Theatre & Dance students share what it’s like to be BIPOC performers in a classically white medium, and how they’re changing the status quo at Texas Tech.
Carlos Medina Maldonado fell in love with theater while playing Ebenezer Scrooge in his Catholic grade school's performance of “A Christmas Carol.”
However, it took another 15 years for Medina Maldonado, a third-year Master of Fine Arts student in Texas Tech University's School of Theatre & Dance housed in the J.T. & Margaret Talking College of Visual & Performing Arts, to see a character that felt familiar to him.
“I remember watching ‘In the Heights' for the first time and crying during the opening number,” Medina Maldonado said. “I had never seen a musical written in the same way that my family speaks. I couldn't believe I was 27 years old and just now seeing someone like me, not only on stage, but as the main character.”
While Medina Maldonado was busy perfecting his Scrooge-like grimace as an eighth grader, miles away, Kerstin Vaughn made her debut performance as the dodo bird in “Alice in Wonderland.” The only girl of color at an overwhelmingly white school in the Midwest, Vaughn worked with the roles she was given.
As Medina Maldonado and Vaughn honed their skills and expanded their senses of self, they found that the industry they loved was not expanding with them.
Medina Maldonado is Puerto Rican and moved to the U.S. when he was 7 years old. His family settled in Gurnee, Illinois, where the big form of entertainment was the nearby Six Flags theme park.
Vaughn, also a third-year Master of Fine Arts student, is bi-racial and was raised in Ohio. She quickly became used to being the only person of color in most groups.
Although they both dreamed of good ol' show business, Medina Maldonado and Vaughn had moments where it felt like the impossible dream.
By the time they arrived at Texas Tech, it was clear they were not the only performers experiencing racial stereotyping and profiling. However, instead of being defeated, they made a difference.
In 2020, Medina Maldonado founded the Mosaic Theatre Group at Texas Tech. The group exists as a safe space for Black, indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC) students in the School of Theatre & Dance to lift each other up and discuss hard, shared experiences.
While the group is not a registered student organization, it has certainly received the attention and support of the School of Theatre & Dance's faculty and staff.
“One of my greatest joys this year has been seeing exceptional student leaders like Carlos and Kerstin, among others, step forward to help our community envision our future,” said Jesse Jou, associate director of the School of Theatre & Dance and assistant professor of directing. “Their presence, plus the work the faculty and staff have done to increase shared governance, gives me hope.”
Andrew Gibb, associate professor of history, theory and criticism in the School of Theatre & Dance, agreed.
“The founding of Mosaic is a perfect example of how students are driving the change that our school is currently undergoing,” Gibb said. “Continued buy-in is critical to sustaining our momentum. Mosaic fills an important need for our students and empowers them to take a hands-on approach to creating this program's future.”
Painting the picture
The following experiences did not take place at Texas Tech.
“I was an undergraduate when I first experienced racism on set,” Medina Maldonado recalls. “I was cast as a Mariachi singer and the director had mentioned in a talk-back that they would have cut the part if I was not there.
“I recognize that I was fairly privileged not to experience this until college, because I am ‘white passing' meaning that when I speak or act, people do not automatically assume I am Latino. It was not just that I was cast as a Mariachi singer in this case, it was that I was not considered for any other role, and that if I had not been there, no one else would have been considered for my role. That is what made this an instance of profiling and disregard for talent. I was just a body that filled a space.”
Vaughn experienced similar moments.
“There was a time in my undergraduate years when the director was trying to cast ‘the perfect couple,'” Vaughn said. “He kept pairing us up and looking at us. At the time, I was the only person of color in the program. I remember leaving that audition feeling so hopeless because I didn't look like anyone else. If the director was casting based on who looked good together, I didn't fit into that picture.
“Beyond hurtful, it just felt shortsighted artistically. Instead of focusing on creativity, I was wondering where I fit into the picture my director was painting in his head.”
While both Medina Maldonado and Vaughn have experienced their share of discouraging moments, they remain hopeful for what the future of the industry could look like. They also know that kind of change will require real work.
A call to action
“I decided to come to Texas Tech for graduate school because I was excited about the flourishing Latino population in Lubbock,” Medina Maldonado said. “I also loved that Texas Tech was a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Once I got here though, I realized that representation did not necessarily carry over to the School of Theatre & Dance.”
Medina Maldonado was not the only student who had these concerns. In the summer of 2020, more than 160 students and alumni of the School of Theatre & Dance penned a call to action for systemic change within the school.
“I signed my name to that letter,” Medina Maldonado said. “As we submitted our call to action, I realized we were asking a lot – which is good. We needed to bring these issues up, but I also realized we, as students, had a part in this, too. To change culture in the long run, we couldn't put all the responsibility on the faculty. Students needed to show up and work at this as well.”
Vaughn added, “Reading what was written in that letter was moving because it was full of really big dreams. I signed my name to the letter because we need that change. I also recognized the very real, long-term effort that would be needed to make those changes.”
The school's leadership agreed.
Raising the bar on representation
“Let's go back to the idea that people need to see themselves in stories,” Medina Maldonado said. “But first, let me explain what happens when they don't.”
When a prospective BIPOC student looks at a college program and sees a season of shows written by and for white people, they're going to struggle seeing themselves in that program. So, in turn, the program stays homogenous. What's more, is many of the shows we perform are written by students. So, we can only be as diverse as our student body. When we're not, then we're back to the problem of not having the programming to attract more diverse students.
“It's a vicious cycle, and it's one that many programs need to break out of. Diverse programming must become normalized.”
The stories are already out there, and television and film prove there is demand for them.
“Go open up Netflix, and you'll hear Aziz Ansari talking about the Indian-American experience,” Medina Maldonado said. “Alan Yang has successfully created narrative around the Asian-American experience and Lena Waithe shares what it's like being a lesbian in the Black community.”
Medina Maldonado says there needs to be similar commitment to this kind of diversification across the industry, including live theater.
There's a concept known as “creative individuality” taught by Mikhail Aleksandrovich “Michael” Chekhov, a famous Russian-American actor and director. It's different than method acting – a practice in which actors must separate their real selves from the performance they're giving. In creative individuality, Chekhov encourages actors to draw on their own imaginations and experiences to enhance and inform the character they're playing. In this way, there's much less separation between the real person and the character.
The problem BIPOC performers face, however, is being given one-dimensional characters to play based on race – which makes creative individuality nearly impossible.
“It's hard because you get stereotyped a lot,” Medina Maldonado said. “As a Latin performer, people may be playing a Cholo gangster for years before they're cast in a more complex role.”
However, the solution to this problem is not color-blind casting, also known as non-traditional casting, but rather, color-conscious casting.
Color-blind casting refers to the practice of casting without consideration for an actor's skin color, body shape, ethnicity, sex and/or gender. In contrast, color-conscious casting occurs when these factors are taken into consideration in a thoughtful, deliberate and inclusive way.
However, it doesn't mean tokenism, which creates an illusion of inclusion without doing the work of actual inclusivity.
“Take for example the movie ‘Ant-Man'” said Medina Maldonado, referring to Michael Pena's role in the Marvel Studio's film. “This movie is a classic example of casting the ‘Latino best friend.' Color-conscious casting pauses to ask what it means to have a Latino person be the sidekick rather than the main character.
“It's about the subliminal messaging. A BIPOC child might be watching a movie like ‘Ant-Man' and think they can only be the sidekick. They probably wouldn't be able to articulate that, but there are studies that show they're subconsciously internalizing that representation.”
There's no shortage of problems to address. However, while Medina Maldonado and Vaughn will have an honest conversation about what's broken, they are equally passionate about how to fix it.
“When I first arrived on campus, I had been playing with the idea of a Latin theater group, but I decided to move forward with Mosaic being a broader BIPOC group,” Medina Maldonado said.
“Carlos and I started in the same program at the same time,” Vaughn said. “He came into this program very passionate about tapping into the underrepresented group of students. I told him I will always make space for this because I believe it's important.”
“Hopefully, this group might one day go on to create producible work,” Medina Maldonado said. “But for now, the emphasis is on people healing and feeling they belong.”
“Most of the faculty is really interested in being part of the solution,” Vaughn said. “They are learning along with us, and it's been encouraging seeing them want to understand.”
“Texas Tech can accomplish this,” Medina Maldonado said. “We have to make a commitment to telling diverse stories though. If you want people of color to come to your school, you must show a commitment to telling their stories.”
Vaughn adds that in addition to commitment, patience and determination will be needed.
“We have this mountain in front of us,” Vaughn said. “It looks scary when you look at the entire thing, but all we really have to do is move the pebbles. We go step by step. Don't look up at the mountain, just look at the pebble in front of you and move it.”
Medina Maldonado and Vaughn's hope for this year is to identify a core group of undergraduate students to carry on the vision of Mosaic after they graduate.
“Starting small is OK, because at least we took a step,” Vaughn said. “The next group
of students can come in, see what didn't work, and do better. No one person is going
to accomplish this. Systemic and institutional change takes time. I think one thing
we really want faculty, staff and students to understand is that no one is expecting
anyone to be perfect. But rather, as Maya Angelou so eloquently said, ‘Do your best
until you know better. When you know better, do better.'”