In the wake of a year marked by calls for racial justice, students and faculty are debating the message an upcoming theatre production seeks to address.
On Feb. 7, an Instagram account, @weseeyou_binghamton, made its first post detailing the “problematic racial casting” they felt was being supported by the Binghamton University theatre department with regards to its spring production, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.”
The play was originally written and performed as a one-woman show by Anna Deavere Smith, premiering in 1994. In the show, Smith told the story of the 1992 Los Angeles riots using the words of people she interviewed who experienced the event. Smith, who is Black, personified these real-life people, some of whom differ from her race and gender. Students became concerned as it was the intention of the theatre department to follow Smith’s lead and cast actors in roles even if their racial identity did not match that of the character. The intention of this type of casting was to demonstrate race as a social construct, but the account cited this practice as “outdated.”
The initial Instagram post gave a timeline of events preceding the creation of the account. On Nov. 17, students brought their concerns about the casting method to the attention of their undergraduate representatives, two students who act as liaisons between the students and faculty. This led to an information and Q&A session on Nov. 20 where students could voice their concerns to the theatre department faculty. The post said it was initially agreed that only the faculty members in charge of the production would be in attendance, but, in actuality, the entire department was allowed to attend.
Barbara Wolfe, chair and director of undergraduate studies for the theatre department, spoke on behalf of the department to further explain the ongoing production process. According to Wolfe, the department hosted a virtual workshop that was open to all students, and the department widely sought out students for auditions. Wolfe said soon after, members of the department met with the concerned students.
“Shortly after the auditions for the production, members of the department met with students to hear and address their concerns,” Wolfe wrote in an email. “We are taking proactive actions to address these concerns.”
Patrick Saint Ange, a sophomore double-majoring in English and sociology, gave a video testimony about his experience at the Nov. 20 meeting, which was posted to @weseeyou_binghamton. He later explained the faculty’s reaction to his comments at the meeting and mentioned that some faculty have reached out to him privately to show their support for the students.
“[Theatre] has a long history of blackface, yellowface and whitewashing, and audience members of color could easily see this production as invoking that history,” Ange wrote in an email. “I brought this history to [Visiting Assistant Professor of Acting and Directing Danyé Brown], and she basically laughed in my face in dramatic fashion while also completely ignoring my position. While [Brown] and [Assistant Professor of Theatre Laura Hawkes] were the only professors to speak, the rest of the faculty knew what they were witnessing was wrong but, for one reason or another, felt it was unsafe for them to defend us publicly.”
Wolfe further explained the reasoning for the choice of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” and the continuation of the production even after the spark of controversy.
“Our production features a diverse and passionate cast,” Wolfe wrote. “We chose this production in response to the unified pain we feel as humans after seeing the racial injustices this past summer, or for that matter, centuries before. The department views this production as an opportunity to delve into this topic via the work of an award-winning playwright, performer and activist whose work addresses this pain, a production now being performed all over the country.”
Due to the events at the Nov. 20 meeting, a group of students felt they needed to find other avenues to remedy the situation caused by this play. Andrew Ajaka, a junior majoring in theatre and a founding member of @weseeyou_binghamton, felt it was up to the students to find a solution themselves. This led to the creation of the account and a Change.org petition which currently has over 700 signatures.
“After that, we knew that if any change were to occur, it would have to be in our hands,” Ajaka wrote in an email. “We worked to find times to meet over Zoom and video chat so that we could discuss plans of action. We then worked to write and edit together a statement that represented our positions on the events that had happened. We knew we needed support from somewhere if it wasn’t going to be this University, and so social media seemed like an important step for us in our work.”
The ultimate goal for the group is to stop the production, as Ajaka said the problem stems from the play itself and its execution at BU.
“The story highlighted in this piece is definitely one of importance, but the real problem lies both in Smith’s endorsement of the racist practices we outlined in our statement and in the department’s lack of self-examination when accepting them so readily,” Ajaka wrote.
He later expanded upon how the department’s vision for the production contributes to the issue.
“This department has made it very clear that they are not capable of handling these issues through the way they are approaching this piece and in the way they have handled similar issues in the past,” Ajaka wrote. “Our faith in this department to tell this story has been compromised.”
Going forward, Ajaka hopes the department will listen to student concerns in the future and make efforts to educate themselves on anti-racism.
Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at BU, said the theatre department is fully capable of addressing student concerns for the future.
“This production is but one of many ways the University is contributing to anti-racism action,” Yarosh wrote in an email. “Shortly after the initial announcement of the production, members of the department met with students to hear and address their concerns about how the play was being cast, and we believe that the [theatre] department will take proactive actions to address these concerns over the course of this spring semester.”
Ange also believes the inability to voice concerns for both students and faculty needs to be addressed.
“When this show is finally canceled, the department needs to take a good look at itself and ask whether or not they are actually committed to their students,” Ange wrote. “And I personally believe that whoever’s responsible for creating a place where students and university professors cannot speak their minds — the persons responsible for creating this toxic environment that puts appearances before students — should be fired.”
The theatre department highlighted plans to further examine and improve curricula as well as current casting and production practices to better align with racial equity and social justice.
“We are planning an event that features a reading snippet of ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’ followed by in-depth community conversations,” Wolfe wrote. “The department will also host panelists and speakers featuring alumni and professionals to share their perspectives on the issue of racial equity and social justice within the theatre industry. We believe that these constructive actions will advance our pursuit toward addressing some difficult and important issues.”