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New theater company seeks to make theater accessible to students of color

Liz Howard rehearses for Company Carolina's production of Godpsell. Howard plays the lead, Jesus, in the play, which opens on Nov. 1, 2018.

From opening nights to the final curtain calls, UNC undergraduate theater is full of lively singing, dramatic acting and hardworking students, but some students say it appears to be lacking one thing: diversity.

A new group has started on campus called the Black Arts Theatre Company, a subgroup of the Black Student Movement. The group seeks to tackle this overarching issue of diversity in student theater, as well as to make a space where all students feel supported and comfortable in theater. 

At UNC, non-professional theater companies are the main way students get theatrical experience. These groups include Company Carolina, LAB! Theatre and Pauper Players, where auditions are open to every student.

However, sophomore Aubree Dixon, Black Arts Theatre Company director of publicity, said accessibility is an issue in theater. 

“Drama doesn't feel accessible to people of color a lot of the time,” Dixon said. “Because a lot of the bigger shows that people know, like 'Wicked' or 'Les Mis.' There’s not really a space.”

Dramatic Arts Director of Undergraduate Production David Navalinsky said this is an issue he hopes can be resolved in the near future. 

“It’s not where it should be, but it’s not terrible," Navalinsky said. "But when you look at the people who come out to auditions, it’s primarily white students." 

But Navalinsky said he knows that there are students inside and outside of the drama department who want to act professionally.

“I know there are places where we need to fill some voids, and so I do my best to reach out to as diverse a pool of applicants as I can,” Navalinsky said. 

When it comes to theater, it's not just a diversity in the cast that's important, but also diversity in the playwrights, Navalinsky said. 

Navalinsky said when Kenan Theatre Company begins to choose the shows for the season, it always considers playwrights and directors who are aware of diversity and how that can be used in shows.

“We don’t need to go back to the canon," Navalinsky said. "We can do the newer plays. We can do the plays that speak to younger people more, that are really conscious in the writing that there doesn’t need to be a white cast.” 

Still, at UNC, where over 65 percent of students identify as white, the stage is still mostly white. Dixon said being the only Black person in a cast isn’t a new feeling for her. 

“We are just kind of used to it,” Dixon said. “I know so many talented people on this campus who just don’t feel like they have a place in the dramatic arts department and the other student groups, and it can be really disheartening at times,” Dixon said.

Black Arts Theatre Company Founder Liz Howard said she sometimes feels like the diversity token in a show, and she hopes by opening the conversation about diversity in the theater they can encourage other students of color to audition without intimidation.

“I am not going to be your diversity token to give you a Black artist to fill these roles,” Howard said. “I’m not gonna tell my actors not to audition for your roles. But this is not a group that’s going to indirectly make other groups look good. That’s just not our goal. Our goal is to make art with each other, that’s it.”

Howard said she wants to produce shows by Black playwrights and shows that require a predominantly Black cast — shows that would be difficult to produce with UNC’s current theater demographic. For example, Howard said she would love to do "The Color Purple."

Howard and Dixon said there is a tendency for students and student directors to stick with who they know, thus resulting in many of the same students being cast in shows.

“This isn’t to rag on any groups because we all have problems with sticking to our comfort zones,” Howard said. “I think this is just constructive criticism that we can all learn from. And realize that these are things we need to do in order to change the face of theater.”

Howard said the Black Arts Theatre Company seeks to make more connections that enhance the theater community on campus.

“As soon as we start genuinely wanting to see each other perform and genuinely enjoying other people's art we can make bonds,” Howard said.

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Kathy Williams is the faculty adviser for the Black Arts Theatre Company and a teaching associate professor of dramatic arts. She said in her time at UNC, she has seen improvements in diversity and hopes it continues to get better.

“People who love theater are people who love theater,” Williams said. “The more stories you tell, the more people you can include.”