Although I wasn’t heavily involved in theatre throughout high school, it always noticeable to me that our productions never included narratives centered on people of color (POC). This was especially noticeable since my school was made up of about 95 percent Latinx students of color, many of whom were first- or second-generation immigrants as well. The only production that stood out from the 1950s-set comedy musicals we tended to do was In the Heights by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which focused on the Latinx population of Washington Heights in New York. For the first time, we saw our narratives on stage, although they were still directed by our white teachers. At the time, I snickered along with my friends, judging the quality that is an average high school show with its good and bad; that was when my thoughts of “They could have done so much better” became “I can do so much better.” Although the show was directed by white people, seeing an otherwise completely Latinx-driven show, from the script to the music to the actors, was something I had never seen before! Seeing people like me on stage had subconsciously made me realize that theatre could be made by people like me and that it wasn’t something that was bestowed upon POC by white artists.
Upstage, the student theatre organization at Wellesley, selects its shows for the season from applications sent in by Wellesley students, who include their vision for a play of their choosing. Although the organization has existed for over a century—Upstage started as the Wellesley Barnswallows—it had never produced a play that was specifically written with a focus on the Latinx narrative. In the spring of 2017, I applied with my vision for a production of “Real Women Have Curves” (RWHC) by Josefina López. Besides its significance in the Chicanx and Latinx communities in the United States, what had drawn me to the play was the unapologetic honesty of the characters, both prejudices and genuine love embodied in them.
During my first two year at Wellesley, acting in Upstage shows was a strange experience, as my identity as a person of color would be erased on stage, while at the same time I would experience racial microaggressions from my fellow actors, directors and production managers. Although my casting in the shows boosted up Upstage’s reputation as a diverse organization exploring diverse points of view, it almost felt as if I was one of the many props on stage, only acknowledged and used when it was convenient for others. To put RWHC on stage would be the first time I would see people like me acting like me on stage—with our own agency. My intent with directing this show was to create a space for Latinx POC who don’t conform to the white American mainstream, going as far to mock the oppressor and dismiss it. Sometimes, a safe space isn’t enough for marginalized identities. Sometimes we also need to create our agency, with our own jokes, our words, our own actions.
RWHC opened in the spring of my junior year. After RWHC closed, I wrote for and performed in Decisions, a devised show presented by the Theatre Studies department. I joined with the intention of giving an uncensored perspective of how even the most progressive white people still harm communities of color. Although I did reach my goal of making the audience aware of these issues, being the only performer in the show to do so, with an unresponsive audience, was isolating and draining. I was the only performer to explicitly talk about racism, classism, transphobia; other performers focused on less volatile topics such as the stress of being a college student or spoke of the oppression in more subtle ways. Although in my mind I wasn’t doing anything drastically different from directing RWHC—in both of which I purposefully centered people of color—being in a space where I was the only person of color talking about racism, classism, elitism and more took like 10 years off my life. The importance of having a space created by people of color for people of color was further cemented in my beliefs.
Theatre, or even art, isn’t effective unless it is shaking people by the shoulders and asking them to look at the world in a new way. That’s what Wellesley needs right now. But it won’t be worth it if we don’t give people of color the opportunity to create these spaces for themselves and to take care of themselves in the process.