UMD’s role in changing the nature of American theater

by Andrés Roa   

Students at the University of Maryland are on the forefront of change in American theater, trying to change it to be more inclusive and more diverse. Among them is the Kreativity Diversity Troupe. 

Alexander Diaz-Lopez, a member of Kreativity Diversity Troupe and a sophomore letters and sciences student at UMD, described the group as “a racially diverse and also sexually diverse theatre group” that anyone can audition for.

Kreativity Diversity Troupe, founded in 1995, describes itself as an inclusive, diverse performing group made of UMD students that seeks to highlight and fine tune the varied talents and skills of its members.

Diaz-Lopez said being part of a group like Kreativity makes him feel empowered compared to his previous experiences in the theater at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.. Diaz-Lopez is a first-generation American and said he never understood his place in society.

“For my white friends, I was too Hispanic. For my Hispanic friends, I was too white,” Diaz-Lopez said. “Going to Wilson was a very eye-opening experience…where the shows that were chosen for the student body didn’t reflect the stories of people who looked like me.”

Diaz-Lopez said that he and other students of color at Woodrow Wilson High School, , had to work the “extra mile” at the majority-Black and Hispanic school to prove that they were capable of playing characters in school productions. Diaz-Lopez said that was “super destructive” for his identity.

“I felt the only thing I could really offer to theater was my skin color,” Diaz-Lopez said.

Determined to prove to the student body that he and his friends could offer more and that their stories were meaningful, Diaz-Lopez and his friends created a group called Labels Off. 

The group held a showcase at the end of his senior year, which  “was the most beautiful experience…it was students who were never introduced to theater,” said Diaz-Lopez. He also noted the amount of melanin showcased by the group’s Black and Hispanic students as a first in his experience at the school.

Now, Diaz-Lopez is a member of UMD’s Kreativity Diversity Troupe, just one group of students at UMD making an effort to change the way theater is studied. 

The “Untitled Othello” project interrogates Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Photo by Andrés Roa.

Kim Coles, an associate professor in the English department, leads another group. It’s an interdisciplinary group of mostly freshmen using literature to explore “constructions of race at different historical moments as they travel across the Atlantic,” she said.

The class, entitled “Race and the Cultural Politics of Blood: A Historical Perspective,” began with an exploration of William Shakespeare’s “Othello” and ended the semester assisting the Untitled Othello Project in interrogating the play and removing its racist parts.

During the extended table reading of the play, streamed live from the University of the Sacred Heart in Connecticut to the students’ UMD classroom, students “were watching what the actors were doing…giving them feedback, commentary,” Coles said.

They were able to uncover a lot because they spent so much time during the semester thinking about race in a historical trajectory, Coles said.

The Kreativity Diversity Troupe and Labels Off are examples of where American theater could go in the future, said Keith Hamilton Cobb, an actor, director and playwright at the forefront of the Untitled Othello Project.

The project is not a production of “Othello.” Instead, Cobb said it’s a long-running, in-depth “interrogation” of it, seeking to discover whether the play has a place in productions in the modern day.

This work is an interrogation because it’s about getting answers to questions about a play that is frequently performed throughout the United States and has a long history of racism in its performance, including white actors using blackface in the title role, Cobb said. That history led Cobb to wonder whether the content was “something that is unhealthy, that is toxic, that is wrong,” he said.

The project goes beyond just interrogating the text — four of the five goals listed on the project’s website are about disrupting and evolving the way theater is done in this country.

“What we need is time and support,” Cobb said. He said the traditional commercial theater model, which relies on efficiency and often exploitation, needs to be demolished. It facilitates the practices that allow the same plays with the same toxic ideas to be recycled, he said.

“We can’t have slaves, but we can certainly employ people for as little as possible. Make them work as long hours as we possibly can, and reap the maximum benefits of their labor,” Cobb said.

But fighting these systems is made more difficult because it’s an indictment of a white supremacist tradition that many Americans don’t want to accept, Cobb said.

“It takes bravery and integrity and desire to identify something other than ‘the bottom line is important’ to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to put a stop to this…I need to set a precedent,’” he said. Some people do that but many “can’t quite find their way there,” he said.

Cobb said universities and other learning institutions are important elements that could start questioning American theater and other American institutions  — like he’s doing with Untitled Othello and like the Kreativity Diversity Troupe is doing.

Featured image: The Kreativity Diversity Troupe want to remake American theater to make it more diverse. Photo by Andrés Roa.

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