Confronting the past and striving for a more equitable future

President Harring apologizes for offensive aspects of a past theatrical production.

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Photo by Meghan Bruhn ’24

On Sept. 13, College President Kathleen Harring issued a statement regarding a past incident of racial insensitivity. Specifically, a 2010 Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre production of “The Mikado” was brought to the attention of the administration. The theatrical performance, set in Japan, outfitted some of its actors in yellowface. Yellowface is the practice of using makeup to mimic the appearance of a person of East Asian descent. These incidents came to light after a ‘Berg alumnus reached out to the Asian Student Association, who in turn presented the information to the president and various administrators. 

In addition to the offensive on-stage practices, a video filmed during the rehearsal process of the show by a student was also brought to the fore. “The backstage video had turned up on social media and served to spur the outreach about “The Mikado” and the impact it had,” according to Harring. “The video displayed overtly racist behaviors and was posted on an individual’s personal social media.” However, the owner has since removed the video from their profile. 

Harring emphasized in her email to the student body that “The video of past student behavior coupled with the production of “The Mikado” are important reminders that we must be diligent in considering the selection of works we offer in our community and must consider the ways they may influence or give rise to overt and implicit bias actions by community members.”

In a statement from the president’s office to The Weekly, several statistics highlighting the College’s push to incorporate diverse perspectives were included. The office expressed that “This year 48 percent of the full-time faculty hired by the College are from underrepresented communities and our incoming first-year class is just over 23 percent students of color—the most we have seen at the College.”

The President’s Diversity Advisory Council (PDAC) will also be assessing efforts and initiatives that are already underway. Their review of the diversity and equity initiatives’ progress will be released toward the end of October. According to the president’s office, “This report will provide much more detail on the work we have done to date.”

“[t]his year 48% of the full-time faculty hired by the College are from underrepresented communities and our incoming first-year class is just over 23 percent students of color—the most we have seen at the College.”

Muhlenberg’s theatre and dance department addressed their particular commitment to lifting up marginalized voices in their work. They stated that their “practices concerning casting, production design and show selection have evolved significantly and purposefully in recent years to more thoughtfully consider the experience of communities of color, both as performers and audience.”

More specifically, James Peck, Ph.D, the chair of the theatre department shared his thoughts on the issues at hand. He emphasized that “On many registers, the theatre program is striving for a more inclusive culture.” 

This is particularly evident in the department’s upcoming season of theatrical shows, all of which choose to spotlight underrepresented communities, including LGBTQ+ and Latinx people. Peck reiterated this sentiment saying, “We are aiming to offer productions by and about people of diverse social identities, and to cast and stage them in ways that demonstrate respect both for the communities represented and for the performers involved. This was a core principle of the season selection process this year, and I am confident it will remain so in the future.” 

“The courage of students then and now who speak up about injustice has made us a better community. And yet, we know we have much more work to do to fully realize the ideals of equity and inclusion for all members of the Muhlenberg community. We must remain committed to this collective effort as we begin a new academic year.”

In addition to the diverse season, a panel—organized by Visiting Assistant Professor Ethan Philbrick—will be held focusing on the unfortunate history and legacy of yellowface in the theatrical realm. While the exact details of the event are not confirmed, Peck stated that it “will feature several preeminent Asian American scholars that will gather on Zoom in the next few weeks.” 

The president expressed gratitude towards the students that brought these occurrences to light and aided the College in its efforts to become increasingly equitable. Harring noted, “The courage of students, then and now, who speak up about injustice has made us a better community.  And yet, we know we have much more work to do to fully realize the ideals of equity and inclusion for all members of the Muhlenberg community. We must remain committed to this collective effort as we begin a new academic year.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hope the ” report ” will start with the removal of Harring in favor of hiring a respected educator and returning the college to it’s tradition of educational excellence instead of pablum spewing insipid crap like this !

  2. I believe the inaugural production in the then-brand-new Center for the Arts was “Tommy.” I am wondering if there will be an apology for appropriating the disability of a ‘deaf, dumb, and blind boy.”

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