University of Utah’s theater students of color describe systemic racism and call for change

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah Department of Theatre) Benjamin Young (center) in a 2019 production of “The Odyssey.”

Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students have sent a clear message to the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre: “You have lost our trust.”

In a letter to President Ruth Watkins, U. trustees and the department, the students said they feel “unsafe, exploited, belittled and unwelcome” in the U.’s classrooms and productions due to pressure to perform in stereotypical roles. They also list a curriculum that includes few plays that tell the stories of people of color and describe experiencing microaggressions — indirect or subtle instances of discrimination.

Inspired by the national focus on systemic inequalities, the students said, they saw an opportunity to speak up about structural racism within the theater department. They list 10 suggestions for how to “begin to dismantle our white-centric institutions and make positive change.”

In one example, students asked the department to change its vernacular to “create an environment that no longer alienates nonwhite bodies.” That includes banning phrases like “Utah Black” to refer to actors of color who are not Black being cast in roles that are specific to African American characters. They also want to ban using “ethnically ambiguous” or “urban” to refer to students of color.

“If you do not have the actors to fill a role,” they wrote, “that show is not appropriate for our institution.”

Aathaven Tharmarajah, a 20-year-old Sri Lankan American student in the musical theater program, said that main cause of problems is that the theater department doesn’t have discussions with teachers or students about race. He experienced racism firsthand, he said, when a white classmate asked him if he would be able to play Richie Walters, a Black character in the musical “A Chorus Line.”

(Photo courtesy of Aathaven Tharmarajah) Aathaven Tharmarajah, 20, is a rising junior at the university in the musical theater program.

“A classmate asked me if I would be able to play Richie even though I’m not Black, I just have dark skin,” the junior said. “A lot of people just don’t understand how culturally inappropriate that is. ... I think we need to be able to create some sort of anti-racist program or training for all of our students just so they’re more aware.”

In a written response to the students’ letter, interim department chairwoman Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell wrote that a “long overdue” statement on the issues is “forthcoming,” and that “anti-racism work has already begun.”

Cheek-O’Donnell — a longtime faculty member who became interim department chairwoman just last week — said in an interview that she didn’t know of any specific incidents when students were made to feel unsafe or unwelcome, but she didn’t dispute the accuracy of the letter.

“I haven’t had the same experiences they have. I can’t speak to their experiences,” she said. “But we hear them, and we’re going to work to make this better.”

She’s meeting with members of the group next week. On Friday, students meet with the head of the musical theater program.

“I’m really looking forward to working with the BIPOC student community — and with the faculty and the rest of our students — to try to find a way to do theater that actually is inclusive and diverse,” Cheek-O’Donnell said, “which I don’t think we’ve done, as a whole. It’s time for this to happen.”

A step back?

The department has pledged reform before. After students raised similar concerns in 2016, the department adopted a “color-conscious” casting policy, among other measures. It says “color-conscious casting intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the character they play in order to oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world.”

It also says the department “will always work diligently to cast actors of the appropriate race, ethnicity, or gender identity when a script requires us to do so,” including casting community members if there are not enough students of color to fill the roles.

Martine Kei Green-Rogers was one of two faculty members who drafted the policy. She’s now on the faculty at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and — after being contacted by Utah BIPOC students — she also signed their letter.

”What makes me really sad is that, from speaking to the students, it actually seems like the place has regressed since we left,” she said. “In the last letter, there wasn’t a focus on classes because there were classes that actually fulfilled some of what they’re asking for. What happened?”

Students asked that changes be made to their course curriculum to include more productions written by people of color.

And some of the students’ requests are the same as those raised four years ago, Green-Rogers said. Faculty members and staff “need to work on themselves,” she added. “It’s no longer acceptable to not. … I am concerned about whether the department in its former and current incarnations can actually do the work that the students are asking for.”

For Jonathan Onyango, a 19-year-old Kenyan musical theater student, the feeling of being unwelcome comes from feeling an expectation that he will perform stereotypical scripts or sing certain songs based on his ethnicity. He takes private voice lessons from a faculty member, he said, who often tells him he would be a “good fit” for stereotypically Black roles.

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Onyango) Jonathan Onyango, 19, is a rising sophomore in the University of Utah's musical theater program.

Last year, Onyango was asked to perform a monologue of a Black character in “The Great Debaters,” which described the character’s experience witnessing several Black people being lynched. He said he didn’t want to perform the monologue and asked to perform a scene from “Les Misérables,” but was pressured to take the role.

As a freshman in his second semester at the time, Onyango felt like he needed to take any opportunity to build experience. Looking back, he wishes he hadn’t.

“You should never compromise your morals,” he said. The student letter asks the department to “return agency to BIPOC students in whether or not to perform material ‘typical’ to their race and ethnicity.”

Francesca Hsieh, a 21-year-old senior who is Chinese and white, said she also is concerned about the theater department “white washing” — casting roles written specifically for a person of color with a white actor instead.

“If you cast these people of color as white people,” she said, “it becomes sort of like a further level of oppression that these [groups] have already systemically experienced.”

Hsieh said she experienced blatant racism as a sophomore in the university’s department in an interaction with a professor. During a dance class, Hsieh said, the professor claimed to to have realized what her problem was, what was wrong with her as a dancer.

The professor explained by comparing Hsieh’s performance to that of the only other Asian woman in the musical theater program, saying they both struggled with confidence while dancing, Hsieh said. The professor said the other dancer — who wasn’t in Hsieh’s class or year of schooling — had fixed the problem.

Hsieh said the professor “said all of these very humiliating, horrible things to me in front of everybody.”

Hsieh’s mother called the Office of Equal Opportunity in anger, but Hsieh asked to drop the complaint, fearing she would face retribution for reporting the incident.

Students also asked in the letter for one or more productions per season that center the stories and voices of BIPOC writers and characters. It’s important to advocate for more stories written for BIPOC actors, so they’re not all limited to performing in a few shows, Tharmarajah said.

Hsieh said the department scheduled one play written by a BIPOC playwright in the past season, “Everybody,” by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, but it was canceled due to the pandemic.

Expanding dance

(Photo courtesy of Francesca Hsieh) Francesca Hsieh, 21, is a rising senior in University of Utah's musical theater program.

(Photo courtesy of Danny Borba) Danny Borba, 20, in a headshot taken to apply for acting roles. Borba is a rising junior in University of Utah's Actor Training Program.

Danny Borba, a junior in the actor training program who is Mexican and Argentine, said students want to tell their stories of being Black, Latino or Asian, but they also face “almost a sense of if we do tell them, we’re doing a disservice to our cultures ... because there’s a sense of we have to live up to what the white audience or what the white professors want us to be.”

He said the students would love to have more professors of color, but they know “how hard it is to be the only or one of the few persons of color in a department with our environment.”

He also said students asked that ballet no longer be referred to or considered as the top of the dance hierarchy, and for students to have opportunities to do more hip-hop, jazz and other styles of dance.

“If golden aged (old school Broadway) dance is the only thing being emphasized,” Borba wrote in a text, “how are we supposed to be going into a field where hip-hop or contemporary is being emphasized with shows like ‘Hamilton', ‘Mean Girls,' ‘Moulin Rouge’ and SO many other musicals.”

Cheek-O’Donnell said she’s committed to many of the items the BIPOC students requested, including being “color conscious” in the selection of productions and in casting, investigating complaints within the department and instituting anti-racism training for faculty and staff.

Under former department chair Gage Williams, faculty and staff did receive anti-racism training, she said, but that was three or four years ago. Smith prioritized increased recruitment, she said. “His hope was that we would also increase the diversity of the student body by recruiting students from more diverse communities.”

He put a three-year plan in place; the department is at the end of the second year and hasn’t analyzed results yet, she said. The letter from BIPOC students calls for recruiting more diverse students and more diverse faculty, and the latter is problematic, she said. The university currently has a hiring freeze, “and that complicates things,” Cheek-O’Donnell said.

“As a state institution,” she added, “we can’t really ban the use of language,” referring to the letter’s request to ban phrases such as “Utah Black.” But the department can “educate the faculty and staff about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate,” she said, and make sure that that language does not appear in casting calls.

“We’re going to make sure that our language follows best practices in terms of inclusivity,” she said, “rather than using terms that are racist.”

Cheek-O’Donnell said she isn’t trying to minimize the problems at the U., but added they are part of a bigger issue: American theater has long been dominated by white people, and the majority of productions have featured primarily white casts.

“The moment we’re in right now has put us in a place where we have to stop. We can’t do what we usually do,” she said. “And I think that’s good for us as an industry and as a department. … Part of my job as a department chair right now is to provide opportunities for our whole community, including our faculty and staff, to learn about these things.”

Tharmarajah said he’s “really glad the conversation is starting” with the department. “I’m excited to see where the conversation goes and what we actually start doing.”

BIPOC students in the department describe more of their experiences with racism on the Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/bipoc.aa/.