Musical theatre students speak out about racial prejudices within program

By Jules Banks
Staff Reporter

The cast of “Mi Latinidad” puts on performances to showcase their cultures’ stories. Photo by Nic Mains and Billy Rude, provided by Alix Rhodes and cast of “Mi Latinidad.”

The Chicago College of Performing Arts has long been a respected contender in the world of theatre education. Located in the heart of Chicago, which has a history of producing well-known actors, singers and comedians, it is in the perfect position to grow and modernize with the rest of the theatre community. CCPA often displays its ability to integrate its curriculum with Roosevelt’s social justice mission statement. While it does provide an exceptional education for performers, CCPA students have noticed it does lack one thing: modernized racial sensitivity.

Although Roosevelt is known for its racial diversity in Chicago, CCPA continues to struggle to catch up. Roosevelt posts the demographics of its diversity for all to find. However, CCPA — specifically, the theatre and performance majors — lack the same public statistics. However, the issue goes beyond student diversity. Many students believe that the lack of diversity in the staff members is equally an issue.

Herbert White, freshman musical theatre (MT) major, says that when he first applied to schools, he put a lot of effort into finding education that would do diversity justice in order to cultivate himself into a performer that would one day inspire other black youth.

“I wanted to be able to create without having to hinder my blackness,” White said. “I wanted to be comfortable, that was my main thing. And then I also stated in all of my essays that I wanted to be like a beacon of light for other black men that wanted to pursue theatre. I think that was what really drove me to pursue this.”

The reason he chose CCPA as his higher education was because, when he applied, he felt as though the program would cultivate his voice. After coming, he feels as though he has seen many different sides of the program.

“I feel very comfortable here,” White said. “However, there are moments in time where I feel like the ‘microaggressive-ness’ comes off from the students to the teachers and the faculty. And I think that’s just the product of being in a PWI [predominantly white space]. That’s just what you have to deal with.”

Institutional research provided fall 2018’s statistics for current theatre majors who identify as non-white, excluding non-resident aliens. The statistics show that 14 out of 69 students in the freshman class, six out of 66 students in the sophomore class, seven out of 44 students in the junior class and 15 out of 55 students in the seniors identify as non-white.

Marta Bady, MT freshman, went into depth on the issue of microaggressions within the CCPA community. “What I consider a microaggression is a comment made by a person outside of your race, usually a white person, that may not be directly trying to offend you or be discriminatory, but comes off as ignorant or kind of racist,” Bady said.

Bady cited another student’s experience, MT freshman Alcee Jones, as an example of microaggression. During their production of “American Songbook,” which takes place in the ’40s and ’50s era, said Jones. “I think they were looking for this slicked back, ‘clean’ look but that’s not always the easiest route with coarse, ethnic hair,” Jones said. “And I think that the way that it was handled was just a little bit unprofessional. He asked if I could do anything with my hair and I said, ‘Well, what would you like me to do?’ And he said, ‘Just bring a picture in or something.’ And so, that’s where the confusion, that’s where it came from. And there was just a lack of respect in the whole process, between the production team and the artist working.”

White explained his views on how to expand the program’s racial sensitivity and awareness, citing that a more diverse faculty would do the school wonders.

“They have to diversify their faculty, and I think that’s what’s going to push them over the edge compared to other schools.” White said he believes that a lack of people of color (POC) teachers in schools can lead to a feeling of alienation for POC students.

Maxel Schingen, freshman MT major, agreed that change would be brought on by diversity.

“I think that we have a real problem with a lack of diversity. And I think that the rest of Roosevelt is extremely diverse and always has been, that’s the history of the school. However, CCPA has become extremely white-washed,” Schingen said.

Schingen went on to explain examples of how a lack of diversity creates tension within the program, explaining more microaggressions he and other POC students had allegedly faced.

“The hardest thing is being a person of color in this program because you are so drawn to all of those around you, and you get excited whenever you’re spending time with them and sometimes you get a little bit loud or whatever, and you can get seriously punished for that,” Schingen said. “It’s the lack of understanding from certain staff members because there’s very little diversity in the staff, you don’t have a lot of people of color in the theatre conservatory at all, and I think that’s just a little bit frustrating.”

Schingen expressed disappointment in coming to what he considered a social justice school only to face microaggressions and a lack of diversity.

“Because we come to a social justice school, we’re excited about being in a program that is going to focus on people like us who want to further our own people in a career that has been extremely white in the past,” Schingen said. “It’s hard going to classes whenever you feel like you’re not being taught by people who understand you or even want to understand you.”

Cast of “Color Me,” a recently revived POC showcase. Photo by Tatyana Sampson.

In the past, students have claimed to feel uncomfortable with the choices of shows, with “Anything Goes” being one of the most controversial picks. The musical is widely accused of stereotyping Chinese people, going as far as to have three main characters assault and steal clothes from Chinese characters. Then, the play promptly shows them impersonating those characters to disrupt a wedding.

Originally, according to a student who requested to remain anonymous, the roles of the Chinese characters were going to be outsourced to the music conservatory students. Allegedly the plan never happened, and theatre conservatory students were still cast as the Chinese characters.

However, after in-depth meetings with the director, the students involved said that the previous concerns had been rectified and that they were moving forward with the production. Despite this, not every student is satisfied.

“We’re excited moving forward, to hopefully make adjustments to the casting pool, and get our faculty members to consider doing shows built for people of color and get behind their own claim that this is a social justice school,” said Quinn Simmons, another MT freshman. “It feels like a goal. And it feels like the students are working harder to achieve this goal of a social justice school more so than the faculty members in the theatre conservatory right now.”

Bady said her class is taking action in ways CCPA has never seen before.

“We have these conversations with each other all the time,” Bady said. “The people in our class, we don’t hide about it.” She explained that she and other students have had several conversations with staff members to address issues about lack of diversity within the theatre program.

However, it isn’t just the freshmen class addressing white-washing in the theatre conservatory. Alix Rhode, a junior in the MT program, took matters into her own hands with fellow Latin American students when she felt underrepresented by her program. She and the other small amount of Latinx students created a show named “Mi Latinidad” as a way to carve out their own space in the CCPA theatre scene.

“It’s basically a celebration of our Latin culture. We started that out of a need for wanting to tell stories that we felt represented us and that we loved so much,” Rhode said. “Because there are three or four shows that have ever been written in musical theatre history that have been written for us, about us,” Rhode said.  

The casts of “Mi Latinidad” and “Color Me,” two showcases centered on POC, were met with the suggestion to add their shows into the official CCPA performance season. The showcase performers declined the offer.

“We all came to the conclusion that we created these things from nothing on our own, and we didn’t we want to give it to them after we worked so hard on something, and then next year have all the POC be forced into this show instead of another show that might be their dream role or something,” Rhode said.

When this concern was brought to CCPA Dean Rudy Marcozzi, he wanted to assure students that all shows and showcases within the season were open to all students in the casting pool.

“All shows are, once [students] are past their freshman year, they have the ability to audition for any show,” Marcozzi said. “There are no casting restrictions.”

Rhode explained that although casting wasn’t hindered by skin color, oftentimes the “diversity” felt forced.

“Instead of doing plays that are politically charged and make a stance of some kind on race, sexual orientation, gender, etc., we often do shows that shy away from it and ‘colorblind cast’ one or two of our POC students into an otherwise white cast,” Rhode said.

“I don’t like the term ‘colorblind casting’ because to me it feels as though someone is trying to avoid the fact that I don’t have white skin instead of appreciating the fact that I have a different point of view and could bring something new to a role that has only been previously played by white performers.”

Tatyana Sampson, senior acting major, said throughout the years, Sampson has had several meetings with CCPA staff with little success. Sampson said frustrations grew with every meeting.

“It’s like, you’re listening, and you’re like, ‘I hear you, I see you,’ but then nothing changes, and it’s like, do you actually?” Sampson said. “Or are you just saying that, so I’ll get off your back for the next few months before I email you and we have another meeting about this?”

However, Sean Kelley, associate dean of CCPA, said students are welcome to meet with him to discuss these issues.

“I have always had an open door and students know that,” Kelley said. “If there is ever an unsafe environment, I would hope a student would make myself, as well as the university, aware of the issue or incident.”

Sampson said by 2019 their senior class has seen each others’ views on diversity grow and expand, just not through CCPA’s direct actions. Sampson said the class has grown together through witnessing the lack of diversity and racial sensitivity and then attempting to combat it together.

When questioned about the topic of racial tension and insensitivity in the CCPA program, Kelley explained what he had seen throughout the years.

“While I have not witnessed racial tension outwardly (nor would I allow it) either in the classroom or in contact with groups of students, I would be naïve to imagine that it doesn’t exist,” Kelley said via an email. “There is racial tension in this building, in the city, in the country and in the world. What we all must do in order to affect change is to be open in dialogue, patient in listening, strive for understanding and respectfully engage in action to attain a resolution.”

Kelley said the directors and producers are informed of Roosevelt’s social justice mission.

“This university is founded on social justice and every director of a production is aware of that,” said Kelley.

Kelley also mentioned that a diverse alumni board was in the works in order to help screen the productions that CCPA wants to put on. Marcozzi clarified that although the project was in the works, it had not yet been finalized. However, he had hope that the board would create an example of the program’s diversity.

“I think if the board was racially diverse, then that would be a model, if the board reflected the diversity in theatre community in general, or this theatre community in particular, or this student body,” Marcozzi said. “It would create the sense that we were thinking about it, and that would mean in this particular way we’ve achieved it.”

Overall, students see hope for change in the future – student led, but in collaboration with staff.

“The staff has grown because there’s no choice but to,” said Rhode. “There are times when they’re like, ‘no, this is how it’s going to be,’ but there are other times where they surprise us and they’re very open, they’re very willing to have a conversation at the very least, about certain things.”

Correction: A previous version of this article failed to mention that Tatiana Bustamante, a CCPA class of ‘18 alum, was the original creator of “Mi Latinidad.” Additionally, the photo credit for the “Mi Latinidad” photo shoot goes to Nic Mains, another ‘18 CCPA alum. Thank you to Mr. Mains for bringing the necessity of these edits to our attention, and for the photos.

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