When Theater Matters Most: Controversy in the Theater Department
Theater is not a medium that is meant to be consumed blindly. Many believe the best theater is intended to provoke, to raise questions, and to reflect the world around us, however flawed that world may be. At the very least, theater is meant to challenge.
Recently, controversy has arisen in the Packer community surrounding the production of the spring musical The Drowsy Chaperone, a debate that has extended past its original framework to consider the very nature of the theater department as a whole. The matter has become intensely divisive and personal, as each person involved is very closely impacted.
The issue that has arisen is multifaceted, but it essentially centers around one idea: representation, and positive representation, of people of color in Packer’s theater department. There are two separate ways in which this topic has been parsed out by the community; while they are certainly connected, they are not the same.
The main dispute over the production of the show itself had to do with a few creative decisions that were made by the cast and crew. As a satire, The Drowsy Chaperone was rife with scenes and lines meant to display the faults of society through over-stereotyping. These moments were received poorly by some, who felt offended by their portrayal of certain groups. The cast, for the most part, understood them differently.
“That is exactly what theater is about, to make you uncomfortable, to make you think, to make you think about why you are uncomfortable, and to spark conversation from that,” said Khaja Daniel (‘21). “We don’t do shows with the intent of pleasing or not offending anyone, because it always will and that’s what’s so amazing about it…it’s so real and raw and it makes you uncomfortable and that’s okay.”
The actors reinforced that in the production process, the team had many in-depth conversations to ensure the comfort of the cast.
“Mr. Boag said multiple times that we could go to him with anything we feel uncomfortable with,” said Zach Redhead-Laconte (‘18). “He asked us. We have had immense conversations within this community about whether or not we feel comfortable doing something.”
However, as the audience was not present for such discussions, the impact of these decisions on some was far different than the intention. Lines such as one about the main character’s Latina maid and her ability to understand English have been taken as offensive, even if the purpose of the satire was clear. A more controversial choice to have the ensemble wear monkey ears during one scene was also the source of negative reactions. Though the chorus was made up of both white actors and actors of color, some of the audience saw the decision to portray black students as monkeys as both offensive and tone-deaf given the racist history of this characterization.
A second, more complicated issue surrounds the percentage of actors of color in the shows and in lead roles. This is the topic that originally sparked discussion when Noelle Parks (‘19) expressed concerns about POC representation after the cast list for Drowsy was released. Based on observations from past years, she came to the administration with evidence of a pattern of lack of representation in leads.
“I was really hopeful that maybe this time they’d have space for inclusivity in their main roles,” she said. “And then the cast list came out, and I thought it was fine that I didn’t get a main role, but it’s kind of problematic that people of color consistently don’t get the main roles.”
Of course, the definition of a ‘lead’ impacts the interpretation of statistics drastically. If one, as Theater Director Ali Boag does, defines a lead as someone who does “significant work onstage,” then the number of POC leads is significantly higher. However, if one looks only at the very top roles, the percentage of people of color in leads comes out to around 6% over the past seven years, according to research that Noelle did.
One interpretation is not necessarily more correct than the other. We cannot discount the work of actors of color in prominent roles, regardless of the magnitude of their lead. On the other hand, it is still very much a problem if those who spend the most time on stage, those who are perhaps seen more clearly by the audience as leads, are majority white. That is, of course, not to say that those white actors got the roles solely because of their race—leads are always incredibly talented—but some, like Noelle, believe that there is a larger pattern there still worth considering.
Others still feel like those numbers are just a coincidence, that casting has no correlation with race or that the statistics are so because of the percentages of people of color in Packer.
“We aren’t actually a very diverse school,” said Zach. “We aren’t diverse as a school, that’s the point. It’s not the fault of Mr. Boag; honestly it goes back to admissions and the amount of people who are interested in arts who are also people of color.”
The question of how to handle this, how to move forward, is even more difficult. When there are disagreements over whether or not there even is an issue, or what that problem stems from, a path of action becomes unclear.
This article does not successfully cover all of the complexities of this controversy; nor does it capture every opinion involved, all of which are so varied. The one certainty is that a discourse must be maintained—with such disparate opinions, the conversation cannot be left stagnant or more people will be hurt. Never in recent years has Packer seen such a prolonged uproar surrounding the theater. That is by no means unusual for theater, and the theater department, for their part, is content with sitting and listening before moving forward.
“The truth is that the theater is potentially difficult, potentially uncomfortable, potentially challenging, potentially disruptive. It’s also potentially unifying, potentially thought-provoking, potentially healing,” said Mr. Boag. “These things matter. We have a symposium called ‘Theater Matters,’ and we are now discovering precisely why.”