The Miseducation of Black Students: Why Equity in Theater Education Is Important
When I sat down to write this, my first instinct was to recount the many instances of anti-Blackness I’ve experienced in institutions of higher learning. I began to use my energy in the time of a pandemic and a complete shut down of live theatre to intellectually and creatively craft a retelling of the multiple times I heard a certain white professor tell his Black female-identifying students to make it more “Tyler Perry.” As if the only legitimate reference point to Black expression came from movies with Madea in it.
But alas, I won’t recount that story. The primary miseducation given to Black students at predominantly white institutions is that their work must be crafted to the palate of the “white gaze.” So, ahead of Broadway Advocacy Coalition’s Forum on Racism in our education system, I won’t speak to the miseducation I received — of which there is plenty and will be thoroughly examined tonight — but I will write to the interactions with Black teachers, directors, and administrators, whose work and care have given me the armor needed to navigate any situation.
My first dance teacher as a young person was a Black woman and a blessing. To her, I say thank you. Thank you for instilling in me at a very early age the validity of dancing to classical music and Earth, Wind, and Fire. I always knew that the music that spoke to me and my people wasn’t some prize I received because I had listened to Beethoven first. I would dance and my body — my whole body — was validated. I never looked in the mirror and thought that some other color or shape was more equipped to take space than I was.
The name of the game with her was: work hard, drink water, and do it for yourself! The standard I held for myself was the standard most worthy of the spotlight once it was time to dance. I also thank her for the small reminders to never let a choreographer know that you’re tired, and to look at instructors’ entire body so you don’t have to ask too many questions. This is probably something every dance student must learn, but I only realized later that the stakes of a Black person asking a question or appearing tired in a classroom was enough for a teacher to mark you as a trouble student.
Once I got to college, I was lucky enough to have a Black woman direct me my freshman year. I was so fortunate to be recognized in a room so early in my college life. By recognized, I mean seen for not just my talent but my personhood. To have a professor and director innately understand what it meant for my Black body to roam the halls of a predominantly white institution. Because she also roamed those same halls and experienced microaggressions just like I did, meant she could appeal to the parts of me other teachers couldn’t see.
The curriculum was white and therefore industry standard and therefore supposedly sufficient. But this brilliant Black lady allowed me to imagine beyond what the curriculum said I must learn. She wrote a show that allowed Black performers to play any role and be seen for any spot they desired so long as they worked hard and drank water.
It was rare for a teacher to feel like they knew me enough to give me the extra detailed feedback they might give white students. And in the classes where that was the case, I was left uneducated. Thank you to the Black professors and directors who take extra time with kids who don’t come from privileged backgrounds, who may have been exposed to the craft of performing at a later age, and most importantly who are still trying to figure out their identity in a sea of white expectation that only wants to see them in A Raisin in the Sun.
To any Black teacher, director, professor, front desk worker, and classmate that made sure that I never felt completely alone while preparing myself for the professional world, Thank you. Thank you for allowing me space to be messy and vulnerable without ever being afraid of me. Thank you for holding me to a standard of excellence that never felt disconnected from love.
To the institutions that are just beginning the work to make sure your school undoes its racist practices, both in culture and curriculum, please remember the work must be done as more than a kind gesture. Remember that humanity is at stake here and that every Black child in your program just wants to be able to work hard and hydrate on an anti-racist campus.
Zhailon Levingston is a Louisiana-raised writer and director. Credits include: “Neptune” at Dixon Place and the Brooklyn Museum; “The Years That Went Wrong” at The Lark and MCC; “The Exonerated” at Columbia Law School; “Chariot part 2” at SoHo Rep for The Movement Theatre Company; and “Mother of Pearl” at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center. He is the associate director for “Primer for a Failed Super Power” with Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin and for “Runaways” at The Public with Sam Pinkleton. Most recently he directed “Chicken and Biscuits” at Queens Theatre. Zhailon is the resident director at “Tina the Tina Turner Musical” on Broadway. @zhailon