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Group asks WVU’s theater department to be more racially inclusive

A group of West Virginia University alumni that calls itself WVU Artists Aligned has asked the university’s School of Theatre and Dance in an open letter to be more race inclusive in its educational programming.

“Historically, theater is Euro-centric,” said Joseph Gay, a WAA member who helped write the letter.

“People of color can’t relate,” said Gay, who received an MFA from WVU in 2018.

In the letter to the School of Theatre and Dance and the university, the WAA is asking:

  • To make the welfare and safety of your students a priority as the institution moves through these necessary changes.
  • Educate faculty and students on the issues of white supremacy through tokenism and micro-aggressions within productions and classrooms.
  • Commit to revising, reforming and diversifying educational materials and current curriculum to move away from an antiquated white-centered way of learning.
  • Foster deeper institutional relationships with multiple BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, People of Color – artists and alumni over the next several years.
  • Work with communities that have a higher percentage of BIPOC prospective students to create a more equitable submission process.
  • Create a 1-year, 5-year and 10-year plan that is shared among the WVU community including alumni with specific, measureable, and timely goals on how the department plans to create a BIPOC-inclusive environment.

“It is easy to continue in the way we always have, settling for comfortable conversations and to pass the torch of change to someone else,” WAA’s letter said. “If the current faculty finds that they don’t have to the capacity for change and are set in their complacency, then commit to diversifying the faculty by ensuring the next time the department is in a position to hire a tenure track or adjunct faculty member, the BIPOC artists with whom you will be fostering deeper relationships are directly encouraged to apply.”

Gay, who is based in New York City, and other members of the WAA plan to set up a Zoom meeting with Keith Jackson, Dean of the College of Creative Arts this week. The goal, he said it for WAA, to serve as allies to the university’s School of Dance and Theatre.

“We are very pleased that our alumni and friends are willing to engage in ongoing efforts to improve the racial climate on campus and in the arts,” Jackson said in a statement. “As artists, it is always our duty to honestly reflect on our changing cultural landscape. That is a duty we take seriously. I look forward to collaborating with this group to better inform our work at the College of Creative Arts as well as at the University.”

Gay said Jackson reached out as soon as he saw the letter, which was prompted by recent events in the country stemming from the killing of an African-American man by a white police officer in Minnesota in May.

“We all think highly of WVU, the faculty at the School of Theatre and Dance, and the time we spent there,” said Gay, adding many of the plays used in the school are in white voices and written in the 1930s. “We are doing this out of passion and care for our institution, which is why we want to work with the school to create a more diverse and equitable future.”

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