CBC with Naila Keleta-Mae 28 August 2019
When Jamar Adams-Thompson takes the stage next month to play Othello in the University of Windsor’s production of William Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, it’ll be the first time that a black actor will be led by a black director in the theatre department’s history.
Naila Keleta-Mae, assistant professor in the University of Waterloo’s department of Communications Arts, said the fact that Adams-Thompson and director Tanisha Taitt are the first black artists to work together in their respective theatrical roles is a sign of systemic, anti-black white supremacy.
“When we get to the first of something, it’s an opportunity for us to enter into a public conversation,” said Keleta-Mae. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Well how did we get to a first?'”
Rather than focusing attention on firsts, Keleta-Mae said “we need to be thinking about the institutions and the policies and the way we live that allow this to be possible in the first place.”
Lionel Walsh, acting director at the University of Windsor’s School of Dramatic Art, said the university has had a “difficult time” attracting students of colour.
“We’re not Toronto, and a lot of students, when they audition for us they get accepted, but they don’t accept the offer,” said Walsh. “So we have a difficult time getting a … critical mass of students of colour.”
Walsh added that the department also needs to do a better job of attracting artists of colour to direct the university’s stage productions.
“But a lot of these people are very busy and this is a long way from Toronto,” said Walsh. “Even some of our directors not of colour — they’ll turn us down because we’re too far away.”
Walsh said that directors are more likely to take opportunities at schools closer to Toronto, rather than travelling to Windsor. Walsh also said that a lack of diversity among the student body also makes it difficult to stage productions that call for non-white casts.
“[Othello] calls for one black actor … and everybody else can be non-black,” said Walsh. “But what about … Harlem Duet? Everybody in that play is a character who is a person of colour. What’s the reaction going to be if I cast a bunch of white actors?”
Walsh acknowledged that plays written by artists of colour or plays that feature casts of colour can still be taught.
“They can choose scenes from those plays for their classwork,” said Walsh. “This past year, I have put our [Latino] students in touch with an author in the United States who’s just published a book of monologues and scenes for actors who are of [Latino] descent.
“The issue has come to the fore now and I think that times are changing,” said Walsh.
Windsor dramaturge Leslie McCurdy said she’s hopeful that theatre will be able to continue moving “in the right direction.”
“It’s really going to take a willingness to look at new theatre, because some of the old theatre that we traditionally do … people see it in a way based on that tradition and they don’t want to see change,” said McCurdy.
“We have to get over that reluctance to accept people in roles cast non-traditionally and then we have to be willing to open up … to have non-traditional theater being presented so that there are opportunities for different peoples to be participating.”
Naila Keleta-Mae is a theatre and performance professor at the University of Waterloo.