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Drama in the drama department: Lack of diversity on campus leads director to look elsewhere

Recent recasting in the Department of Theatre has stirred discussion of an elephant in the room: Miami's lack of racial diversity.

The department's upcoming production of "We Are Proud to Present..." held auditions last fall and posted a cast list before students were released for winter break. But the last-minute withdrawal of two cast members left director Torie Wiggins scrambling to find replacements in the last three days before their first rehearsal last Tuesday.

What made the situation particularly dire? The two roles which needed to be recast had to be black males, as specified in the script.

"I wasn't upset with [the actors who dropped]," Wiggins said. "It was just like, I'm not necessarily in a demographic where I have my pick, so my only freak-out was, 'Now where do I find black men?'"

Senior theatre major Anthony Thompson, who was originally cast as Actor 4, decided after a second round of interviews a few weeks ago to take an internship with Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles for the spring semester while finishing up the two credits he needs to graduate online.

"I couldn't justify turning down an opportunity like that," said Thompson, referring to his internship. "I accepted it even though it was an incredibly difficult decision, especially since it's not all the time that Miami has shows that showcase people of color."

According to Miami University's diversity inclusion data report from Oct.15, 2016, just 3 percent of Miami's undergraduate students self-identified as Black/African American, compared to 73 percent of undergraduates who classified themselves as White/Unknown.

"It's not the fact that we lost actors," Wiggins said. "It's the fact that we don't have the casting pool to pull them from in 2018 in a theatre department of a university that is striving for more diversity. So I will go ahead and point at that elephant in the room and say, 'Yep, he's standing there. What are we gonna do about that?'"

Wiggins did end up finding actors to fill the roles at the last minute, but from outside Miami's campus. Neither Shaun Diggs (a 2016 graduate from Sinclair Community College) nor Keith Holland Jr. (a former student of Wiggins') had heard of "We Are Proud to Present..." before last week, but now they are both driving an hour to and from Oxford every evening for rehearsals.

"It's a welcoming environment," said Diggs. "It wasn't uncomfortable. As soon as I got here it was great, no egos. Within the first week we've gotten to know each other."

"We Are Proud to Present..." depicts six actors working together to devise a piece of theatre that explains the genocide of Namibia, the first genocide of the 20th century where 80 percent of all Herero people were killed. Through its humor and experimental style, the metatheatrical play aims to call out racial misconceptions and judgements that many Miami students face on a daily basis.

"What this play does deal with is people speaking from other people's perspective," Wiggins said. "The importance of finding specific cast members racially is because of that main theme. So the idea that I did have to go off campus to find [black male actors] generally speaks to the demographic. Diversity is getting better on this campus, but we still have a long way to go."

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Thompson spoke along the same lines as Wiggins.

"It's kind of a chicken or the egg scenario," said Thompson. "There is the ultimate need for black bodies and bodies of color on stage, but it's hard to do that when they don't already see themselves on stage or know that these opportunities exist for them. It's not a theatre issue only, it's definitely a university-wide issue."

When choosing this piece, the department did not foresee any obstacle with telling these minority narratives despite the lack of people of color at Miami. Now, however, Wiggins can admit to the humor of the situation.

"It is so ironic," she said with a dry laugh. "We're doing this show on this campus and couldn't find two black male actors here to do the roles."

The first week of rehearsals consisted of reading through the script as an ensemble and having dialogues revolving around the difficult subject matter of the play. Wiggins believes that conversation is key, and she has not even had the actors get on stage yet.

For Holland, this play serves as an especially important opportunity for him to learn about a major African genocide that most people, including himself, are never taught.

"Just looking at the educational system in America, our history is condensed to February," Holland said. "It's a very tight-knit section of history that's presented to us in our school system. There's so much more that I never had the opportunity to learn, and this is showing us that we're all human."

These conversations have allowed each cast member to dive deeper into their characters and understand what they like and don't like about these people that they are portraying.

"He feels that he is always correct, which is not always the case," said senior theatre major Mario Formica, referring to his character, Actor 1. "When tumultuous things start to happen I have to get into the mindset that I can't judge my character based on his actions because if I judge him then I'm not doing that character justice."

Diggs believes that his character was the most intense.

"He gets to a point where he has to be direct," he said. "[He believes] the story must be told right and told by someone with the black experience that can understand and pull from his own life experience through the lineage of being black. In life, I feel like... white guys or people sometimes will take something from our experience and try to water down what actually happened or try to deny it because it's not them that did it, the people who are alive now. With this story, the truth is so ugly. It has to be told."

With one week of rehearsals already completed, the chaos of finding new actors seems to be behind Wiggins. Now she is focused on making the most out of this short rehearsal process and ensuring all of her actors feel safe and welcome in this creative space.

"It's amazing," Wiggins said. "In a week we have managed to create a safe and supportive space for the type of subject matter that we're dealing with. That was very important to me. I'm really, really optimistic. Everybody is doing their due diligence in being inquisitive and curious and respectful and honest, and as a director I could not have asked for a better environment in the room."

The Department of Theatre will be putting up Jackie Sibblies Drury's "We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915" at 7:30 p.m. March 7-10 and at 2 p.m March 10-11 in Studio 88.