In the spring semester of his freshman year, David Eve found himself returning from an encore “sobbing his little heart.”
It wasn’t because he had forgotten his lines; he did not do it.
It wasn’t because he failed his audition; he did not do it.
Personal failure was not the cause of his sadness.
Rather, it was the reality of being a black individual in UB’s theater and dance department that caused the heartbreak.
Eve was auditioning for the Spring 2020 production of “Merrily We Roll Along.”
However, unlike his white counterparts, Eve says he was “scooped” into auditioning for the role of the Minister, a character who is the subject of a joke about his blackness.
“You did the same work for the audition as everyone else. You do the same job on encore as everyone else,” said Eve, a young musical theater student. Spectrum in an interview. “And then all of a sudden there’s just this role and this scene happening and it completely prevents you from getting anything more.”
The lack of roles for students of color is just one issue that UB’s theater and dance department has been forced to grapple with over the past few years. From hairdressers unwilling or unable to do hair for students of color to microaggressions spoken out by professors and their peers — the performing arts hasn’t been the safest place for students of color to UB.
Dreams Affirmed is working to change that.
Dreams Affirmed is UB’s first student-run diversity club focused on creating safe spaces, addressing inequality, and promoting opportunities for students of color in the performing arts. Founded in September 2020, Dreams Affirmed was recognized as a formal club by the Student Association in December 2021.
The club began as an informal group of students, bound together by shared experiences of exclusion and frustration.
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The space they built together was meant to do the opposite – it fostered a self-proclaimed family, a family of joy, security and fulfillment.
“I think there’s a kind of kinship that comes from feeling that these people take you to so many different levels,” said Tioga Simpson-Worthington, a junior theater student. “It really is a very nice space.”
As the group solidified into a more formal organization, its influence on UB’s performing arts grew.
Dreams Affirmed has reached a milestone in student and staff recognition following its spring 2021 production of “Pipeline.” The play, which centers on the story of a black inner-city teacher, Nya, and her son, Omari, was produced with nearly an entire cast and crew made up of students of color.
“Pipeline” resonated with the members of Dreams Affirmed for two main reasons: it was a consciously written story about the lives of people of color, and it demonstrated to UB’s theater and dance department that such stories had their place on their stages.
“That was when everyone was saying, ‘Not only are these people trying to solve some of the structural problems in the department, but they’re also producing high-quality work,'” Derrian Brown, junior musical theater student and Dreams Affirmed’s event coordinator, said.
Some members of Dreams Affirmed say much of the success of “Pipeline” wouldn’t have been possible if the faculty had been involved.
Members believe that part of this lack of trust stems from shared interests between professors and students: professors may be more concerned with budget and deadlines, while students may prioritize their own desires and freedoms as actors.
However, a bigger root of this problem is the lack of color faculty in the drama and dance department.
The problem of all- or mostly-white faculty has been one the members of Dreams Affirmed have faced throughout their undergraduate careers, and one they continually try to change.
“I want to work with a voice teacher who really understands my voice,” Eve said. “I would love to work with an actor who truly understands my experiences.”
The lack of color faculties has caused feelings of isolation, instances of racial insensitivity, and even difficulty with homework.
Kristen-Marie Lopez, vice president of Dreams Affirmed and musical theater major, recounted casting-type assignments where students were tasked with finding songs sung by an actor who looked like them — rather than songs that match their voice or their musical style.
“I’m kind of stuck in this Latina stereotype,” Lopez said. “Whenever there’s a Latino character that I look like or talk about, I’m just portraying the stereotypical character.”
As a result of these issues, Dreams Affirmed, then an eponymous collective, arranged a meeting with the theater and dance faculty in December 2020, the semester before the production of “Pipeline”.
Members say the conversation produced a mix of comments from professors – much of which they said was positive.
“I think a lot of the faculty felt upset and a couple reached out to me and apologized and said they wanted to do better,” said Sydné Jackson, senior theater performance specialist. and president of Dreams Affirmed. “Some teachers, I could tell by the expression on their faces, didn’t feel it.”
Despite ongoing problems in the department – and the theater world as a whole – and lukewarm responses from some professors, the mere existence of Dreams Affirmed has been a point of trust and support for its members.
“I just had a class where I told the teacher we weren’t going to talk about minstrelsy,” Simpson-Worthington said. “I don’t want to talk about blackface. I don’t want to talk about Turkey in the Straw. I don’t want to talk about any of that.
Simpson-Worthington says the support of the members of Dreams Affirmed gave them the courage to speak out in class that day, and as a result, that lesson and future lessons surrounding these branches of racist theater came to a halt.
More than just providing students with the platform and courage to speak out and make their voices heard, Dreams Affirmed also acts as a respite for students of color who grow weary in their struggle for racial sensitivity and discrimination. inclusiveness.
“There are times when we as human beings don’t feel strong. We don’t have the resilience, that courage, to fight back sometimes,” Eve said. “To find a group of people where you’re like, ‘Hey, my armor’s kinda broke today,’ and they can pick you up where you need to be to go out and fight and make that change.”
In their collective fight, the members of Rêves Affirmés remain particularly proud of recent accomplishments, including the creation of an anonymous reporting system for the theater and dance department and the hiring of guest lecturers.
The reporting system, done through Google Forms, allows students to report any incident in which a faculty member or peer has made them feel uncomfortable in any form (including on the basis of race or sex and sexuality).
Members of Dreams Affirmed are mandated reporters for incidents that violate college law, but they hope the system will bring to light smaller, but still important cases, such as those of microaggressions.
“We shouldn’t have to wait for hate crime levels to report something,” Lopez said.
From his interview with Spectrum on March 18, Jackson says no cases have been reported through the system.
The introduction of guest speakers, especially those of color, was another highlight of the changes Dreams Affirmed continues to pursue. With a lack of color faculty, members cited guest speakers as bringing a cultural nuance that was previously lacking in the theater and dance department.
Now, as the semester draws to a close, the members of Dreams Affirmed say they can’t wait to present a showcase towards the end of May.
The storefront, described as an “upside-down Broadway” by Lopez, has been one of Dreams Affirmed’s goals since last fall. The purpose of the showcase is to allow students (of any discipline) to play roles that would traditionally be inaccessible to them because of their race, gender or any other reason.
“We’re such a talented group of people,” Lopez said. “Seeing us without limits is going to really impress a lot of people who might have thought we couldn’t do things or get opportunities because of how we look.”
Kara Anderson is the Arts Editor and can be reached at [email protected]
Kara Anderson is Senior Art Editor at Spectrum. She holds a double major in English and Spanish and is pursuing a certificate in Creative Writing. She enjoys baking chocolate chip cookies, procrastinating with solitaire, and watching reality TV on the weekends.