students reached out, Dwyer responded, “It’s tempting for white people to point out the ways we may have contributed constructively in anti-racist ways in the past. It would be a mistake for the department to go that route and say, ‘But we’ve done X and we’ve done Y, and those were good things, right?’ That’s not what this national rebellion for Black lives is about, and that’s not what I see in the petition. This isn’t about what the department has done, it’s about what it hasn’t done, and about what it still must do.”

Matt Moore, assistant professor of theatre, commented, “The department’s response, which I wholeheartedly endorse, is a gesture of good faith—a short list of immediate structural and personal changes that function not as an entire solution, but as a strong beginning and evidence that we intend to follow through. I’m looking forward to what I hope will feel like a changing atmosphere in the department, and expect that the department’s future will be characterized by deeper, more open, honest, and frequent dialogue between faculty, staff, and students.”

On the dance petition, Dwyer commented, “I’ve been really heartened by the group of dance students and alumni who contacted us this past weekend. They’re calling attention to some very dance-specific concerns, and telling the Dance Program in particular to make anti-racism a fundamental value, and to make confronting anti-Blackness a fundamental practice. Jeffrey Peterson, the incoming Director of the Dance Program, has been corresponding with these students and alums, and has initiated work with the dance faculty on a response. I know Jeffrey will be sharing the list of concerns with the wider Theatre & Dance community next week, as well as information about an action-plan process.”

Moving forward, there will be a Zoom discussion held by students on Friday, June 19, at 6 p.m. to further discuss the department’s response to Gebretekle’s letter. Attendees will have the opportunity to be placed in breakout rooms to speak with others about the response as well as ways to continuously combat racism and anti-blackness in the theatre and dance department. Other ways students can get involved is by commenting on the department’s Facebook page, emailing Dwyer directly or scheduling a Zoom appointment through the department’s accountability office hours to voice any questions, concerns or stories. Dwyer has also started a short video series to answer each of the questions raised in Gebretekle’s letter, with the first sent on June 19 addressing questions around casting.

“I know this is a process and won’t all change right away, but any change is a start,” added Jara. “Seeing Troy [Dwyer] send out emails updating us and the faculty in the theatre department showing their support, that’s already a change for us people of color, and it’s greatly appreciated.” 

Update 4:24 p.m., 6/19/2020: An earlier version of this piece called the short message attached to the department’s June 1 video statement a copy-paste of Harring’s statement, when that designation actually belongs to Charlie Richter’s May 30 private correspondence with a concerned patron, which was also not previously mentioned in the piece. We apologize for any confusion.

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