On Oct. 25, Wheaton’s Department of Theatre and Dance Studies invited students and faculty to be involved in a community conversation about anti-racist practice in the department and in the broader world of performance at Wheaton. Prior to the gathering, Professor O’Dell, Chair and Associate Professor Department of Theatre and Dance, sent out a survey asking about points of comfort, belonging and growth that it might be important for the department to focus on in the future.
Along with the invitation to the virtual meeting, the department sent out a document with some of these narratives, organized into major categories the department hoped to cover during the conversation, Theater Casting, Rehearsal and Production, Dance Casting, Rehearsal and Production, Curriculum and Coursework, and Departmental culture. The email stated, “We acknowledge the discomfort and trauma experienced by the individuals who have contributed these narratives, and we share them with you anonymously, and purely in the interest of transparency, responsibility, and to continue the critical work of centering anti-racism at the heart of our work.”
The conversation was attended by 35 students, alumni, and faculty, with the Theater and Dance faculty who organized and facilitated it including Professor Colin McNamee, Professor Cheryl Mrozowski, Professor Jennifer Madden, Professor Joe Wilson Jr, Professor Stephanie Burlington-Daniels, Professor Julie Searles and Professor Clinton O’Dell. Professor Daniels commented on the wide-ranging class years, with several alumni unmuting to discuss a mutual graduation in 2004 as the group waited for the formal conversation to commence.
Professor O’Dell commenced the official conversation by commenting, “This is 35 people who are here because they want something better.” The department suggested that their goals were “To intentionally devote time and space for our students to be heard, to acknowledge, validate, and name harm caused by racism, to begin the difficult process of uprooting racist policies and structures in the Theater and Dance department and in the culture around Performance at Wheaton, and to practice having difficult conversations: feeling uncomfortable being asked to trust the truth and validity of multiple experiences, even as we disagree with one another.” The group of facilitators consciously set separate guidelines for students of color, asking that white participants remain conscious of how much they were speaking and favor active listening.
To begin, the group asked participants what sections of the document with narratives resonated with them, asking if students wished to speak on an experience similar to ones shared, and to ruminate on what was missing from the conversation. Major topics brought up during the meeting included the requirements of the dance major and minor, specifically the requirement of two semesters of THEA 320, the Dance Company. The general prioritization of resources like rehearsal space and overwhelming respect of Dance Company as compared to other dance groups was also referenced.
Several students brought up the lack of BiPoc narratives within the Theater department’s performance and the imposter syndrome BiPoc students deal with, as well as the comments, made that could turn these students away from theater performance. Students also pointed to the smaller casts for mainstage performances, and how this could make it difficult for students to participate.
“This is not just a Wheaton conversation,” said Professor Wilson Jr. “Our safety, our lives depend on this work, and I want to make sure we talk about it.” Professor Joe Wilson Jr stated his adamant commitment to casting and including people not traditionally granted access to spaces of performance, and his insistence on including the narratives of BiPoc people as he begins to work and produce at Wheaton College.
Both during and after the conversation, students began to bring up disrespectful comments made by professors and other students regarding certain cultures, with professors attempting to understand how their privilege prevented them from understanding how behavior they had considered mundane deeply affected students from different backgrounds. The conversation concluded with several students expressing dissatisfaction, and a promise from the department to continue to have these conversations, and work towards definitive change.