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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Theatre & dance depts. commit to diversity initiative

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Over winter break, theater professor David Wiles sent out an email detailing the Theater and Dance Department’s new Diversity Initiative. The initiative’s goals focus on “increasing the participation of international and domestic students of color” in theater, dance, production and direction.

In addition to encouraging participation in both department and student groups, the department will produce at least one show annually that “reflects the experiences of international and domestic students of color.”

This term, that show is “Harlem Nocturne”, a play written by Wiles himself. Set in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, it has a diverse set of characters, almost all African-American and of varied skin tones and backgrounds. The play explores the idea of “passing” and the way that hierarchies and prejudices affect the black community through two married African-American characters who experience different privileges and prejudices because of their different skin colors.

According to Wiles, the play stems from his interest in how current events surrounding race are related to tensions and conflicts that have been present for decades. “Harlem Nocturne”, he hopes, will be both historical and contemporary— a story set in 1927 that still speaks to America’s racial issues in 2016.

But Wiles may struggle in finding a cast this year. After a small turnout at auditions for a play in which the precise skin colors of the characters are crucial to its plot, Harlem Nocturne’s future is still unclear.

Historically, Wiles says, Carleton’s theater and dance department and student groups have struggled to achieve casts with levels of participation from students of color that are proportional to the numbers of students of color on campus. Although he notes that this is an issue found at many small liberal arts colleges, “the reason that we’ve been having this problem is that we haven’t committed ourselves to solving it,” Wiles says.

According to Wiles, people of color tend to audition more for shows that represent the concerns of communities of color, and until now, the Department has not made a commitment to regularly producing such shows. Under the new initiative, the department makes this commitment, and with it hopes to prevent students of color from feeling unwelcome or unrepresented in mostly-white casts. The hope, Wiles says, is that the participation of students of color in shows such as Harlem Nocturne will lead to consistent participation in all of the Department’s productions, as well as those of the Experimental Theater and Dance Boards.

The department hopes to include African-American, Latino and Latina, Native American, Asian American, and international writers of color, among others, in their multi-year commitment to diverse playwrights and the encouragement of diverse casts. This will mark a big change from previous years. Most of the plays put on by the Carleton Players in previous years were written by white playwrights.

This is not to say that no efforts have been made. In spring 2014, the department produced Race, a play about race and the legal system. The goal is to turn occasional efforts from the department into continuous ones, in the hope that consistent departmental productions will yield consistently diverse casts. “I’ve taken on the job of leading [the initiative], not because I’m African-American, but because as an African-American, these issues are important to me,” Wiles says. “This is the first time that I’ve tried to make my personal commitment a departmental commitment.”

The expansion of this commitment to include writers of more diverse backgrounds will benefit everyone, Wiles says. It will benefit students of color who may have felt unwelcome in largely white departmental casts. It will benefit the department, as it will hopefully lead to a larger and more sustainable pool of actors with which to fill its casts. Lastly, it will benefit the entire Carleton community by opening up the vast world of theater that lies outside the more commonly-produced world of white playwrights.

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