Best Practices to Make Theatre Classrooms Inclusive

Written by Sharrell D. Luckett |

“White people seem paralyzed,” I said to a colleague. “What?” she asked. “Some of them seem confused,” I continued, “and I’m not sure why. We’ve given them so much information during these online sessions about anti-racism and inclusion in the arts, but they still seem unsure of where to start.” She responded, “Yeah, I hear you. They need to start somewhere, though.” I agreed.

As the owner of the Black Acting Methods Studio, an entity that specializes in the training and artistic well-being of Black actors, I’ve watched as the 2020 iteration of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement caused my inbox to overflow with inquiries from “well-meaning” white theatre folks, essentially asking how they can be better instructors for Black and Brown students in academic and professional spaces.

Common questions ranged from how to incorporate our book, Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches, in their classes, to how they might train with us, to how they might change their audition processes so they are not negatively affecting the mental health of Black students. Simultaneously, Black and Brown students began to seek refuge from intolerable, racist environments by attending our trainings and workshops.

Indeed, the racial climate of summer 2020 amplified the work of several Black theatre groups, including Black Theatre United, Broadway for Black Lives Matter, and Black Girls Do Theater. Amidst BLM uprisings, talk-backs about political disarray and black-outs to amplify Black voices, Black theatre students and professionals are collectively speaking their uncensored truths to white theatre constituencies, even at the expense of being further marginalized in a field that already undervalues them. From the #weseeyouwat (We See You, White American Theater) viral statement to public confessions about racist experiences in theatre, thousands of actors from all walks of life are demanding change. In response to these demands, Black theatre entities have seen an unprecedented shift in white theatre folks’ consciousness about Black lives and wellness.

During the Studio’s hosting of several online events and my attendance at other events, I witnessed conversations among Black people, Brown people and white people discussing the change that is needed. I witnessed tears, pain, laughter and silence. I also observed a large number of white people actively taking notes and even relinquishing space for others to speak. Consequently, the Q&A portion of these online events further affirmed that many white theatre makers understand that anti-racist actions and accountability must happen, and they must happen now. If they don’t realize anything else, white theatre practitioners now realize that they are out of time.

One of the big takeaways for me during the Q&As was the noticeable theme of white instructors not knowing where to begin the undoing of racism and implementation of re-education. For instance, during a session with Dr. Jonathan M. Lassiter, the Studio’s in-house licensed psychologist, a white person asked how to incorporate mental health practices in their classroom. During another session with Kashi Johnson, Hip-Hop Theatre pedagogy pioneer and Studio associate, a couple of audience members wanted to know ways that they could combat their fears of teaching Hip-Hop Theatre because they felt it was outside of their realm of expertise. They were probably right.

In short, these seemingly innocent questions highlight the skill and degrees of training required to teach culturally diverse students. Implementing mental health practices, teaching Black acting methods or presenting an entire unit on Hip-Hop Theatre are actions that require lengthy training and pedagogical practice. Even though there is no Q&A long enough to include all of this training, there are certainly ways for instructors to begin to implement a cross-cultural harmony ethos in their theatre spaces – ways that might fortify students’ mental health and invoke Hip-Hop Theatre sensibilities of communal healing and self-actualization.

As is the case with many disciplines and pedagogical environments, beginners should begin at the beginning. White theatre practitioners should start to implement anti-racist and inclusionary practices “one bite at a time.” To this end, I’d like to share actionable, impactful, cost-efficient ideas to help theatre practitioners cultivate anti-racist, inclusionary practices in their acting classrooms, on their stages and in their audition halls. These ideas are derived from the Studio’s Cross-Cultural Harmony Training curriculum. As an entity deeply committed to centering Black lives, we welcome conversations with those who serve and support Black artists, artists who deserve an affirming and positive education in all spaces.

The following suggestions are by no means exhaustive, but all of them are solid starting points to begin the work of connection and healing across cultures. Take what works for you, and feel free to share these suggestions with your colleagues as well. Above all else, please start somewhere.

Acting students listen to a lecture on Afrocentricity.
Photo by Dickerson Arts

1. Create an ‘Awareness & Accountability’ statement
Until this summer, conversations around equity, diversity and inclusion had all but obliterated conversations around racial justice. So, when many predominantly white institutions (PWIs) swiftly posted anti-racist statements to their websites in response to the BLM uprisings, these statements were not well received. In fact, these statements were short-sighted and did not reflect the voiced experiences of Black and Brown people in theatre. And the phrase “good intentions” was finally put to rest, because “good intentions” are no longer acceptable or appropriate to excuse oneself of racist actions.

For educators and theatre institutions that want to do better, a more useful approach might be to craft an “Awareness & Accountability” statement or a “Self-Reflection” statement. These statements should acknowledge the current racial climate and conversations around creating anti-racist environments. This statement can be brief or it can be lengthy. However, it is important that you do offer a response to the current racial climate. Otherwise, you will be ignoring the “elephant in the room.”

Be transparent about your journey in anti-racist training and steps you plan to take now and in the future to actively cultivate cross-cultural harmony. Reflection and action should occur simultaneously.

And please understand that your statement will not be valid or accepted until a racist incident occurs in which you take swift, responsible actions to address the incident and the impact of the incident on those who were harmed. This leads to my next point.

2. It’s the response that resonates
As much as we don’t like it, culturally and racially offensive incidents will occur in our presence, whether we recognize them immediately or not. Of course, students will be upset about the actual event, but there is nothing that anyone can do to change the past. However, your swift response to the incident is critical. Your response reflects your values. What generally angers students is the lack of response or the downplaying of an incident from the instructor and the institution.

I recommend that you develop your own response plan that you will follow, in consultation with your administration and students. You must develop a fair practice or system to deal with grievances in your space. You can even tweak it from time to time. This evolving plan should detail the actions that you will take when a student reports an incident or when a student tells you that you are the offender. What will your response be? Develop your steps for both situations and implement them when incidents occur.

When crafting your personal anti-racist policies, you may find it helpful to consult the writings of leading anti-racist thinkers, such as Monique W. Morris (Push Out: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School) or Kobi Kambon (Cultural Misorientation).

Again, understand that “bad” things will happen – and your response to the incident is what resonates.

3. All plays are ‘race’ plays
Again, all plays are “race” plays. This year, practice talking about race in plays that normally would not prompt a discussion about race. Commit to talking about the role of race in every production, scene and monologue. What was the racial climate when this play was written? How might race relations during a playwright’s life impact the reception and validity of the play? How does racial justice or injustice impact the world of the play, the characters, and their choices? Develop a habit of talking about race in every play.

And remember that race is strongly, but not always, connected to culture. One’s racial identity is typically connected to phenotypical features, whereas culture is cultivated over time and includes diverse symbols, meanings and modes of expression amongst the members of a group.

4. Magnify the riches of Africa, the Motherland
Begin your theatre history lessons in Africa. Many theatre books actually acknowledge that theatre began in Africa, but it’s often stated in a short blurb at the beginning of the book and then we jump to Greece. I strongly recommend acquiring and viewing PBS’s Africa’s Great Civilizations, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Endorsed by scholars from all over the globe, Gates situates Africa as the birthplace of humanity, artistry and the sciences. Another great resource is Stolen Legacy by George G. M. James, which was one of the first African American books to be banned in America. In this book, James convincingly details how ancient Greek philosophy is actually “stolen” African philosophy.

Dr. Jonathan M. Lassiter, the Studio’s in-house licensed psychologist, facilitates a mental health workshop for actors.

5. Add Afrocentric methodologies to your lexicon
Learn the names of methodologies from non-white cultures and speak of them whenever you are discussing acting theories. Make this a habit. Even if you haven’t read about these methods, knowing about them and publicly naming them is a starting point.

Some Afrocentric performance methodologies include: Barbara Ann Teer’s Teer Technology of Soul, Frank Silvera’s American Theatre of Being, Aku Kadogo’s Kadogo Mojo, Tawnya Pettiford-Wates‘ Ritual Poetic Drama with the African Continuum, Cristal Chanelle Truscott’s SoulWork and my own methodology, The Luckett Paradigm. There are chapters on some of these methodologies and more in the book Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches.

6. Embrace students’ perspective on their experiences and emotions
Consider your students experts of their emotions, even if you feel like you know better. Take your lead from them. Work to find them culturally responsive material, but if for some reason they still prefer to play white characters or only direct white plays, let them do so. Ultimately, these students have been made to feel like a huge problem in theatre programs across the nation, and each student’s trauma is different. Trust your students and give them their space.

You also might consider reading “When the Students Have Notes for the Teachers” by Ciara Diane, which includes links to racial equity demands of theatre students across the U.S. This story is posted on the American Theatre website.

7. Broaden your sources
Your syllabus and reading list reflect your values. A large number of educators across the globe have affirmed the impact of Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches in their classrooms. Therefore, I encourage you to add it to your reading list. This book – for which I served as lead editor – includes contributions from more than two dozen Black directors, scholars and actor-trainers who detail their Afrocentric processes and methods. Reviewers from Anne Bogart to Kenny Leon have described it as a “must-read” book. The introduction of the book is a solid place to start your journey toward a more inclusive classroom as it situates the work and the interventions being made.

Written by Sharrell D. Luckett
Sharrell D. Luckett, PhD, is executive director of the Black Acting Methods Studio, a virtual and mobile training company. She is also director of the Helen Weinberger Center for Drama & Playwriting and a professor of drama and performance studies at the University of Cincinnati.

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