Theatre Student Tackles Race and Performance in Independent Study
Junior theatre major Anna Joaquin has conducted an independent study this semester with Dr. Kelly Howe on the intersection of race and performance. Joaquin said that she wanted to study how race interacts with performance due to recent casting controversies in the Chicago area, as well as conversations she’s had with friends discussing whether it would be appropriate for them to perform a pieces written for a character whose race differs from their own.
“I had a lot of questions about…being aware that diversity in theatre is an issue, but not knowing the systemic reasons of that gap,” Joaquin said. “There are different eras where different issues come to light, and I think this one is one that’s being highly contested right now.”
There are already numerous theorists on race and performance, so Joaquin started her study with race theory and the history of race and performance. She said her study focuses specifically on race and performance in the United States, as she wanted to explore the US’ unique history with the topic, starting with blackface minstrelsy.
“America and American theatre has a history of exploiting bodies of color onstage,” she said. “[That] raises the stakes of why it’s such a big deal now for white bodies to assume roles of bodies of color.”
Her study then moved on to more recent controversies surrounding casting where white actors are cast as characters of color. Joaquin explained that these controversies often arise in high schools or smaller community theatres with limited casting pools.
“If [casting white actors as characters of color] is excusable there, why isn’t it excusable in college? Once you’ve built your college resume, why is it not excusable when you get to the professional world?” she said.
As an example, Joaquin cited Porchlight Theatre’s production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, in which the lead character of Usnavi, a Latino man, was cast as an actor of European descent.
“Yeah, it’s only one role, and yeah, the actor was good...but having a white actor play a Latino lead in a play written by Latinos for Latino actors…that has broader implications than one might think,” Joaquin said.
Joaquin said that one of the most important things about understanding race and performance is whiteness is often seen as a default race, and that this concept is often applied at the directors table.
“Picture your romantic leads, picture what the friend looks like, picture what the family looks like,” she said. “It typically upholds whiteness.”
Joaquin said that her favorite part of the study has been working with Dr. Howe. She praised Dr. Howe for giving her a large amount of agency over the study and not imposing her own ideas onto Joaquin’s research. She also said Dr. Howe was always willing to help out in whatever capacity she can and for always going to extra mile to help her grow as a student throughout her study.
“What I really enjoyed most about working with her, and doing this study in general, was her insight and her gift of an outlet to examine issues of race and performance in broader social justice contexts,” she said.
Anna Joaquin’s final presentation of her independent study, “Race and Performance,” will be held on December 13 at 2:00 PM in Mundelein 811.