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'It's a constant vigil': PlayMakers celebrates 100 years of breaking down barriers through art

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The Carolina Playmakers present "Hamlet" at the Forest Theatre in 1935. Photo courtesy of the Wilson Library Archives. 

It is a Thursday morning at 9:15. 

A professor in a gray blazer gazes out the window, seemingly lost in thought. On the opposite end of the lobby, two friends sit on the modern, cushy couches and chat. A peppy young woman with a tight bun and a flowy, navy shirt bursts through the door, engrossed in a script as she walks.

It is a Thursday morning, and this is PlayMakers Repertory Company.

This season, the company celebrates 100 years of bringing theater to UNC’s campus – 100 years of stories from both students and professionals.

Resident actor Kathryn Hunter-Williams has been with PlayMakers for the past 19 seasons. Throughout her time, she has worked with three different artistic directors and has directed and performed in countless productions.

“Over the course of time, I have seen what has really changed is the intentionality,” she said. “What’s different is the absolute commitment to inclusion and diversity not only with what you see on the stage, but with the playwrights and designers that work with us.” 

But that commitment to diversity and inclusion has not always been the case. 

‘Write what you know’

It all started with a letter.

The heat inevitably beat down as Frederick “Proff” Koch took his first step on UNC’s campus in August 1918. He arrived with a letter in hand from former UNC President Edward Kidder Graham. In the letter, Graham told Koch that he yearned to cultivate creative activity at the University.

Koch had spent the year prior successfully developing a theater program at the University of North Dakota, and he was hesitant to bring theater to a school with no previous exposure. But he could not say no to Graham, a former English professor who adamantly felt that arts education was important to the University experience.

So there Koch was on the first day of classes in 1918, ready to teach the first-ever playwriting course at UNC.

Frederick "Proff" Koch established the Carolina Playmakers in 1919. Photo courtesy of the Wilson Library Archives. 

Getting snapshots of North Carolina was his main goal, and he encouraged students to write about what they knew, such as stories of people from the mountains or stories of people from the country.

In a state where 85.6 percent of people lived in rural territory, according to the 1910 census, writing plays about folk life was not a stretch.

“What I love about Proff Koch is that it is theater that comes from the people – it’s for the people by the people,” Hunter-Williams said. “He told his students, ‘Go write about what you know.’ And that’s how we got the folk drama of North Carolina. You’ve got these stories students wrote about their hometown and characters in their hometowns.”

Koch’s efforts in class proved successful, so in the spring semester of 1919, he officially established the Carolina Playmakers, a student group dedicated to performing the stories of his students both on campus and all around the state.

The Carolina Playmakers pose for a picture in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Wilson Library Archives. 

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Raving reviews and hope for the future of on-campus theater surrounded the first official performance of the Carolina Playmakers in March 1919 at the Forest Theatre. Koch and his students basked in the positive feedback that came from local newspapers, townspeople and students.

But amid all the excitement, there were some people noticeably absent both onstage and in the audience.

'Less than satisfactory' on diversity

It was not until 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed all forms of segregation in public schools. The first three Black undergraduate students enrolled at UNC in fall 1955.

UNC historian Cecelia Moore said it was not until years later that demographic shifts within the Playmakers began.

“How art and performing art was dealing with race on a predominantly white campus was changing,” Moore said. “Though for much of the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were very few African-American students.”

Just before the group was created, there was an annual average of about 800 students on campus, majority white male.

An annual average of six white females means they comprised less than 1 percent of the campus population, according to a UNC press release. At the time, non-white students were prohibited from attending the University.

Howard Aldrich, a UNC sociology professor, said although Koch was liberal in ideology, the composition of the University at the time would have made it difficult to make the Carolina Playmakers more inclusive.

“You had a company that was predisposed to be open to diversity,” he said. “But in a University that was overwhelmingly white male, it took decades for the potential of the company to catch up with much more diverse content.”

Though the enrollment rates of undergraduate Black students eventually reached above 1 percent – hitting 1.4 percent in 1969, according to the University – Playmakers was not representative of this enrollment trend.

“It’s not to excuse anything,” Moore said. “They were aware that what they were doing was less than satisfactory.”

Throughout the 1960s, the only known record of a black actor in a show came in the 1962 production of “Only in America,” written in 1959 about bigotry and racism through the perspective of a man in a Jewish ghetto. Moore said this could have possibly been the first time Playmakers employed a non-white actor on the stage.

Carolina Playmakers put on a production of "Only in America" in March 1962. Photo courtesy of Wilson Library archives.

“There were people here trying to get a broader narrative on campus,” Aldrich said. “It does suggest that on campus, there were people who were interested in linking this southern University when it came to things like being able to freely reflect what’s going on in society."

And, Moore said, as the company grew and began to set its sights on establishing itself as a professional theater company in the 1970s, a significant shift in onstage representation began to occur.

“I think PlayMakers’ history in the last 40 years pretty much parallels with what the whole University has done," she said. "It’s a more diverse population, but there still remain issues."

‘We have a ways to go’

The professionalization of the PlayMakers Repertory Company came in 1976, which echoed a national change among college drama departments.

Professional repertory programs – programs that employ resident actors who participate in productions – gained popularity as a way of providing professional theater experiences to undergraduate and graduate students in the 1970s. UNC has one of the few remaining professional repertory programs today.

Non-white students comprise 35.6 percent of the UNC student body today — and Black students just 8.2 percent — but PlayMakers has worked at becoming intentional in providing a wide array of perspectives both on the stage and on its production teams.

“We have a ways to go, nobody feels like our work is done or, ‘Oh, we’re doing really good,’” Hunter-Williams said. “I think there are lots of barriers up, and the only way to combat that is the approach I feel the company’s taking now, which is you battle it on all fronts."

While still at school, UNC graduate Abbey Ammons researched representation in PlayMakers, and she said that having diverse perspectives in the theater is crucial for a progressing society.

“We very much absorb the things around us unconsciously, and I feel like entertainment is a big part of that,” she said. “With so much social change stemming from things like theater, I feel like there needs to be more critique.”

In terms of recent season programming, the company has altered its marketing to reflect productions that engage audiences.

This season is named “Shifting Ground: Theatre that Moves,” which reflects the desire for change within the company, said Catherine Baird, a UNC graduate who worked with PlayMakers for all of her undergraduate term.

Through humble beginnings and a somewhat tumultuous history, PlayMakers is now celebrating 100 years with a hopeful eye toward the future.

Perhaps fulfilling Koch’s original vision of a theater for the people and by the people, Hunter-Williams said she feels very lucky to have an artistic home at PlayMakers. 

“It’s all part of my core beliefs,” she said. “Each project is just an extension of that, in terms of equity and inclusion and the power of theater, and in terms of commitment and being more intentional about making it a more inclusive world for everybody. It’s a constant vigil.”