When the Theatre Arts Program decided to produce Master Harold and the Boys last spring, set design, ticket sales and costuming weren't the only things director Samantha Aezen had to worry about. With a predominantly white performing arts community, she did not know whether she would be able to fill the production's two black roles. And although seven black students auditioned for the play focusing on race relations in South Africa, Aezen said this black participation was a fluke. While the University's performing arts community is diverse by genre, encompassing theater, music, dance and comedy, it is largely segregated by race. While leaders maintain that there is no overt discrimination, minority students interested in performing arts say they are put off by the sea of white faces and do not audition. As a result, the theater community here mirrors its real-world counterpart. The mainstream groups are mostly filled with whites and perform works usually drawn from white culture. Alternative groups formed in response are mostly black and focus on minority culture. Even though both white and minority performers say they would like to see more integration, the community seems to have reached an equilibrium. Leaders of mainstream groups consider race a non-issue because they do not see direct discrimination, and black groups are focusing on providing an alternative for minority expression rather than working within traditional groups. 'Not Incredibly Inviting' Minority turnout at auditions is consistently low. According to Arts House Theatre President Heidi Saffer, for example, the acting pool for the program's productions over the last three years has been 70 percent female and almost completely white. And minority leaders say the imbalance is self-perpetuating. Because non-white students do not see role models in performing groups, they are reluctant to audition. "It's not incredibly inviting when you watch different groups on campus and you don't see any African-Americans or any Latinos," said College junior Uzoma Ogbuokiri, co-founder of the Inspiration, a black a cappella group. "It seems like you'll be entering into something you have to deal with, not something you're going to enjoy." "It's bad enough to worry about 'is this note right,' but you look around and you're the only black person in the room," he said. "As a freshman, you don't want to be the different one out there." Student Performing Arts Coordinator Kathryn Helene said the biggest hurdle is getting minority students to audition, adding that when making cuts, the groups' need for talent supercedes racial considerations. Myong Leigh, who sings with the Glee Club and PennChants, said the selection process is race blind. "Whoever is good gets in, but there's no such thing as affirmative action, either," the Wharton junior said. Glee Club President Matthew Williams said his group strives for a good vocal mix and does not consider personal attributes like race. But Inspiration co-founder Marisa Sifontes said performing arts groups are guilty of limiting the number of minorities. "There is a quota," said the College junior. "You're not going to have an all-black a cappella group, or even a half-black group. You're going to have your one or two tokens, as it were." Increasing minority participation for theater groups is more challenging than it is for singing groups. A character's race is often important to both the story line and the setting of a show. But minority performers say productions could include more minorities through unconventional interpretations of shows, or even the use of stage makeup. Wharton senior Angela Ai broke with tradition by portraying non-Asian characters such as Maria in Penn Players' West Side Story and Rosabud in Quadramics' production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood last spring. "It's just hard to find a musical that has a lot of minority parts, but from my own experience, nothing's really stopped me," she said. But College sophomore Liz Cedillo, vice president of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, said that although she was involved with theater in high school, she is afraid that she will be typecast if she auditions at the University. "My student body was 70 percent Hispanic so there couldn't be any typecasting, and we had the opportunity to take part in many different roles," she said. Underrepresented Cultures Fear of being outnumbered is not the only thing preventing minorities from joining the performing arts, leaders said. The music and plays being performed on campus -- from traditional musicals like Cabaret to the Penn Singers' upcoming Disney revue -- rarely focus on minority culture. "Basically, you don't see yourself represented," Wilson said. "I don't recall one group or one play that dealt with African-American life or had African-American characters as main characters." But there have been some exceptions to this rule. Performing Arts Coordinator Helene, who also runs Take Charge Theater, said she tries to produce plays that have mixed-race casts and also address issues of racism. And last year's Master Harold production was also an exception. Some minority students on campus have reacted to underrepresentation by forming separate groups. The Inspiration was formed specifically to perform music by black composers, and other groups like Ayalah dance company and the Balalaika Orchestra portray the folk arts of different countries. MEChA Vice President Cedillo said she would like to form a Latino arts group to promote a culture which she says is often overlooked. Glee Club member Leigh said the separate groups fit into a "capitalistic theory," adding that if there is a demand for a particular kind of group, "someone will come up with it sooner or later." Helene said earlier this week that the formation of separate groups does not indicate that there is discrimination in the performing arts community. "Even though the groups are fairly homogenous, it's more a sense of hanging around with your friends than 'we don't want you,' " she said. Overcoming Barriers Although leaders agree that increasing minority involvement in performing arts is desirable, they are divided on the extent to which performing groups should target their recruitment at minorities. Inspiration co-founder Sifontes said performing arts groups need to be more aware of specific minorities' needs. "Unless you gear yourselves toward a certain community, that community is not going to open itself up to you," she said, adding that she has never seen audition notices in DuBois College House. Penn Black Arts League founder Wilson said he believes the best way to recruit minorities is to choose pieces that reflect minority experiences. Helene said she thinks increasing minority involvement will take a special effort. "The insularity that exists in our society requires more activism to overcome the barriers," she said. She added that she has tried to transmit the open nature of Take Charge's performances, using language in her advertisements that encourages people of all backgrounds to audition. Master Harold director Aezen said that drawing people to auditions often relies personal contact. "It's sort of a matter of where the ads go and who talks to whom," she said. "It's that kind of networking." But Glee Club President Williams, a College senior, said his group does not target minorities specifically but instead tries to reach all first-year men. He said the club sends all incoming male students a postcard introducing the group, and sings at freshman picnics and dining halls, adding that race is not a factor in determining membership. Performing artists said successful recruiting of minorities hinges on showing a history of minority involvement and success. Counterparts is known for being racially mixed from year to year, and President Kate Grant said that the group's most successful form of advertising has been Student Performing Arts Night. Grant said that a broad range of students see the show are drawn to the group's performance finesse and want to audition, adding that in past years, minorities have been attracted to the group because of star soloists like 1989 Engineering graduate Lolita Jackson. She also said the group performs a diverse range of music. 'Incredibly Comfortable' Minority students who have taken the plunge into performing arts -- either into existing groups or with new organizations -- say they have been warmly received. "When I joined the Glee Club, I expected that I'd be fighting a battle, but I found it was incredibly comfortable," said Ogubuokiri. "The Glee Club is almost a brotherhood." Wilson, who also co-founded the politically oriented Black Enlightenment Theatre last year, said the performing arts community as a whole was very supportive of the Penn Black Arts League when it was formed, helping its members navigate the bureaucratic maze a performance entails. Both Glee Club member Leigh and Ai, who is a member of Counterparts, said that they have not experienced discrimination and that race is not an issue within their groups. (CUT LINE) Please see FOCUS, page 3 FOCUS, from page 1Comments powered by Disqus
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