We Are Here: college theatre programs need to create more inclusivity for students of color

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Photo: Courtesy of Amaris Rios

Pursuing a theatre degree is all dreamy and glamorous—until a faculty member breaks the news that Summer Stock won’t be doing any Lin-Manuel Miranda productions this summer, so “don’t get your hopes up.”

If someone asks me to sing “Breath” from In The Heights one more time, I think I might actually escort myself back to Puerto Rico.

When I auditioned for Emerson’s musical theatre program, I remember sitting in the Paramount dance studio—it was being used as a waiting room. If you ever want to see a sea of Rachel Berry ingenues, crowded into a room, all screlting at once, you should audition for a musical theatre program. I promise you all of your worst Glee nightmares will come true. 

Sitting next to me was the only Black performer in the room. She was from the Bronx, N.Y. and I, a brown Latina from Miami, Florida. I felt incredibly isolated, it felt separate but equal, but much to our blessing in disguise, we stuck out like sore thumbs. 

When I finally arrived in the audition room, I completed my dramatic monologue by Jose Rivera from Sonnets of an Old Century. My auditioner stared deep into the pit of my soul. They smirked and said “you got the chops kid” and followed up with a “so what’s your story?” I couldn’t help but give them the sob story version. It was all true, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that a sob story is exactly what they wanted to hear. 

Pursuing a theatre degree is all dreamy and glamorous—until a faculty member breaks the news that Summer Stock won’t be doing any Lin-Manuel Miranda productions this summer, so “don’t get your hopes up.” Or when musical theatre majors of color get all shaky and awkward when they talk about the EmStage casting process. Or when you missed the age requirement to audition for Marisol so your theater and performance friend says “don’t worry! MTS always does at least one performance that caters to the BIPOC community, you’ll love it”.

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In a myriad of different micro-aggressive ways, there’s always someone who defines you as they see fit. Well, guess what? I refuse to suffer in silence and perpetuate a culture of ‘minority complacency.’ I’m here, I exist, and I matter because I am. 

As a predominantly white institution, Emerson College has a lot of catching up to do in terms of amplifying the voices of the BIPOC community. Because of the economic disparities that exist in this country, higher institutions of learning are overwhelmingly white. Diversification within such institutions becomes a ‘mission’ as opposed to a given, and the imbalance of power is what makes attending a PWI a ‘privilege’ rather than a right. 

Our college administration finds themselves fighting an uphill battle when it comes to encouraging Brown, Black, Asian, and Indigenous American performers to pursue a career in the arts. Using the same tired, passive excuse of “they [people of color] just don’t wanna come here” is simply untrue. The truth is that if our institution fails to invest its endowments into BIPOC excellence, how must they expect lower-income students to trust the financial reward of an arts education? 

It is an irresponsible and blind ask. While finding an easy solution to diversification on the stage can seem rather bleak and tiresome, change wasn’t meant to be easy. Shifting the culture on campus begins with us, the students. 

As one of the most accredited theatre institutions in the country, we cannot ignore that our price for ‘excellence’ has historically come at the expense of excluding the narrative of marginalized voices: our BIPOC community. For the sake of progress, we must admit our faults in order to respond effectively to the social climate within our Emerson community. 

I am a firm believer that the students have a responsibility to create the living, breathing culture that exists on campus. Think about it, when prospective students visit Emerson, they’re not visiting Lee Pelton, they’re visiting us. To propel myself into action, I must understand the confines of the box in order to think outside of it. The truth of the matter is that I’m choosing to thrive within a system that was not made for me to succeed in. 

At the beginning of the year, I was absolutely floored by the whiteness within the Emerson community. I asked myself all of these questions: Had I read the brochure incorrectly? Did I not come from a talented community of Black and Brown excellence? And why does no one know who La Rosalía is

When my grandparents came to visit me in the fall, I discussed my confusion with the lack of diversity on campus. After hearing my grievances, my grandparents actually laughed in my face! My grandmother, a bold preaching woman, gawked at me and laughed “you thought we actually did something.” The did was civil rights and the something was progress. Coming from a socially conscious and political family, I was always made aware of my need to pursue a college education. I always understood the racial gaps in college success, but I really thought Emerson had grown beyond that. My grandmother reproached with, “We might be approaching 2021, but in many ways, we’re still living in 1961.”  

When I’ve asked my white acting instructors or members of the performing arts board, where are the people of color? And their response is “they [BIPOC] simply don’t want to come to Emerson,” it is a microinvalidation—it is a momentary act to invalidate lower income BIPOC communities. It is a capitalistic tactic to make a person of color feel as though their work ethic is the issue for their own lack of representation. 

Before attending Emerson, my high school mentor Ms. Pla-Guzaman, did her best to mentally prepare me to be alone. She knew it would get to me, and she was right. My first semester at Emerson was wretched. I was very close to transferring into a different musical theatre BFA program because I felt alone and isolated. It was a very juxtaposing feeling to be seen, but not understood.  

I would have liked to believe that apart from stereotypical Latina tropes, that people see me as Amaris, but that’s not the case, and that’s okay. My skin, my features, my identity, my ancestry, and the talent that we hold as an artistic community of color, threatens the status quo. Our oppressors quake at our existence because we simply are. 

I soon realized that transferring out of Emerson would be my worst mistake, because I hold the power to thrive and make change right where I am. I’m making an active choice to battle with my trauma in order to help the next.

Understanding that information, I am shaping my Emerson experience to suit me because I refuse to settle; I refuse to inherit silence, I refuse to bow my head down in the face of the oppressor because my ancestors sacrificed their voices for long enough. There is no clear path to finding your truth, but once I had the courage to accept my truth, I realized it had been there all along. 

Sioux Sanna Ramirez, a theatre professor at Emerson, woke me up and said “Amaris, you cannot live your life in the audience and on the stage at the same time.” Facing the truth is about finding the audacity to accept pain, face the ugly, and challenge the flaws, and make them into something worth sharing and expressing. My truth is to wake myself up so that I can wake others up around me. 

My complacency is simply not an option. So, I am choosing to bear the burden of creating change and inspiring hope, because if not I, then who else? A community functions best when everyone in it works towards a common goal and exercises their right to speak up. How can we be advocates of social change within the theatre, if we ourselves are engaging in performative activism? Emerson community, I’m calling upon you all to show up for me, show up for us. 

I appreciate your thoughtful conversations, I appreciate your questions, I appreciate your panelists of guest BIPOC who have come to speak, but I am tired of hearing you ask the same question: “What can we [white people] do to make the theatre more inclusive?” My simple answer to all of that is—put your ideas into action or call for anarchy. The resolution is not really all that difficult—cast BIPOC artists just as you would any other group and celebrate our stories, period.

When we talk about issues affecting our communities of color on campus, the people who care most are other people of color. Fundamentally, this is not a BIPOC issue; this is a white person’s issue to resolve, but since that seems to be a hard pill to swallow, BIPOC continues to pick up the slack. 

I’m not expecting our predominantly white artistic directors of EmStage or even our student theatre organizations, to understand what it feels like to be marginalized, but I demand to be heard. I reserve the right to equal training and to be included in as many EmStage productions possible because that is exactly what I came here for. My friends; Google is a free resource, and I am running on E. I am not your encyclopedia nor your search engine, that in itself is accusatory and helpless on your part.

There is nothing at Emerson that any other institution isn’t struggling with. Let’s hold each other accountable and start re-creating culture. I’m coming at this from a perspective of tiresome redundancy.  Ultimately, the role of the theatre is to serve as a vessel to amplify the voices of the people. When it fails to do that, it engages in racist theatre. 

I am choosing to stay here because I’m audacious enough to believe that the world can change, so at the very least, allow me to start with my immediate Emerson theatre community. I demand that performativity finds a loud death in a shallow well of ignorance.

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