Texas Tech University

Researcher's Focus in Theater Aims to Change Stereotypes

Amanda Castro-Crist

February 28, 2020

Doctoral student LyaNisha Gonzalez focuses her research on changing the way black women are utilized in theater and the way they are perceived in society.

In February, Texas Tech is once again highlighting the outstanding research being conducted by our talented and dedicated Red Raiders through our "TTU ❤️ Research" series. This year, we are pairing this effort with Black History Month in order to feature our influential black faculty and students who have had a tremendous impact through their research. This is the ninth in this series.

Award-winning playwright LyaNisha Gonzalez has been writing since she was a child. Now a doctoral student focusing on playwriting and arts administration through Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts, Gonzalez said she can trace her success to two people: her mother and father.

"They never balked at my decision to be a drama major," Gonzalez said. "They were supportive of the arts and always felt it was a legitimate way to move through the world."

Her father taught television directing at Howard University, impressing upon Gonzalez his belief in the contributory factors that theater, film and all fine arts have on a society. Her mother encouraged her to seek her master in fine arts and always told her she loved her writing. Gonzalez said it is what she holds onto in moments she struggles in her studies.

"I just wanted to act, but she impressed upon me the importance of gaining more knowledge in my craft and the need to have an alternative to my plan A," Gonzalez said. "I remind myself of the many reasons why I'm pursuing this degree, and in no small way, it's partly for them and their unwavering support of the dreams I have for myself – which matches all the dreams they dreamt for me."

LyaNisha Gonzalez
LyaNisha Gonzalez

Since arriving to study in the School of Theatre & Dance, Gonzalez has earned recognition from some of the biggest names in theater. Among those are the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival in New York City, where she produced and presented her original play "On A String," and the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C., where she was named the second runner-up for the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award for her play, "Black Girl, Interrupted."

Her work and research at Texas Tech have allowed her to bring together acting and playwriting as a natural extension of her creative interests. As she continues to grow in her craft, Gonzalez said she realizes her work seems to center around issues concerning the African American community.

"That led me to wonder just what comprises the 'black experience,' and with a scholarly curiosity, I could see the entertainment industry has carefully curated a particular kind of African American experience that feels disingenuous to who we are as a people," she said. "I began to focus on how black women have been used and deconstructed within the industry. I realized what I have been doing as a writer and performer was always concerned with offering honest portrayals of the black men and women I have known. That didn't necessarily mirror the images I saw in theater and film."

A crucial part of her research is centered on the construction of these images, the stories they put forth, and how she, as an artist, can combat damaging and derogatory narratives. At the heart of her research is a desire to change the way black women are used in theater and how they are perceived in society.

"This is a tall order, but I have always described myself as a 'DuBoisian' actor," she said. "I believe in W.E.B. DuBois' ideology surrounding theater and black art in general. He urged artists to use their works to illustrate the humanity of African Americans to white society, while also telling those same artists it is imperative to make art that speaks to the larger black community. He wanted us to lift each other as we climbed and to create narratives that counter racist stereotypes, which he believed contributed to the maltreatment African Americans experienced in our society. I, too, believe that. As a playwright, I want to produce academic and creative work that will foster conversations about what is or could be true regarding the mysteries of race and gender."

In her research, Gonzalez came across the book "The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America," by Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki. She said the book confirmed something she had often wondered: the repeated images white people see about black people serve to reinforce negative attitudes toward the black community.

"The plays I write are created to combat those images," Gonzalez said. "I create black female characters who push the action of the story forward. They are the conduit by which the audience receives the story and the person they are meant to root for, connect with and identify with."

Her work has not come without difficulties. As a black scholar, Gonzalez said the most challenging thing she has encountered is a lack of faculty of color in her program.

"Having to choose among a sea of white faces to help tackle the disciplines of black feminism and Afrofuturism has revealed some frustrating obstacles," Gonzalez said. "It is problematic to look around for a face resembling mine when it comes to filling out a dissertation committee – particularly when my topic is so Afrocentric – and finding none.

"I have been able to navigate through those waters with some remarkably accommodating faculty, but it is disappointing to have to look outside of my home discipline, and even sometimes outside of our university system, for a black faculty member. That's a burden I believe no student should have to endure, and more needs to be done to provide students of color with faculty who look like them to help support our academic endeavors."

In spite of this obstacle, Gonzalez said she feels her work to humanize black women, which is essential to everything she writes and performs in, is already making a difference. It is an effect she hopes lasts far beyond the theater stage.

"My dissertation play 'Black Girl, Interrupted,' made a strong impact with the local Lubbock audience here as many approached me afterwards and really seemed to see differently," she said. "If the audience can find common ground with a black woman living her life and not reinforcing the stereotype of the 'strong black woman,' the 'welfare queen' or the 'angry black woman,' if they can see her as a woman like the ones they know, then perhaps that humanity they grant a fictional character can manifest with actual black men and women they may encounter in real life."