Theatre Department changes musical following student concerns


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Joshua Shepard starred in “Pippin,“ part of Wilkes University’s 2017-2018 season.He took on the role as the “Leading Player“ of Pippin and put his own spin on the character.

The theatre department at Wilkes University was scheduled to present the musical “Evita” in Fall 2018, but it was met with backlash from the students of the department.

“Evita” is set in Argentina and follows the life of Eva Perón an Argentinian political leader. It focuses on her early life, rise to power, as well as her death.

When the musical was announced to the musical theater students, as all musicals and plays are, it was met with negative feedback because the students were not comfortable with primarily white students starring as Latinos.

The musical has since been replaced.

According students in the department, after the students deliberated with each other in person and through private group chats, they decided to approach the heads of the department in a professional, but effective way: by drafting a letter and petition to not perform “Evita.”

The four-page letter, which was sent out June 15, two days after the announcement of the musical,  shared the select students concerns were addressed to “Wilkes University Theatre Department” and included the following:

“As actors, it is true that the art requires us to portray characters and people who differ from our everyday selves,” wrote the students, “However, it is completely different to portray someone of a race or ethnicity that does not match our own.

“Being that Wilkes University Theatre is a predominantly white institution, we don’t feel it is appropriate for non-Latino actors to portray characters of a different ethnicity, as would be required for Evita.

“…Students in the department of Latino heritage have made it clear that they would not be comfortable with students who are not of Latino descent portraying these roles,” added the select students. “Our fellow Latino actors would be offended by our participation in this show, which would be another example of the whitewashing of racially-influenced roles in modern theatre.”

The students also commended the department for its efforts to avoid cultural appropriation with the spring production of “Chorus Line.” In the musical there were some roles that were altered to fit the cast of the production, which the students were appreciative of.

However, they believed there was no altering “Evita” without losing the Argentinian-driven culture of the story.

The petition also included a statement saying that the petition was not from a singular student, but rather written collectively as a whole.

While the students boycotted auditions, they did not boycott working behind the scenes. In the department, students are required to work on every production for a grade; however, they are not required to audition.

The first day of the fall semester, the students were met with a department meeting discussing the issue.

After the meeting, the department continued to run auditions for the musical. According to the students, only seven people auditioned. After that, the musical was changed. 

Brianna Schunk, a former musical theater major and now English major, was one of the students who signed the petition.

Schunk was also involved in multiple productions after she had left the department a year ago, such as “Pippin” and “A Chorus Line.”

Theresa Fallon, director of theatre, declined to comment on the student boycott and the department’s decision to cancel “Evita.”

Josh Shepard, one of the students who signed the petition, spoke about the feelings of some of the students.

“We didn’t feel comfortable portraying a culture that we knew we had no business portraying,” Shepard said.

The petition sparked a debate over the difference between ethnicity and skin color.

“The first time Evita came out, it was the 1960s, and it was an all Caucasian cast. I am saying Caucasian, because Evita is white, but she is also Hispanic,” he explained. “That is one thing we were trying to clear up, was there was a difference between color and race. There are white people who are African-American, there are white people who are Indian, and on the other hand there are black people who are German. Color is not the only factor, it is also the ethnicity and race.”

After the petition, the students and the faculty of the department had a back and forth conversation about the issue.

One issue brought up was Lin Manuel Miranda’s, take on non-latino students portraying characters in his predominating latino cast of “In the Heights.” Miranda is a famous and respected theatre director.

“He feels that it is OK for high school students to do ‘In the Heights’, because they are just learning about the arts and who they are,” explained Shepard.

The interview was brought to the students’ attention as a way of supporting the department’s claim, but Shepard says it actually supported their petition further.

“That’s high school; we are not in high school anymore. We are now at a a stage in our career where we’re building our character, we are establishing who we would play in musicals and in plays. Evita just didn’t feel appropriate.”

Evita was announced to be replaced with a Tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of Evita, as well as many other famous musicals including Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The first six songs from the performance are songs from Evita.

“I guess it feels like a compromise,” said Shepard.

The boycott led one student, Mmachi Dimoriaku, to audition for a musical at King’s College, Ragtime.

The musical, which has a racially diverse cast, was opened up to non-King’s students in order to portray a properly diverse cast.

“I am really happy that they opened up auditions to the community. I feel like if Wilkes had opened up Evita to the community, the response would have been just as great, if not a bit more than Ragtime.”

Dimoriaku plays a role in the Harlem Ensemble.

Isaiah McGahee, a Wilkes University communication studies and political science junior, plays a principal role in the musical.

“If there was one musical I wanted to do, I wanted it to be Ragtime. When they finally opened the musical to the public, I auditioned.”

This is McGahee’s first time in a musical, but he says he wants to participate in Wilkes musicals as well.

Ragtime opened on Sept. 27. The next performances are Oct. 4, 5, 6 at 7:30 p.m at King’s Widmann Gallery, Sheehy-Farmer Campus Center.

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber runs Nov. 15 through 18 at 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on Nov. 17 and 18.