University of Utah theater program again faces criticism about representation and casting, cancels show

Students raised concerns about a musical number usually performed by a Black actor, by a cast without any Black members.

(Photo courtesy of Cast A of "Songs for a New World" ) The University of Utah Department of Theatre canceled performances of "Songs for a New World" after the cast raised questions about race and representation. The musical includes a character usually played by a Black performer, but there were no Black students in the cast.

The University of Utah’s theater department has canceled its production of “Songs for a New World.” Instead of performances continuing through Saturday, the theater is dark, the cast is at home, and there are no plans to present the show at the U. at anytime in the future.

The decision to produce “Songs for a New World” was made because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell, interim chair of the department. And she and the faculty and staff decided to cancel it due to concerns about representation and casting — areas where the department had vowed to improve after issues were raised by students last year, and earlier, in 2016.

Students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color sent President Ruth Watkins, U. trustees and the department a letter in July 2020 saying they felt “unsafe, exploited, belittled and unwelcome” in the U.’s classrooms and productions due to pressure to perform in stereotypical roles, among other issues.

Cheek-O’Donnell said last summer that she was 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.

However, she said, no one in the department immediately recognized the problem they’d have with “Songs for a New World,” which includes a character usually played by a Black performer, although there were no Black students in the department’s chosen cast.

At one point, the department explored having white actors instead sing the song about that character.

“The feedback that we received and the discussions that the faculty and staff were having about this — the fact that we had failed to recognize the importance of identity in the show — ultimately led us to cancel the show,” she said.

But that occurred only after about two months of rehearsals and about two weeks before the show was scheduled to go on.

Danny Borba, a junior in the actor training program who was in the cast of “Songs for a New World,” made it clear that he “loves the department,” but said he’s “also getting tired of dealing with everything.” Borba, who is Mexican and Argentine, was involved in producing the July letter to the department.

“We brought up issues about casting and representation heavily over the last year. We had so many conversations,” he said. “And for them to not have any identity awareness or even any BIPOC influence in the creative team — it made me very angry.”

According to Cheek-O’Donnell, the music director was “a self-identified person of color.” She conceded: “This department has made mistakes in the past, and we seem to keep stepping in it because we haven’t learned yet.”

Choosing ‘Songs’

Late last summer, the theater department’s faculty and staff were hoping that things would return to more or less normal by now and they could return to a more-or-less-normal production schedule. When it became clear, early in the fall semester, that would not be the case, the department decided to cancel a production of “Shrek the Musical,” which has a large cast and could not be adapted to COVID-19 restrictions.

The search began for another musical that would allow them to use the existing cast from “Shrek,” would require a maximum of five actors on stage at a time and could be staged with cast members at least 10 feet apart. And had licensing rights for live streaming.

“That’s a pretty heavy lift, just just in terms of finding any titles that fit the bill,” Cheek-O’Donnell said.

“Songs for a New World” seemed to be an answer. It’s not a traditional musical — it’s more of a song cycle centered on the theme of the moment of decision.

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown and first produced off Broadway in 1995, it had only four cast members. That number could be expanded to include more actors — the U. double cast the show with nine actors in each — but never more than four onstage at the same time.

“So there were all these things that sort of made it seem like a really good choice for COVID,” Cheek-O’Donnell said. “The challenge was that we were dealing with a cast that already existed and did not include an African American performer, and one of the songs seems to be written sort of from the point of view of an African American character.”

“The Steam Train” is sung by a character who’s a young man in an urban environment who sees basketball as the way to change his life. The lyrics include, “Brother, I’m the brother you call to play,” and “Better watch your step, better watch your back. ‘Cause you’ll see a shadow, fast and black.”

Black actor Billy Porter, who’s gone on to win a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy, sang the song in the original production, and it’s been performed primarily by Black actors in subsequent professional productions.

As rehearsals began in January, students suggested focusing the song on another BIPOC student or hiring a Black actor to join the cast. The production staff tried to adapt the staging to address the issue.

“They decided to change it up,” Borba said. “They had four white actors sing about this Black kid.” Cheek-O’Donnell also said they explored shooting a video that featured an Black youth actor and spoke dialogue because they couldn’t increase the size of the cast because of the pandemic.

According to Borba, “It wasn’t the BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) members of the cast who brought it up, it was the white cast members. And they said they were uncomfortable with singing this song.”

The cast members who immediately raised concerns about that plan had “legitimate” concerns, Cheek-O’Donnell said.

At the suggestion of students, members of the local Black community were consulted, and there were “ongoing” discussions involving director David Eggers, the production staff, students, cast members and faculty “trying to figure out how to deal with this” while rehearsals were continuing, Cheek-O’Donnell said.

Based on those discussions, she decided to cancel the show. “Everybody wants to create a space that is welcoming to our BIPOC students and BIPOC artists,” she said.

She added that the faculty made the decision to produce “Songs for a New World” without any Black cast members when they were in “COVID crisis mode … and when you’re in crisis mode, you’re not learning a whole lot. It’s a process that takes time.”

“We got to the point where we were basically ready to do our show,” Borba said, “and we had a Zoom call and they told us all that it had been canceled because they hadn’t come up with a good solution.”

‘The show must go on’

“Personally speaking, I am glad that the department decided to cancel the show,” Borba said. “What really made us mad was that it was brought up very, very early in the rehearsal process. We spoke up and what we were told was, ‘OK, we’ll figure it out.’”

That answer was due, in part, to “the show must go on mentality” that’s a “very difficult habit to break,” Cheek-O’Donnell said.

“We thought, ‘Oh, we can solve this problem. It’s a creative challenge and we’ll figure it out,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it wasn’t possible to solve it in the ways that we had available to us at the time.”

But by delaying the decision, students spent a lot of time rehearsing for a show that will never be performed, “which is something that we’re not paid for, we’re actually paying to do,” Borba said. “And a lot of our students had to say no to a lot of opportunities.”

That included at least one cast member “who had to quit her job because of the time commitment,” he said. “… This could have been avoided. Sorry to sound so crass, but it was just stupid.”

Cheek-O’Donnell offered her apologies to the students, and acknowledged, “They made a lot of sacrifices to work on the show. And I know it was a real hardship for them. And it really stinks.”

In making the decision to cancel, she said, “We had to choose between two sets of harm. It was a really hard choice because we knew that no matter what we did, people were going to be angry and people would be hurt. And we had to decide, well, what’s the least harmful choice that we can make?”

She added: “I knew we weren’t going to make everybody happy at the end of the day. It wasn’t necessarily about numbers. It felt to me more about harm reduction. I mean, it just sucks.”

Cheek-O’Donnell said the department has spent the past few months “engaged in some pretty deep work on equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism,” creating policy and training staff.

“The department is definitely very much engaged in trying to make sure, obviously, nothing like this ever happens again,” she said, “but it’s a process that takes time.”

(University of Utah) This screenshot from the University of Utah Department of Theater's website shows an announcement canceling the production of "Songs for a New World."