BLACKstage revives conversations about race in theater community

Feb. 23, 2017, 12:41 a.m.

BLACKstage president Samantha Williams ’17 remembers being told in her sophomore year that “putting a body of color onstage is inherently a political act.”

She fought her director on the point then, but over time she has come to believe that artists of color have to make their own spaces for activism. This spring, Williams will lead BLACKstage in its performance of “Ragtime,” the group’s first show since it was discontinued in 2013.

BLACKstage joins the Asian-American Theater Project (AATP) and Stanford Women* in Theater to give voice to communities they feel are overlooked by mainstream theater. The circumstances of its revival have helped spur the creation of a diversity committee in Ram’s Head and galvanized students to engage in socially conscious art.

The politics of choosing a show

The latest iteration of BLACKstage grew out of concerns about representation in Stanford’s oldest theater company, Ram’s Head. BLACKstage’s first show, “Ragtime,” was originally slated to be on Ram’s Head’s spring 2017 ballot before it was cut by a last-minute revote that Williams saw as a deliberate effort to sidestep the issue of race.

Amid the political uncertainty of last spring, Williams advocated for the Ram’s Head Spring Show Selection Committee (SSSC) to choose “Ragtime,” which examines what it means to be American in the early 20th century for three white, black and Jewish families.

Ram’s Head’s SSSC had nominated “Ragtime” for its spring 2017 season ahead of a democratic vote among the group’s general membership.  

After a majority vote to put Ragtime on the ballot, members of SSSC approached the Board with concerns about the “tenor” of the process that prevented them from expressing “dissenting views,” according to emails Williams provided to The Daily. The Board held an anonymous re-vote via email for Ragtime’s slot only. The show was replaced by “Jekyll and Hyde” and never appeared on the democratic ballot. Ram’s Head ultimately chose to produce “The Wild Party,” a show about a 1920s party gone wrong.

In response to emails from then-Executive Producer Julia Starr ’16 and then-board member Matt Lathrop ’16, Williams expressed concern that the email revote did not give racial minority members a chance to voice their concerns face-to-face.

When asked for comment, current Executive Producer Holly Dayton ’17 wrote that she was not a member of the SSSC last spring, but understood that “Ragtime” did not make the slate due to “concerns that the large scale of the show and size of the cast would pose significant challenges to the artistic and design staffs”.

“The situation reached a point at which some members of the committee felt pressured when voting happened publicly and others excluded when it happened privately,” Dayton wrote in an email to The Daily. “The current Ram’s Head leadership is aware that some members of our organization have not felt heard or well represented in past, and established the Committee on Representation and Diversity this year to facilitate discussion on these issues and other concerns of our members about topics in representation and diversity.”

According to BLACKstage’s Publicity Director and Outreach Coordinator Teyonna Jarman ’18, the moment was a turning point for Williams.

“When [“Ragtime”] didn’t get put on there, her ideology was like, ‘Why do we need to wait for Ram’s Head to do it?’” Jarman said. “We can just do it.”

Williams and Jarman were aware of BLACKstage since the start of their Stanford theater careers, but the group had fallen to the wayside with leadership changes and disorganization around 2013.

BLACKstage’s first iteration in the early 2000s was studded with future stars – founder Issa Rae ’07 was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for the television show she writes and stars in, “Insecure,” while co-founder Tracy Oliver ’07 wrote the latest installment of the “Barbershop” franchise. Williams says she sensed a hunger for work that directly engaged with social commentary.

According to Dayton, the group must balance technical feasibility, budget and casting pools when choosing productions. Jarman said that the need to fill Memorial Auditorium also influences decisions, causing leadership to prioritize well-known productions that wouldn’t immediately attract auditionees of color.

“For the most part, none of us were really happy with the choices we were getting,” Jarman added, referring to founding members of BLACKstage.

Reviving the group also presented an opportunity to give students a “a lot more swaying power than … members of color within Ram’s Head,” Williams said.

“I was frustrated by members of SSSC’s unwillingness to enter these conversations and by the leadership of Rams Head’s steps to protect this privilege,” she wrote in a statement to The Daily. “Because it is a privilege to get to choose when you want to engage with issues of race and diversity and when you do not.”

Race and identity in theater

Partly out of necessity, other theater groups concerned with specific ethnic communities have also found their own niches on campus. In response to police brutality, treatment of immigrants and white nationalism, groups want to leverage art as activism and tell stories that act as a “mirror that reflects back,” said “Ragtime” director Nicole Phillips ’18. More locally, groups see a need to make theater at Stanford less focused on white, cisgender students.

According to AATP’s Artistic Director Vineet Gupta ’18, the intersection between actors’ and characters’ identities leads to powerful conversations in rehearsal spaces. In last year’s production of “Into the Woods,” for example, actors discussed how to stage power dynamics between characters of different skin tones – Jarman, who identifies as half-black, played the witch. The group hopes to expand more into the South Asian canon, which historically has received less attention than East Asian work.

Likewise, Phillips plans to craft “Ragtime”’s three ethnic ensemble groups as a commentary on current racial tensions. She has altered the typically “Eastern European” ensemble to reflect 21st-century Mexican-American and Haitian-American immigration populations.

Though the play takes place at the turn of the century, BLACKstage will emphasize the show’s “scary” pertinence today.

“This could be right now,” Phillips said. “The way that capitalism and racism and classism create this hydra that make it very difficult for people of color and people in marginalized communities to not just climb the ladder of success, but survive – those are all things that are present in ‘Ragtime.’”

The direction will also highlight the feminist and anti-capitalist commentary of the musical, which Phillips says are historically downplayed. She hopes that her decisions will question the optimistic tone of the musical: If the overall message empowers people, she said, it will be in a sobering way.

Yet members of these groups worry that audiences may miss the commentary behind the artistic choices. When AATP’s Executive Producer Leena Yin ’17 wore a blonde wig in “Into the Woods,” some attendees assumed she was white.

Audiences also frequently misunderstand the point of the organizations themselves: Lillian Bornstein ’18 noted that Stanford Women* in Theater is debating changing its name because people think the group merely supports women in the arts. She worries that the word “women,” even with the asterisk, could also discourage people who identify as nonbinary from auditioning.

Still, members find value in tackling these challenges.

“What I’ve learned from being the president is how important it is to have the awkward and uncomfortable conversations,” Williams said.

The difficulties with representation

Beyond audience reactions, the leaders of BLACKstage seek to avoid the “one-size-fits-all” stereotyping of the very communities they seek to uplift. Williams stressed that BLACKstage is not an unilateral voice for black actors at Stanford, and leaders of both AATP and BLACKstage believe that the work their groups do should not take the onus off larger groups to emphasize diversity.

“I would hope that mainstream theater … [is] more conscious in realizing that race, gender, diversity are important,” Gupta said. “In the context of race especially, it’s inescapable.”

The circumstances of BLACKstage’s revival have sparked self-examination within Ram’s Head’s leadership, inspiring the creation of a Committee on Diversity and Representation (CoRD).

Dayton said, “The membership had some concerns, and leadership felt that because those concerns were held – and they did not feel that reflects how Ram’s Head functions or the way that Ram’s Head desires to come across – they wished to create CoRD to demonstrate a more active face of their commitment to diversity and representation in the arts.”

According to CoRD member Kyle Robinson ’18, the committee plans to hold workshops to reach typically underrepresented communities, as well as a scholarly panel.

To Williams, Stanford’s conversations about race have evolved since last spring. She recalls standing on Piggott stage “nodding my head and agreeing with the other members of SSSC that Mary Poppins, Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party, and Jekyll and Hyde were the best three options for Rams Heads’ Spring musical” as the longstanding issues of identity and representation came to a head nationally and on campus.

Last spring, Donald Trump’s campaign had lost its semi-joking flavor, but he had not yet nabbed the nomination. Police brutality was surfacing in the news. Now, she urges Ram’s Head to continue the efforts and remain self-critical, especially in times of painful division.

“I think that it is important to have conversations about race and theater in an abstract and in the world,” Williams said. “I also think it is very important for Ram’s Head to take steps to talk about race and theater and how it affects Ram’s Head in particular – so I hope that is the next step.”


Contact Fiona Kelliher at fionak ‘at’


Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that SSSC voted unanimously to put “Ragtime” on the ballot, but in fact the vote was a majority. The Daily regrets these errors.

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