The Daily Gamecock

African American actors face lack of roles

Students speak out on their struggle for theater opportunities

Theater majors need work, and it’s the job of USC’s theater program to provide it. However, behind the intricate poster designs and large-scale theatrical events lie enduring issues in the availability of roles to an increasing number of African American actors.

While the number of full-time theater students has declined 29 percent over the last five years to 71, African American enrollment has almost tripled, to 14.

Amber Middleton, a fourth-year theater student who played a supporting actress in “Yellowman,” said the department is “outstanding,” but she said she is also disappointed with the number of acting opportunities available to students of color.

“I cannot speak for all African American students,” Middleton said. “However, for myself as well as others I affiliate with, we would like to see more than just the normal persona in which people categorize African Americans.”

The production “Yellowman” was presented at the Booker T. Washington Lab Theater last semester. The story involved the issue of colorism — light skin color versus dark skin color — within the African American community.

Though they acknowledged the show as a “step,” some students said they would like to see a broader range of roles presented to African American actors.

Braden Massey, a third-year broadcast student who has a theater minor, looks at “Yellowman” as a step forward.

“I didn’t necessarily see [“Yellowman”] as being the solution, but it was a great way to get people listening to and understanding the issues that we face — not just African Americans, but other races as well,” he said.

The production of “Yellowman” influenced the push for a recent production, “A Woman’s Suffrage,” that was presented in the Lab Theater last month. The production aimed to take a different approach to the typical roles available to African Americans by incorporating musical elements, drama and comedy without a story about slave ancestors or bitter racism.

“This play explores emotional, mental, verbal and physical abuse,” said Brittaney Chatman, a fourth-year broadcast journalism student who wrote “A Woman’s Suffrage.” “So many talented people of different races are not being chosen for main stage shows.”

Though the play only featured African American actors, many of the actors and actresses who participated said that the play seemed to bring together people of all races and colors because of its focus on being inclusive.

“I believe that students responded to the play very well [because] it was different and brought together all of the elements of the arts to create an outstanding response,” said Middleton, who played a role in “A Woman’s Suffrage.” “There is so much more to us (African Americans) as a whole than just showing a production full of poverty and past struggles. We as the new generation no longer want to see [that], but instead, our accomplishments.”

Shaquile Hester, a third-year vocal performance student who was in “A Woman’s Suffrage,” said that the issue goes far beyond race, but really digs deep into talent and ambition.

“It’s all about merging cultures,” Hester said. “Students should take on roles that weren’t directed for them and bring in new perspectives.”

Brandon Byrd, a first-year film studies student and the male lead of “Yellowman,” said that directors in the department need to step outside of the traditional and go for something that better represents the students around them.

“We need directors who are more open to casting people or casting diversity,” Byrd said. “We also need to do plays that aren’t so Euro- or white-centric.”

While production and casting techniques won’t change in a day, Hester said that students can overcome the issue by first facing the reality.

“If the theater department’s job was to cater to the majority, they would be doing the same thing that they’re doing right now,” Hester said. “Students will have to work twice as hard, twice as professional; that is their responsibility.”