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.
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.