A problem with admissions
Communication first-year Journey Cole says they were surprised at how little diversity they found when they started counting the theatre majors of color in the class of 2025.
According to Northwestern Undergraduate Admissions, 52.2% of the class of 2025 is white, 24.5% are Asian American, 12.1% are Black or African American, 17% are Hispanic or Latinx and only 1.6% are American Indian or Alaska Native. Northwestern's status as a predominantly white institution has a ripple effect across departments, with students of color saying they experience feelings of loneliness, self-doubt and frustration. This is especially true within Northwestern's theater community, whose racial demographics mirror that of the University at-large.
“You only attract what you're putting out there, and if you're just putting out pictures of white students and groups that are not multicultural, then you're just gonna get white, affluent students every single time,” says Cole, who is African American.
Interim Chair of the Theatre Department Henry Godinez says he recognizes that the admissions process at Northwestern hasn't helped promote diversity in the department.
“I think our admissions office needs to take a really long, hard look at how we can nurture communities of color,” Godinez says. “I think that there has to be a way that Northwestern could create more of a pipeline with communities of color.”
Cultivating a welcoming environment for students of color goes beyond admissions. Communication first-year Yuni Mora, a theatre major, says certain courses offered in the theatre department are not helpful for students of color and weren't curated with them in mind.
First-year theatre majors are required to take two “Theatre in Context” classes which aim to have students “think critically about theatre and performance,” according to Northwestern's course descriptions webpage. Mora says the course's diversity and inclusion unit in particular fell flat.
“It felt so out of touch being in a room with like, 80% white people, and having this white man talk to us about how important diversity is in theater and how we need to change that,” Mora says.
Mora finds that it's not just the out-of-touch course material that poses an issue, but the fact that Northwestern's theatre classes are taught mostly by white professors.
The theatre faculty recognizes students' desire to take courses that are inclusive of students of color, as well as taught by professors of color.
“I don't want students to have the experience I had, which is to never have a teacher that looked like me, that spoke like me, that could relate to my culture,” says Godinez, who is Latino and Cuban American. “In four years of high school, four years of college, three years of graduate school and all those years of becoming what I am as a theater artist, no one ever said, 'Hey, do you want to work from your own culture?’”
For Mora, that representation is something that the University needs to work toward.
“I think providing the students here the opportunity to have more peers that look like them and have more professors that look like them is such a major thing,” Mora says.
Shifting the culture
The theater scene at Northwestern is largely split into two categories: pieces produced by student-led boards or productions put on by Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, which serves the greater Chicago area. The Northwestern Student Theatre Coalition (StuCo) is a collection of student-led boards, representing nine theater boards and two dance groups.
Most theater productions at Northwestern are student-directed and produced through StuCo, which can create tight-knit communities. However, some students of color say they have felt othered in student productions.
Mora says her high school community in Palm Springs, California, felt more diverse than Northwestern's, even though it was largely white. Transitioning from that environment to Northwestern wasn't easy.
“It was a big shift coming from a place where theater [was] safe in the sense you can really express yourself, but also, I just had people around me that understood me and had the same background,” says Mora, who is Latina and Mexican. “I didn't realize how important that was to me until that was taken away.”
As a result of this lack of diversity, Mora says she sometimes finds herself spiraling into self-doubt and questioning her place as a student of color in theater.
“[I'm] always just having to think about, 'Am I here to meet some quota? Am I here because they need a person of color for this show?’” Mora says.
Communication second-year Matheus Barbee says student theater boards often discuss diversity and inclusion openly, but actions rarely match words.
Class of 2025 demographics according to Northwestern Undergraduate Admissions. Reporting method tracks students who identify as multiple races/ethnicities in each category, so the numbers will exceed 100%.
“I have a joke amongst my friends that if I go to a musical, I'm going to see two people of color tops,” says Barbee, who is Afro-Latino. “Even behind the scenes, a lot of times, we still see white producers, white directors.”
Barbee's observation is not necessarily new. The theater community at Northwestern has been grappling with issues of diversity for decades.
Assistant professor of English and African American studies Justin L. Mann majored in theatre and history before graduating from Northwestern in 2007. Like Mora, he says he had a complicated relationship with the theater community. Although he learned from his peers and professors during his time as an undergrad, he also experienced conflicts because of his identity which made him feel isolated.
“I didn't know or didn't have the language at the time to really understand how I was feeling as a Black person, one of the few Black people in the community,” Mann says. “I think had I had the language then, I would have been more mentally healthy.”
During his second year at Northwestern, Mann says he was in charge of a show and received pushback from the stage manager, who was a white woman, after he asked for something to be done. He raised his voice during the conversation, which he says he recognizes was inappropriate. The incident followed him for some time and led to multiple interventions about his behavior.
“I got punished for it, in a way that it almost cost me a job,” Mann says. “I had to have a conversation with an employer about it, and we were able to smooth things over. But it was not insignificant, and it was entirely about her feeling threatened by a big Black man.”
After that year, Mann says he realized he could not behave in the same ways his white peers could and had to learn to navigate his environment differently. But that felt lonely and self-sacrificial to him.
“We need to come together as a community and accept that what we've inherited — or what we've made together — is excluding people, reinforces whiteness, reinforces heteropatriarchy, reinforces cisness,” Mann says. “We need to interrogate why we're invested in those systems so that we can unmake them and be more welcoming and be more inclusive.”
Mora says conversations among her and Cole's friends about the theatre department being predominantly white always reach the same natural conclusion: They should create their own space to prioritize students of color.
“It just started out as a daydream,” Mora says. “You know, there's so many different theater boards on campus that specialize in all these amazing things. What if we just created our own?”
Mora and Cole launched Vibrant Colors Collective (VC2), a multicultural student board, this April along with five other executive members. Cole, the co-treasurer and co-special events coordinator of VC2, and Mora, the co-executive director and co-marketing director, say the board is necessary because of its independence from the whiteness typically found in the theater community.
“I think the only way to truly fix a problem is if we create our own space, which is essentially what we did because even if white people produce a play for POC, it's still produced by white people,” Mora says. “What VC2 is trying to do is create a space that's entirely created by POC, made for POC, performed by POC, so that way, we have a space that's not infiltrated by whiteness.”
Other students seem to have similar aspirations. Communication third-year and theatre major Jonyca Jiao played the titular role in The Ballad of Mu Lan, produced by Imagine U and performed at Wirtz from late February to early March. Jiao says it was an honor to play a more realistic version of the legend whose story she says has been romanticized by Disney.
"What VC2 is trying to do is create a space that's entirely created by POC, made for POC, performed by POC, so that way, we have a space that's not infiltrated by whiteness."Yuni Mora, Communication first-year
In a larger sense, Jiao says her role as Mu Lan is important because Chinese theater is scarce at Northwestern. Additionally, she says auditioning for roles in productions as an Asian student can be difficult, especially when directors claim race is not a factor.
“It's hard for me, as an Asian, to know what the director wants,” Jiao says. “People are saying, 'Yeah, we want to do diversity so race is not a consideration. It's open to all races, people of all races,' but then, sometimes because I am a minority, I still consider how much of that would be taken in account.”
Realizing this, Jiao started a Chinese theater club with her friends called EighthDay Theatre Club, which held its first performance in November 2021 with the show Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. She says the club's primary goal is to uplift Chinese culture and stories on campus. The club is not exclusive to theatre majors, as Jiao is currently the only theatre major in it.
This May, EighthDay Theatre Club performed The Butterfly Lover, an adaptation of a story from Chinese folklore. The play, sponsored by Wirtz, explored how individuals love one another in spite of social barriers. Though Jiao has received support from the theatre department in telling diverse stories, she says it's still not enough.
“I would like to see more support from the theatre department to support student works who are actually trying to promote diversity, cultural differences and different stories on stage,” Jiao says.
The new multicultural boards and initiatives aim to perform and uplift stories created by and about people of color. Godinez, who serves as the faculty adviser for VC2, says the collaborative spirit of the theater board gives him hope that students of color can write their own narratives.
“The best thing we can do as human beings, but definitely as human beings of color is to not acknowledge any box that anybody ever wants to put us in,” Godinez says. “We deserve to be represented at the highest levels with everyone else.”