Diversity in University Theater: Can bylaws lead to change?

UChicago's student theater has been criticized for being unwelcoming to students of color. But a push from an outside theater collective prompted new bylaws, some are now hopeful that there will be concrete change.

By Lucas Du, Staff Reporter

Kenjiro Lee, director of Iris, the theater collective that campaigned for diversity within UT. Provided.

UChicago’s University Theater (UT) is one of many organizations currently grappling with its lack of diversity. It has tried to do so with new bylaws, introduced in June of this year, that contain a Diversity, Representation, and Inclusion Statement.


The diversity statement, introduced by the theater’s outgoing committee, not only broadly condemns discrimination but also lays out concrete recommendations for fostering diversity. But it took a push from outside the University Theater to get these new bylaws: they were the direct result of campaigning by a separate campus organization, Iris.


Iris is a theater collective founded in direct response to the notion that University Theater wasn’t a welcoming space for BIPoC, according to last year’s interim director Kenjiro Lee. Lee has since graduated. For several years, Iris focused mostly on putting on its own productions or bringing in BIPoC actors to give talks, but in the past year has also taken an activist role.


Iris began its campaign for diversity in University Theater last spring, when Lee proposed a show to the theater—Yellow Face, a satirical play by David Henry Hwang about a white actor playing an Asian role.


As he went through the proposal process, he became increasingly aware that the theater was not advocating for diversity, and that there was nothing in the bylaws to assure that anything concrete would be done. And so Lee decided to put pressure on UT.


“There needs to be more action,” he recalled telling the committee.


Members of the theater felt the same way. Brandon Zang, a member of the theater’s current Committee, noted that a lack of diversity has been clear for a while. This has been particularly true in the mainstage shows, he says, which are the largest shows that University Theater puts on every quarter.


“There has been a trend of UT mainstages, and specifically mainstage shows, where the cast has been completely or [majority] white,” said Zang. “You see a lot of actors, people of color just like you, but you don’t see them on stage, especially for mainstage.”


Lynneah McCarrell, a Black rising 4th year, has been frustrated by the way race-blind casting has been used unsuccessfully to try and get diverse actors on stage.


Lynneah McCarrell, an actor and director on University Theater's current committee. Provided.

“The idea that we’re all one giant gray block—that we’re just a pure talent—is false. We’re not just that. To ignore my race is very harmful [and] the context in which you cast race can be very impactful.” She observed, for example, that casting a Black person as a servant to a white person has significant racial undertones, even if done unintentionally.


In the new bylaws, the Diversity, Representation, and Inclusion Statement aims to address these issues by anticipating them. Along with cementing diversity as a core value of UT, it calls for an “identity-conscious” approach to casting as opposed to an “identity-blind” approach.

But most importantly, in Lee’s opinion, it also pushes for active outreach to other organizations “that have relevant missions related to diversity [and] inclusion.” In essence, UT will try to make contact with students who would not otherwise get involved, particularly BIPoC and other underrepresented students.


Lauren Melton, a third year actor in UT, believes that this is crucial.


“There is an exclusive vibe to UT that can be intimidating and unwelcoming to newcomers, especially for people of color who might already feel like it is not a space for them,” she says. “Finding easier ways for people to get them in the door would really help.”


She also believes that this will have a snowball effect. “As UT gets more diverse, I think the shows will also get more diverse as far as casts and playwrights. This in turn would increase diversity, because the shows themselves would be inviting to people of color.”


While the bylaw has not yet had time to take full effect, some members are trying to effect change in their own ways. Both Zang and McCarrell have stayed with UT in large part to help bring more BIPoC student actors forward.


Zang became a member of this year’s committee largely to add his voice as a person of color. While last year’s committee has made more of an effort towards inclusivity, said Zang, he recalls that it still was mostly white.


“This year’s committee is very diverse,” Zang says, “and I’m very glad about that. Hopefully this is a change for the better.”


McCarrell was slated to direct last spring’s production of Into the Woods, now cancelled due to the pandemic. In her initial preparation for the show, however, she made a point to choose BIPoC designers and envisioned a production featuring a fairytale world with people of color everywhere.


She is upfront about her goals within UT. “I want to make room for us,” she says, “to make UT a place for POC to just be there.”


Exploring Race

A magazine run by and for BIPOC students at the University of Chicago.