Students protest play’s use of blackface, lack of racial inclusivity through die-in

Forrest Milburn

To protest the theatre department’s use of blackface in its latest production, a group of students laid down on the ground in the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre lobby Thursday.

The production partially spurred the demonstration, called a “die-in,” but also points to the larger issue of racial inclusivity, according to organizers and protesters.

“Do not trust what you see as a reflection of this community,” theatre and dance senior Oktavea Williams said during the protest. “When you leave, do not allow caricatures, stereotypes and prejudices that will be presented tonight to persist.”

The department’s production of “The Wild Party,” co-written by Michael John LaChiusa and African-American playwright George C. Wolfe, is set during the Roaring ‘20’s and includes several “debaucherous” scenes.

The play also includes about two scenes where the character Burrs puts on blackface, a form of theatrical makeup used by non-black actors to mock black stereotypes.

In an email, theater department chair Brant Pope said his program is not including the blackface as an endorsement of the practice but as a critique used by co-writer Wolfe, a playwright whose works deal with race and identity. 

“It’s critical to understand that we are producing the play as written,” Pope said. “The writers use blackface in this play as one of many elements that point to a lack of a moral compass in both the character and the world he inhabits.”

Several students and protesters argued that the problem with the production lies less with the play itself, but more so with inclusivity
problems shown through what they said was insufficient communication with the black community about the use of blackface.

“For a number of our students we were able to engage in deep and critical conversations about the play’s content,” Pope said. “But it’s clear that we needed to have reached out to other populations in our department. We are in conversation now about how to improve these processes around our productions.”  

Theatre and dance senior Fallon Christian, who spoke at the demonstration, said she hopes the protest will lead to better conversations about race later down the road.

“I challenge this department to continue to make bold choices in selecting the shows that will represent our bodies and practice what it teaches,” Christian said. “We want to educate our peers, our instructors, our friends and our families in this institution that in so many ways have become our home.”