Black in Theater

White stories have dominated Hollywood and Broadway for most of the 20th and 21st century due to an often unfair selection of stories centered on primarily White experiences. Although progress is being made to increase representation of people of color in both film and theater, extreme strides need to be made on the national and local level to ensure that representation is fair and diverse.

Joshua Parker, a junior studying sport management from Olathe, said that while representation of people of color has improved over the years in Hollywood, there needs to be more opportunities given to Black artists. Parker said many times when people of color are represented in shows, they are played by the same actors, and film would benefit from giving other actors of color an opportunity.

Improvement in diversity needs to come from not only actors, but also from upper management, Parker said. 

“You might have a cast of all Black actors, but the writer may be a White male that doesn’t really know the story or changes the story,” Parker said. 

Local theater productions are working toward amplifying the Black voice in their work as well. While certain productions may offer more opportunities for people of color, the culture and dialogue must also change. 

AnnaMarie Sosa, a 2020 graduate from Junction City who studied vocal performance, became involved in the theater scene at KU in her final years, and saw first-hand some of the issues with diversity in the department. 

One of the biggest changes that needs to happen in the department is a more open dialogue, Sosa said.

Sosa added faculty need to be more transparent with their casting choices and show selections, and that performers should be picked based on their talent rather than solely whether they would fit a typecast based on race.

“It’s really important to encourage your students to talk to each other, encourage them to advocate for each other,” Sosa said. “Make it just so much more [contingent on] talent.”

Similarly, other students feel productions do not need to be cast solely on color in order to increase representation. Dominique Waller, a 2020 graduate from Shawnee who studied theater performance, said diversity can occur by consciously casting the best person for the part, even if that differs from the norm of an all-White cast for that production. 

Waller added that many student productions have focused casting decisions on a general emotion or scene of the character instead of solely on race. 

“I think that’s really important because you’re taking out the aspects of race, but you’re still allowing the ability for people of color to be in those places, and it’s based off of talent and knowledge rather than just them being a token,” Waller said. 

She also said showcasing productions focused on Black voices or experiences do not have to solely deal with stories of struggle. It’s very important to not only showcase struggle and strife that people of color have had in America, but also the positive aspects and stories as well, Waller said.

“Pain and suffering isn’t the overall theme of people of color life, and it’s very important to showcase happy stories and just fun, out of the ordinary things as well,” Waller said. 

Art, especially in the forms of film and theater, can be a powerful outlet to showcase the voices and experiences of groups and identities, Waller said.

“Theater and film have always been a place for minorities to share their stories,” Waller said.  

Although Waller acknowledges progress needs to occur in the film and theater scene through more transparent dialogue and equal opportunities for various voices and stories to be represented, she said Lawrence is full of talented artists making diverse art. 

“I think that specifically in Lawrence, we try to do a really good job at not only making fun and interesting stories, but we also try to do a good job at just showcasing those things,” Waller said.