Deconstructing American Theater’s Great White Way


by Kelley Reardon

As part of the Wednesdays at the Center series, the John Hope Franklin Center welcomed a panel of theater experts to speak about incorporating minorities into American theater. The guests included Sophie Caplin, Onastasia Ebright, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, Lulla Kiwinda, Monét Marshall, Dr. Jules Odendahl-James, Maria Zurita Ontiveros, and Casey Pettiford.


The John Hope Franklin Center hosted the event, which focused on Black and Latinx spaces in theater. The panelists discussed what it is like to be a minority in theater and the challenges and hopes that they have for the field.


Lulla Kiwinda, Sophie Caplin, Jules Odendahl-James

Lulla Kiwinda, Sophie Caplin, Jules Odendahl-James


Panelists explained that when they direct a play, it is not simply a play— it is a message to the world. These artists want everyone to exist as more creative citizens. Monét Marshall said that if an audience member leaves the theater without a new “nugget” of perspective— such as a provoking idea, an interesting encounter with a new person, or meeting themselves in a new way— then she feels like her plays are not giving back to the community in the right way.


Onastasia Ebright stated that she has learned “not to wait for permission,” even on the Duke campus. She explained that she has to go out and work on her ideas if she wants to make them happen, by forming and maintaining committed relationships. The fact that Duke is a predominantly white campus can make it more challenging for diverse theater to emerge. When the play with an all-black cast called Once on This Island was first proposed, some people said that there were not enough talented people of color. However, a play like Once on This Island had never been done before and there was no prior experience to back up excuses like not enough talent.



Even all-black casts can be controversial. By separating out black shows from “everybody else” (white shows), black shows become a scarcity and black actors feel like it’s their only opportunity to be in a show. The panelists also warned about “token-ize”ing people- for instance, highlighting the one Black, Latinx, or woman actor in a show. Marshall recommended leaving behind this scarcity mindset and instead “leaning into abundance.”


Marshall said that she creates work for her future self. People from other backgrounds can come, but they don’t have to come. She sticks to what brings her joy, and encourages younger artists to not carry the emotional work of catering to a white audience. Bridging the gap between black and white audiences will require hard work and a commitment to relationships of value and acceptance from both sides.

Double Bind: Women of Color in STEM

by Kelley Reardon

Duke University’s Center for International and Global Studies welcomed Ruthie Lyle, Ph.D. on February 6th, 2019 to discuss the challenges faced by minority women in the science, technolog, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in a Wednesdays at the Center lecture. Lyle focused on the advantages, challenges, and future outlook for minority women in STEM.

Lyle is an engineer, innovator, and entrepreneur who has had to overcome a double bind while navigating her career. Lyle defines the double bind as the unique challenges minority women face as they simultaneously experience sexism and racism in their STEM experience.

Scientists and engineers working in S&E: 2015

Lyle shared her experiences as a doctoral student and a professional. She cited statistics from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to relay her message. Graphs revealed extremely low numbers of minorities and women in science and engineering, where (according to NSF) white men make up 49% of the professionals.

Lyle also emphasized the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, one of the largest incubators for new technology businesses today. “This is not a women’s issue or a minority women’s issue in isolation, nor will it command a solution exclusively presented by said groups alone,” said Lyle. She knows that there are minority women with excellent STEM skills, and that those women need access to more opportunities.

Lyle recommends various strategies for retention and success in supporting minority women in STEM. These strategies include academic preparation, successful role models, supportive and diverse environments, satisfying work, social and community engagement, and diversified faculty in academia. Lyle emphasized the most important strategy: to “reach back and pull up,” to help younger generations.


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