When someone thinks about a drama class, their mind might go to thoughts of wacky warm-ups, diction exercises, or quoting Shakespeare. Regardless of whether or not these things are true, the realm of drama surpasses superficial presentations, often associated with real-world issues and events. One such topic I’ve had the opportunity to explore this year is the importance of race in dramatic works.
First off, what is race? The word “race” is usually associated with physical characteristics, such as skin color or hair texture. It is often regarded as biological, even though it is actually not detectable in the human genome. The concept of race strongly ties in with how we as humans categorize ourselves and view others. Thus, race as a social construct strongly affects the social, economic, and political status of people around the world — but why does it matter in drama?
Exploring plays that directly pertain race and its impact on a character’s experiences can result in examining material that reflects a diversity of characters and stories. In a class setting, it’s interesting to hear what other students think of certain material and what specific topics impact them. As such, discussion is beneficial in understanding how others might interpret the same material differently. It is also important in gaining insight on how others’ identities contemporary subject matter — such as their race — can affect their views and experiences.
As students, reading plays featuring different identities can be beneficial not only for understanding others, but understanding themselves. The way people with similar identities are portrayed can impact how people view themselves and people with identities. If there is unequal on-stage action or prejudiced casting, then the resulting lack of representation can be damaging. How can an artist imagine being the lead or the hero if their identity is never represented? What does that mean for a person of color? This issue transcends personal feelings and looks at systematic issues. In English classes, drama classes, and drama productions, it’s common to work with material that leans towards predominantly white characters. There is progress, however, as over time artists have written and worked towards making plays more relatable or attainable to people of all identities (popular example: Hamilton). By creating or morphing material to feature characters with various identities (especially in more contemporary subject matter), many artists aim to have a diverse range of stories represented.
Potential issues revolving casting in the theatre world contribute to the importance of acknowledging plays that feature people of color. In drama, it seems as though there is always the risk of whitewashing or race-bending. While this seems innocent, it contributes to racial exclusion. One way this can be addressed for students is by discussing it in rehearsal or class. A safe environment can lead to important discussions on why or why not certain things are effective or okay. Lack of judgment (though not necessarily opposition) allows for a beneficial experience for students in a way that allows for learning without fear of retribution.