Anti-Racism Practices: A Panel Discussion and Workshop on Dismantling Racism in the Arts

Camille Pfister

Executive Editor 

Anti-Racism practices and lessons have become more common as societal institutions contend with their past and how racism continues to infect the present. This past Thursday, September 7, Sewanee Theater and Dance put together a panel discussion on anti-racism in the arts and in the classroom, with special guest Nicole Brewer, a faculty member from Yale School of Drama who has spent the last twelve years crafting an “inclusive method of theater training and practices.” The panel, moderated by Sewanee Theater faculty Sarah Hamilton, also included Dr. Sylvia Gray, Title IX coordinator, theology professor David Stark, and two senior Sewanee Theater students, Matt Acosta (C ’24) and Olivia Millwood (C ’24). 

Brewer began the panel by discussing her history in the arts and why she decided to create this method for anti-racism practices. After graduating from Howard University, Brewer traveled to Northern Illinois University to earn her M.F.A in acting and faced discrimination from her professors, leading her to want to create a space for anti-racism discussions and practices. “It started out with conscientious theater training, which was about multicultural curriculum,” Brewer said. “How do we understand that this is a global society, and it is our work to embed ourselves? We have to listen.” 

The faculty and students of Sewanee on the panel directed the conversation to the healing process at Sewanee. Acosta began the conversation by asking for “more outright addressing” of serious issues and problems embedded in the fabric of Sewanee’s culture. “In order to dress these wounds, we really need to talk about the issues at hand,” Acosta said. “Instead of discussing them for a week, and then it’s seen as ‘one and done,’ without any real work being done.” 

The panel focused on how in order to heal what has been done, first we have to acknowledge it, and ask ourselves, “Now that we know this, what do we do?” Professor Stark asked for “sincere engagement” and “trying to discern, ‘What is the truth? And what do we do with that?’” Dr. Gray added a point on the continued trauma in society. “Trauma can’t be healed by talking about it,” Dr. Gray said. “The trauma has to stop.” 

In a university setting, the healing process faces another issue. Usually, students are only here for four years, and if they do make meaningful progress, there is fear from students that once they leave, the changes they make will fall. “I’m only here for four years, and even if there is a commitment to long term solutions, I’m not going to be here to see it,” Acosta said. 

As the conversation shifted to a more specific lens on anti-racism in the arts, Brewer made a point that people “hold power” in each environment they are in, and encouraged them to “challenge these notions on how long things take.” 

People of color in the arts face a white dominated industry, “white theaters for white audiences,” and it is difficult to break down the barriers, because theater is in a position to “break down or reinforce stereotypes.” Millwood and Acosta argued that some theaters want to “show off” their people of color, making it difficult for them to get jobs offstage, as regular theater goers will never see the hardworking individuals backstage. 

On Friday, September 8, there were two anti-racist workshops, led by Brewer, one in the morning for faculty and staff, and one in the afternoon for students. The panel and the workshop were based in learning and healing. The workshop began with attendees writing what they wish, hope, and wonder for this workshop on sticky notes and placing them on the board. This simple act opened up the floor for attendees to take the time to think about their personal goals for the workshop. 

Brewer led a conversation on the theater industrial complex and all the healing that is needed in each piece of the industry. Brewer focused the workshop on asking the tough, uncomfortable questions, and asking the attendees to investigate themselves and encouraged self reflection. “We are in a period of learning and unlearning, and harm is going to happen,” Brewer said. 

Brewer provided the attendees with a definition of anti-racist theatre and began the work of questioning the systems in place. Anti-racist theatre is defined as “practices and policies that actively acknowledge and interrogate racism, anti-blackness, and discriminatory practice, promoting anti-racist ideas, values, and policies that counter the oppression of any people during education or production of theatre.” 

Brewer asked attendees to think about their privilege, their power, and what work they need to do within themselves. Brewer also made attendees aware that not everything is going to be solved, but that doesn’t make the work any less important. “It is our job, not to solve racism, but to create a space to imagine a world without racism,” Brewer said. 

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