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Backlash leads Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance to commit to change



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The cast of “Hamlet” stands on stage Dec. 3, 2019, during the first act in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre. Director Jonathan Michaelsen cast more women than men in this production of “Hamlet.” Elle Kreamer

On May 25, George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer. Black voices were amplified as protests surged across the nation. On June 1, Indiana University’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance made a statement addressing the nationwide reckoning with race institutions are now undergoing on its Instagram. The statement said the department was committed to creating a safe space for all voices, especially oppressed ones.

A frequent point of criticism is that the statement didn't go into specifics, including not even using the word "Black."

“It was vague,” Peter Ruiz, a third-year graduate student in the MFA acting program and diversity representative on the Student Advisory Board, said of the original post. “It was very much a blanket statement.” 

Many students in the department took to the comments to criticize the statement. Adrianne Embry was the first to comment on the post. 

“I’m not an advocate for the phrase ‘trying,’” Embry said. “I believe that if you’re trying, you don’t want it bad enough.” 

Embry, a founder of the university’s Black, Brown and Beige Theatre Troupe, has spoken before about the department’s lack of diversity in race and theater. But speaking out has been hard, she said. 

“I’ve been afraid to say something,” she said. “Nobody wants to get blackballed. I care so much about my career.” 

Recent MFA playwriting graduate Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin felt disheartened when she first saw the post. 

“I don’t think it talks specifically about Black lives and why they matter,” she said. “That was pretty disappointing.” 

The backlash led to a follow-up statement posted on June 3 that committed to systemic change.

The follow-up post commits to the following action steps in the 2020-21 academic year: Anti-bias training for faculty and staff, transparency regarding programming, a commitment that 50% of productions in the 2021-22 season will be written by women and/or artists of color and a review of the curriculum by the Climate Committee will include the concerns of BIPOC artists and scholars.

“We stand in solidarity against these relentless and horrific acts of murder and violence,” the statement said. “Black Lives Matter. We chose not to remove the original statement because we value your responses, and this is a teachable moment for us. We recognize that this is not a one-time fix, but an ongoing process of anti-racist interventions that must be central to all that we do."

The response to the statement was kinder, but members of the community are still skeptical. 

“It’s definitely a strong step, but I honestly wish that’s where they started,” Garvin said. “I know students have been raising the idea of anti-bias training with the administration for a while now.” 

Ruiz said that the statement was a step, but the department needs to be held accountable to follow through on their promises.

“What does it mean to go beyond 50% and to not just center white voices? And how do we do that in a way that is ethically responsible?”

They said this situation isn’t unique to IU. 

“Here are the issues,” they said. “We’re naming them. Now we’re finessing how we can actually move beyond that, which is sort of where everyone’s at currently in the theater world.”

The “and/or” in the commitment that 50% of productions in the 2021-22 season will be written by women and/or artists of color was a point of contention.

Garvin said she ran across a tweet that mentioned the phrasing could be meant as white women and people of color. 

“That phrase, and the season being composed of women and people of color is not necessarily actually doing anything for women of color or nonbinary people of color,” she said. “I definitely think diversifying the season is a good first step and also making sure that the season when it is diverse is equal.”

Embry echoed this sentiment. 

“I recognize that women's voices are not heard as much as they need to be heard on IU’s stages,” she said. “But that wasn’t the issue at hand. I feel like the 50%, absolutely, should be artists of color.”

As the department moves forward, there is hope that real change can be implemented. Students were optimistic when imagining what the department could look like in the future. 

“What it should look like, what it could look like is that diversity and inclusion of all voices becomes cultural, rather than a plan,” Ruiz said. “That’s the move that we want.” 

“I think the department can definitely take the steps they’ve already talked about,” Garvin said.

Embry talked about members of the department reaching out to her after her comments on the department’s June 1 post. 

“They reached out to me like I’m the one with all the answers,” she said. “And I feel like that’s a trope we put on Black women.” 

She likened it to a math teacher walking students through a math problem. You’ll only retain the information if you do that work for yourself. 

“I’m going to use the opportunity to use my voice to advocate for Black students and other students of color,” she said. “But the first step is to realize that I can’t, or other Black women or women of color cannot, hold their hands through all of this. People are going to have to do that work for themselves.”

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