The following is a student-written work, presented as part of the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy (ITJA) competition. The views and opinions expressed in this work are the author’s own.
Partners in Crime?
By: Calindez Edwards
Winner, KC/ACTF REGION IV ITJA AWARD 2017
Senior, Alabama State University
The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) commences once a year to enrich, educate and engage students in the art of theatre. The annual festivities grant undergraduates a five day, four night all-access pass into an exhilarating world of total theatre immersion for little to no cost. The competition furnishes students with a welcome respite from the monotony of their college campus and bestows upon them a brief glimpse into their post- graduate futures. KCACTF divvies up the 50 United States into eight separate regions characterized by the cardinal point directions, specifying their province’s territory. Guest theatre professionals, educationists and scores of representatives from university theatre programs region-wide converge by the hundreds onto the host college’s campus. The connatural place where artists-in-training can live, shit and breathe theatre evolves into a dream come true for young creators. The possibilities appear limitless for the edifying enlightenment of America’s fledgling generation of theatre artisans. But beware as Macbeth’s recurring motif forebodes, appearances can be deceiving.
To the lax eye, KCACTF comes into view as an entity that takes great strides to foster an environment of inclusion and diversity. The productions that are invited to perform at the festival usually have multiracial casts, while the Irene Ryan and Musical Theatre Initiative hopefuls resemble congregants at a Model UN conference. The last five consecutive Irene Ryan Acting winners for Region IV have all been African-American students from a historically black college and university (HBCU). The first runner-up and Best Partner acting awards have also mostly gone to minorities over those same few years.
Conversely, recent award ceremonies were hampered by the conveyance of the disturbing message that black students have little to no place at the proverbial table where the Directing; Design Technology and Stage Management; Playwriting and Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy categories are concerned. No African-American student designers have placed first in any of those categories in the past three years. Furthermore, Region IV’s winner statistics suggest the usefulness of black artists’ contributions to the theatre are limited almost exclusively to performance.
The addition of the Marvin Sims Diversity Award, named in honor of the deceased educator and former KCACTF National Executive Committee member, potentially serves to belie the fact that Region IV’s winners list implies that black student artists excel at entertaining and hardly anything else. The late Mr. Sims was a trailblazer for theatre advocacy and taught college courses in directing, acting and criticism during his tenure as a professor. Sims was elected as the first African-American president of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, an organization well renowned for promoting vision and leadership in theatre education. I wonder what potential commentary he would have proffered in regards to the ostensible glass ceiling currently impeding black theatre students. Kudos to Region IV for commemorating Sim’s memory with a special award of recognition but why are only acting performers eligible to receive it? More importantly, why was the tribute accolade assignated to actors when it would have served a greater purpose in either the directing, playwriting or criticism (ITJA) categories? Ironically enough, The Marvin Sims Diversity Award segregates in presentation to actors of color only.
Paradoxically, the indisputable fact stands steadfast that KCACTF, at least Region IV, places nil value in diversification of their executive board members either since all seven chairs are Caucasian. For the record, three of Region IV’s executive board members are women, therefore a blanket assertion that diversity is completely devoid would be misleading. Nonetheless, it rings true that all three of the female board members are indeed Caucasian. Where are not only the African-Americans but also Latinos, Asians, Muslims and LGBTQ communities represented within the ranks of the directorates? The board of executives for any publically funded organization should duly reflect the entirety of the landscape they claim to represent not just one certain segment. Located in the southeastern portion of the U.S., Region IV includes red states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that the increasingly alarming symbiosis between KCACTF’s Region IV and its participating HBCU’s is eerily reminiscent of the master-house slave relationship dynamics of the antebellum south. A distressing pattern of unspoken complicity between the two seems to have emerged in recent years. It would appear that as long as the exceptionally talented black actors and singers remain in tune with the status quo by continuing to shuck and jive for the white folks, everything is otay in good ol’ Dixie.
Arguably, does the blame for the deficit of a more prominent minority presence in the non-performance categories fall squarely on the shoulders of the KCACTF regions? No it does not. Undoubtedly, at least where the HBCU’s are concerned, a major disconnect occurs between the KCACTF respondent’s initial nomination; the student and faculty’s collaborative preparation; and ultimately, the student’s festival presentation. Numerous HBCU theatre departments trek hundreds of miles to the festivals annually, with the express purpose to win performance awards, having little to no regard for participation elsewhere. Their synergetic partnerships with KCACTF notwithstanding, the accountability of the schools in properly preparing students for viable futures as professionals within all areas of theatre remains immensely crucial. The Universities and their associated theatre programs must be taken to task for their role in this glaring disparity as well.
For example, why are playwriting and dramaturgy classes not offered in most HBCU theatre programs? Particularly, if the department chairs or program directors are playwrights yet insist upon using valuable University resources to mount their own scripts as qualifying productions. Why not re-allocate that sizeable portion of the department budget toward the ontogeny of future black playwrights instead of covertly disguised attempts at self-aggrandizement? What are the primary focal points of the curriculum and training students are receiving? Are there development programs or workshops with committed and qualified mentors in place at these institutions geared toward cultivating the burgeoning interests of the incipient dramaturgs, critics, directors, stage managers and designers of tomorrow? These questions raise serious concerns but as they pertain to other colleges and their processes, I am unable to answer with absolute certainty.
However, I am inclined to share my own personal experiences as they relate to being an African-American theatre major from Alabama State University (ASU), my HBCU. I have also attended the last three KCACTF Region IV festivals. I was not afforded support or assistance with any of my nominations by a single member of the faculty at my school. Ever. For the past two years, I would arrive at KCACTF completely ill prepared for the competition. I have been nominated a total of seven times in three years for multiple awards such as Dramaturgy, Stage Management and ITJA. I have yet to win an award but I am far from bitter. Quite the contrary, I am grateful for the invaluable life lessons I have learned from these experiences. At past festivals, I felt an isolation and alienation akin to solitary confinement. I was frequently the lone person of color, more specifically the only black male, in a room full of mostly Caucasian peers. As a consequence of these awkward encounters, I learned the hard way that I could never truly see a reflection of myself while attempting to peer through the eyes of another.
All things considered, I am truly appreciative to ASU as well as KCACTF Region IV for the training and tutelage I have been fortunate to receive during my four year sojourn as a non-traditional college student. Now as a graduating senior, my only hope is that the true intention of this missive is heard loud and clear and structural changes are implemented post haste to improve a deeply flawed system. The future tastemakers and innovators of American theatre are being groomed at this very moment and I am afraid for the vitality of the art form if the current trend continues. At this rate, black and other minority artists will be marginalized to the fringes of the stage while white artists will call the shots in all areas requiring aforethought and brain trust. It is quite possible that I am being naive, maybe Region IV and HBCU’s are only emulating the much, much bigger entertainment industry’s infrastructure of power hierarchy? Not only will diversity be imperative to the approaching dawn of theatre’s new era, it will be a requirement for its success.
I used to wonder if it were possible that I was the only black college student, in any theatre program canvasing nine different states, interested in becoming a theatre intellectual in Dramaturgy, Directing and Criticism? By and large, that possibility appears to be the sad truth from my purview. Be that as it may, I am no King of Scotland and a trio of witches are not needed to predict duplicitous deceptions because what you get is exactly what you see.