Third annual ‘Cabaret of Color’ highlights BIPOC performers

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Photo: Courtesy of Angelika Menendez

Let it Sing: A Cabaret of Color

By Campbell Parish and Lucia Thorne

The pandemic may have halted live stage productions, but it can’t stop the Musical Theatre Society’s third annual Cabaret of Color from showcasing Emerson’s BIPOC student talent. 

Created by theatre and performance major Angelika Menendez ‘20 in 2019, the Cabaret of Color shines a spotlight on BIPOC performers without tokenizing their talents, Menendez said. The event will take place on a YouTube live stream on April 3 and 4 at 8 p.m. EST. The show is free, but the Musical Theatre Society is accepting donations on behalf of the Performing Arts Opportunity Fund.

Menendez said the idea for Cabaret of Color came from an assignment in her speech communication class, tasking her to write a speech on a topic she’s passionate about. Menendez chose diversity and inclusion in the theatre industry. 

“I believe that students of color deserve a platform to be seen, to be heard, and to not be tokenized,” Menendez said in an interview with The Beacon. “It’s a platform for students to be able to sing and say what they want in a comfortable environment.”

As a Latinx person, Menendez said the lack of roles for BIPOC and POC performers in the industry became more apparent to her when she moved to Boston, compared to her predominantly Latinx hometown of Miami. Within Miami-Dade County, the population is 69.4 percent Hispanic or Latino when in comparison 19.8 percent in Boston according to the US Census Bureau. 

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“It just made me angry that there weren’t a lot of those opportunities [in Boston],” Menendez said. “There was so much talent in all these students of color that wasn’t being recognized, at Emerson, and also just throughout the world. [Roles in the theatre community] were just constantly going to white people, and that just set me on fire.” 

In the 2018-2019 Visibility Report: Racial Representation on the NYC Stage put out by Asian American Performers Action Coalition, it was reported that nonprofits were slightly more likely to cast BIPOC performers, with only 22.4 percent of roles going to BIPOC actors where a particular race is not specified for the role, but only 16.2 percent of roles went to BIPOC actors in non-racially specific roles on Broadway. 

Just 20 percent of all roles cast were inclusive, the report found. The demographic of writers were 9.6 percent Black, 6.2 percent Asian American, 2.8 percent from the Middle East and North Africa, and 2.3 percent Latinix, the report said.

“There is no need for the same continuous stories to be told the same ways,” Menendez said. “Theater shouldn’t be racist at the end of the day. Excluding BIPOC is being racist, and is gatekeeping. If we were telling BIPOC stories through a BIPOC lens, it would educate and it would empower so much. We need this.”

After Menendez’s speech for her class, she approached the Musical Theatre Society’s president, Timothy Sanders, to discuss her concerns, determined to produce a show to help bring that much-needed change to the stage. 

That paid off, as she left her mark on the Emerson community. The Musical Theatre Society wound up amending their constitution to make the Cabaret of Color a yearly production, during the show’s second run in Spring 2020.   

Students, like featured first-year performer Amarís Rios, said they are excited to be a part of an inclusive environment and continue the legacy of the Cabaret of Color. 

“I’m really grateful that [Menendez] left her mark and created a space for all of us to showcase our talent,” Rios said. 

As a Puerto Rican in musical theatre, Rios said she felt the need to participate in the showcase since the representation of the community, and BIPOC students overall at Emerson, is small.

“As one of the few people of color on campus and [being a musical theater performer], I kind of felt like there was a small amount of pressure to do it. But it was a good amount of pressure, it was the pressure I needed,” Rios said. “You gotta represent. That’s what this cabaret was all about, making sure that you know your community is being represented.” 

Rios said it is isolating to be a person of color at Emerson and she hopes events like this will help start the conversations necessary to instigate change at the college. 

“When I’ve talked about color, it generally is only to the knowledge of the people of color, on campus, and I feel like we need to work on broadening the audience so that I can [reach] people who are not of color and so that we can have other people supporting us,” Rios said. 

Rios said that, while Emerson should hire more faculty of color, students must actively fight against racism and encourage inclusion every day in the classroom and student organizations. 

“Emerson College, as a predominantly white institution, has a lot of catching up to do in terms of amplifying the voices of its BIPOC community,” Rios said. “I’m a firm believer that we create culture. The students have a responsibility to create the living breathing culture that exists on campus, and if not us, then who else will?” 

In July 2020, 300 BIPOC performers wrote a list of demands to white American theater on Playbill detailing what they need and deserve from the industry stating, “Racism and white supremacy are cultural formations constructed to rationalize unjust behavior for economic gain, and eradicating them requires radical change on both cultural and economic fronts.” 

Sophomore musical theatre major Charlotte Odusanya said it’s important to amplify the voices of BIPOC performers within the theatre industry. 

“As much as Black trauma is so important to speak about and it is so valid, there are so many shows that speak on it that are phenomenal and should be shared,” Odusanya said. “It’s also important to show that [people of color can] be in shows about everyday life and have romance and it doesn’t always have to be about Black trauma. I think that it’s important to listen to the voices of people of color.”

First-year theatre and performance student Kwezi Shongwe said she is very proud of her dreadlocks, but that they are not a commonly accepted hairstyle in the theatre industry. Dove  found that Black women are 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as “unprofessional” because of their natural hair, as compared to non-Black women. Black women are also 83 percent more likely to report feeling judged more harshly on their looks compared to other women, the study also found. 

Shongwe said she hopes that performances like the Cabaret of Color will help change the narrative, that no one race or gender needs to be at the forefront of musical theatre. 

“If I am [a role model] for some little girl or child that has dreadlocks, then I’m going to be very happy,” Shongwe said. “A lot of the times there’s so many people [that have] asked me that question [would you] brush out your head and cut your dreadlocks off for a role? No, you want me. You’re gonna get my hair.” 

Although the Cabaret of Color performance will be streamed over YouTube rather than having a live performance, it gives the opportunity for family members to support performers from different parts of the world. Shongwe, who lived in South Africa for 19 years, is excited and nervous to have her friends and family from home watch her perform. 

“The fact that my friends are about to find out—not only [students at Emerson], but literally my friends from South Africa,” Shongwe said. “They’re going to find out how I sing. It actually baffles me. But it’s exciting because I’ve heard my voice grow [since coming to Emerson].”

Shongwe said she is a firm believer that BIPOC performers are the future of the theatre industry and that events such as the Cabaret of Color will set a standard that will positively impact younger performers. 

“We’re just doing songs from any musical,” Shongwe said. “We’re just highlighting people of color, which is nice. I just hope that the people that are seen as the faces of musical theater, it’s not just one type of person anymore.” 

While she enjoyed the entirety of working on the Cabaret of Color, Rios said her favorite part of the process was working on the ensemble number. 

“Working in a choir setting is very empowering because it’s not just about you, it’s about the unit and that’s what this is really all about,” Rios said. “Honestly, it’s about power in numbers, so I think the impact of that choir moment that will be in the performance will be very touching for a lot of people.” 

The group number for the cabaret is “Nothing Without You” from The Theory of Relativity, and each performer has a solo performance. 

“It really brings me joy that such an incredible group of artists want to continue doing this and want to continue seeing the platform,” Menendez said. 

Rios said she hopes that the Emerson community will support Cabaret of Color and that audience members will gain a deeper appreciation for BIPOC artists on campus. According to Rios, the group performance is a song of remorse, but also empowerment.

Featured first-year performer Zachary Greenwald said that the pandemic’s halting of stage production provides the necessary environment to make a change in musical theatre. 

“Now is a good opportunity [to amplify BIPOC performers] because we took a step back from these performances,” Greenwald said. “Before we jump back in [to musical theater without COVID], we need to do it right now is probably the best time because everyone is paying attention because not much is going on.”

Menendez said the Emerson community has a responsibility to support BIPOC individuals, and it’s not BIPOC students’ jobs to educate their white peers.

“Emerson claims to be so woke. You want to do something anti-racist? Support incredible artists of color who have been working so hard and are so talented and watch them and cheer them on and listen to their stories,” Menendez said. “Do not impose your judgment because it is not your place to speak. This is a platform for them to say what they want to say. And we are celebrating joy right now. You want to be an ally? Show up. Literally here is the work done for you, show up and support.” 

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