Tuesday, August 25, 2020

HSU Theater Students and Alumni Call Out Equity Issues

Posted By on Tue, Aug 25, 2020 at 7:12 PM

Yesterday, the recently formed Committee on Racial Equity, "an organized group of BIPOC Theatre students and alumni from the past 10 years," shared a list of issues and demands addressed to the faculty of the Humboldt State University Theatre Program. It bears the signatures of 73 students, alumni and guest artists.
click to enlarge Promotional photo of Kyle Ryan and Lincoln Mitchell in HSU's 2010 production of "M. Butterfly" by David Henry Hwang. In this production, a white actor was cast in an East Asian role. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Promotional photo of Kyle Ryan and Lincoln Mitchell in HSU's 2010 production of "M. Butterfly" by David Henry Hwang. In this production, a white actor was cast in an East Asian role.

The letter outlines problems with pay equity for guest artists of color, casting, representation and racist comments, such as referring to BIPOC students as "thugs." Among CORE's demands, the letter calls for a stakeholder meeting, a public apology, training, changes in syllabi and selection of shows for the season. It also asks for review of the department's hiring process and that half the faculty, now all white, be BIPOC. (See the full letter copied below, along with HSU's response.)

Roman Sanchez, who graduated HSU's theater program in 2018, said he and his peers saw the critiques of professional theaters raised by We See You White American Theater, as well as those levied at college and university programs, and found they echoed issues at HSU. “We realized we had a lot of stories to tell
and a lot of trauma that had not been healed," says Sanchez. "We also had a lot of love for the HSU theater program.” 

After talking with BIPOC alumni, former students and guest artists from the last decade (though he declines to say how many), Sanchez says, “What was scary was that it was the same things happening [over 10 years] … the same stories, same anecdotes, same failure to recognize and apologize” for what they agreed was a lack of sensitivity and cultural understanding.

Given the five vacancies in the department, Sanchez says, “We felt an urgency of getting this letter out now.” It's CORE's hope that its letter will have some influence over the hiring of new faculty and that its wide distribution — to alumni, media, local and national theater organizations, as well as University of California and California State University faculty — will add some pressure. “We hope that establishes some urgency to take action now and not treat it as it has been over 10 years.”

In an email response from HSU spokesperson Grant Scott-Goforth, the university stated that it would "look closely" at the details and requests in the letter, and reasserted its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

"We certainly condemn any racist actions by individuals or groups associated with HSU, and are focused on addressing any institutional racism." (Read the full response below.)

From the Committee on Racial Equity:

Humboldt State University Attn: Theatre Program
1 Harpst Street
Arcata, CA 95521

Attn: Ann Alter, Dean Rosamel Benavides-Garb, Dean Lisa Bond-Maupin, Dr. Troy Lescher, Rae Robison, Michael Thomas


The past months have been enveloped in a pandemic killing disproportionate amounts of BIPOC, more innocent Black people being murdered, and more white supremacist systems making it evident they want BIPOC to struggle, starve, and die. Over the past decade, Humboldt State University’s Theatre Program has caused a plethora of harm and trauma, evidenced by narcissistic behavior, to such an extent that we demand the program commit to change.

We are an organized group of BIPOC Theatre students and alumni from the past 10 years (and beyond) who stand with our white peer allies, including former staff, faculty, and guest artists. We write to you to hold accountable the exclusively white leadership, faculty, and staff that have perpetuated over a decade of harm.

We do this for:

  • The hundreds of students of color that participated in the program,

  • The dozens of students of color who left the program and/or University because they were mistreated, misrepresented, or overlooked,

  • The many students of color who experienced overt instances of racism and other methods of discrimination,

  • The many students of color who experienced subtle cases of racism and other forms of microaggressions,

  • The students of color who never felt safe or welcomed in this program,

  • The audience members, donors, and subscribers that support this program,

  • The Humboldt County artist community, and

  • The future students who are drawn to pursue Theatre at the higher education level.


    We preface these action items by acknowledging and expressing utmost gratitude to all the BIPOC who displayed deep acts of courage by voicing their experiences during our community engagement phase that this group organized and executed.

    In our extensive listening, we were astounded at the similar experiences, lack of cultural competency, and outright racist acts committed by the HSU Theatre Program in over a ten year span.

Page 1 of 5

Some selected anecdotes from the past decade that articulate the aforementioned behaviors include:

  • Producing shows that require BIPOC casts with no proper representation and cultural appropriative designs including, but not limited to, M. Butterfly, Shakuntala, and Los Pajaros.

  • Hiring white directors to work on culturally specific shows including, but not limited to, Venus, Real Women Have Curves, and Salmon is Everything (6 of the 7 shows written by BIPOC were directed by non-BIPOC).

  • Faculty, Staff, and Guest Artists engaging in racist conversations, remarks, and coaching including, but not limited to, referring to BIPOC as “thugs” when entering a room, asking a Black student if he was in a gang because he was wearing a hoodie, and telling a Mexican student “he can play many ethnicities like Latino or Pakistani or Jewish or Italian”.

  • Casting BIPOC in problematic roles including, but not limited to, Violent Animals, Gangsters, and Stoners.

  • Producing a non-inclusive and inequitable environment for BIPOC Guest Artists by: paying them less than white Guest Artists, not providing them the same marketing and community engagement resources used in other season’s shows, and giving them lower budgets and less staff attention/resources.

  • Selfishly tokenizing BIPOC students to make the Program, Department, and University “look good”. For example, strategically showcasing their achievements in media, publicity materials, and institutional newsletters.

  • Using BIPOC students in too many artistic projects at one time (because the Program produced shows that they couldn’t successfully cast), with no care paid to these students’ academics, causing some of them to be put on academic probation or academic suspension.

  • Course Curriculum reflecting white eurocentric theatrical practices, people, and histories and shutting down ideas and feelings when students offered alternative, more diverse, options.

    Current BIPOC students and alumni from the past 10 years (and beyond) have vocalized that when the above issues were brought to the attention of the HSU Theatre, Film, and Dance leadership on numerous occasions, the issues were met with no resolution or action. The lack of attentiveness and care have illustrated the powerlessness of students, the lack of a safe space, and an ill-equipped ‘student-centered’ institution.

    We demand Ann Alter, Dean Rosamel Benavides-Garb, Dean Lisa Bond-Maupin, Dr. Troy Lescher, Rae Robison, and Michael Thomas listen and comply with our following demands:

1) Hold A Meeting With All Stakeholders

  1. a) Organize and attend a meeting with all stakeholders mentioned in this letter to address all

    of the below demands.

  2. b) Take notes from this meeting and have them available as part of a Public Record.

Page 2 of 5

2) Apologize

a) Acknowledge and apologize for the decade-long mistreatment of BIPOC stories, students, and guest artists. In this apology, take a meaningful stand that Black Lives Matter and acknowledge that the Program and its venues exist on the Wiyot people’s land. Within the apology, there should be a commitment to do better. This apology should be sent to local media, as a response to this email, and be posted on Program social media.

  1. 3) Re-evaluate Current Hiring Practices

    1. a) An entirely white Faculty, Staff, and Leadership is disgraceful. 8.5% of Directors in the Theatre Program in the last decade (out of 47) were POC and 17% of Produced Published Playwrights were BIPOC (out of 41). Involve students in a more meaningful hiring process because student input matters. With five staff and faculty positions becoming vacant in the last months, we challenge you to ensure at least 50% of the Theatre Faculty and Staff are composed of BIPOC if and when you fill these positions. Think outside the box, but within the parameters of the legal requirements. 50% of the job/interview finalists need to be BIPOC, and to ensure that, recruit and solicit on alternative venues other than ArtSearch and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Consider making allowances to hire BIPOC candidates for faculty positions who do not hold terminal degrees until the pool of BIPOC candidates with terminal degrees grows. Also, consider using more guest artists instead of tenure track lines if you are not able to grow a BIPOC faculty initially.

    2. b) Apply the above sentiments and concepts for hiring new faculty when hiring guest artists.

  2. 4) Re-evaluate Season Selection Process

    1. a) Representation vs Resonance. Throughout the decade, you’ve made (ill-informed) efforts toward representation in shows but when that representation is not meaningful, is tokenized, or is held to a double-standard, it becomes counterproductive to the intent. Create new processes for BIPOC students to recommend productions that resonate with them — steering away from the common Eurocentric White “Theatre Canon”. The process for season selection needs to be more transparent and made available to every Theatre Major and Minor in a direct email.

    2. b) If the Theatre Program does not have the students to cast a show, do not produce it.

2) Implement, Support, and Fund a Theatre Student Union

a) Build a line item into your budget to create a Theatre Student Union on Race and Equity or a Theatre Student Advisory Board. Provide them the resources to make sure the Theatre Program does not continue its current history.

3) Develop Scholarships

a) Solicit funding to create scholarships, funding opportunities, and/or grants for current and new BIPOC students for their tuition, living expenses, and student projects.

4) Decolonize Syllabi

a) Refer to David Valdes’ essay on HowlRound, Beyond ‘Decolonizing’ The Syllabus.
Page 3 of 5

  1. b) Engage in a new strategy of material selection in all theatre courses including, but not limited to, Acting, Design, Technical, and Theatre History classes as well as material to be performed at Regional Theatre festivals.

  2. c) Re-evaluate the course requisites to graduate. Consider including mandatory class(es) reflecting non-eurocentric, anti-racist theatrical philosophies as part of the degree requirements. For example, Black Theatre, Latinx Theatre, Theatre for Social Change, World Theatre, etc.

5) Engage in Trainings

a) Create a plan of action and/or strategic plan to educate yourselves and all stakeholders involved with Theatre students. Make this plan available as a Public Record. Hire consultants to engage in topics including, but not limited to, cultural competency, anti- racism, decolonizing the classroom, implicit bias, and color-conscious casting. Invest yourself, your resources, and the Program’s resources in this process and do so whole- heartedly.

6) Reporting

a) Create and publicize a more streamlined, transparent, and safe process for students to report and record behavior from peers, faculty, staff, etc.

7) Funding & Budget Transparency

a) The Program is funded almost entirely by student tuition and Associated Student (A.S.) funding — use the Theatre Student Union / Advisory Board to help prioritize funding to BIPOC initiatives.

8) Pay Tokenized BIPOC

a) All promotional materials, including but not limited to, brochures, bookmarks, website pages, and fliers that include [tokenized] pictures of BIPOC students in productions and classes should pay students for the use of their image on marketing materials.


Anonymous, Guest Artist
Susan Abbey, Former Faculty in Theatre, Film, and Dance Dept.
Isaiah Alexander, Former Student* Rosemary Allison-Brown, Current Student Giovanni ‘Geo’ Alva, Former Student Jack H. Anderson, Former Student Savannah Baez, Former Student
Makenna N. Baker, Former Student Joshua Banuelos, Former Student
Amy Beltrán, Former Student & Guest Artist*

Camille Borrowdale, Former Student Rachel M. Brink, Former Student Veronica A. Brooks, Former Student Ashley Cable, Former Student
Wendy Carranza, Current Student Andrea Carrillo, Former Student & Guest Artist*

Dr. Michelle Cartier, Current Faculty in Theatre, Film, and Dance Dept.
Isabella Ceja, Former Student
Jesse Chavez, Former Student

Dominic Christensen, Current Student
Page 4 of 5

Gwynnevere Cristobal, Former Student Ari Murrillo Edwards, Former Student Patrice Imani Elise-Byrd, Former Student Will English III, Former Student

Irma Gill-Yañez, Former Student Jordan Goad, Former Student
Cate Hatfield, Former Student Charlie Heinberg, Former Student Stephane Hernandez, Former Student Constance Hill, Former Student* Brenda Hubbard, Guest Artist

Kiara Hudlin, Former Student
Cheyenne Janger, Former Student Christopher E. Joe, Former Student Calder Johnson, Former Student & Guest Artist

Matthew Khonach, Former Student Shea King, Former Student
Corinna Knighten, Former Student Derek Lane, Former Faculty in Theatre, Film, and Dance Dept.

Kai Sierra Lassen, Former Student Joey Porter Lawrence, Guest Artist Stephanie Lemon, Former Student Margarita Liberto, Former Student Maggie Luc, Former Student Marissa L. Menezes, Former Student Elena Tagle Molina, Former Student Bailey Molsberry, Current Student Citlali Nava, Former Student

Angie Negrete, Former Student
Kaden O’Keefe, Former Student & Guest Artist
Victor Daniel Parra, Former Student* Fiva Pulu, Former Student
Michelle Purnell, Former Student Valerie Ramirez, Former Student
Shadi Reisinger, Former Student
Elio Robles, Former Student
Nancy Roman, Former Student
Marissa Sanchez, Former Student Roman Sanchez, Former Student* Micah Scheff, Former Student
Emani Shelton, Former Student Samantha Kolby Silva, Former Student Alexander Stearns, Former Student

Jeremy Stolp, Current Student
Grace Stuckert, Former Student
Kyle Swanegan, Current Student Christian Trujillo, Current Student Kimberly Vazquez, Former Student Caitlin Volz, Former Student Taiquira Williams, Former Student Ayanna Elon Wilson, Former Student Britney Wright, Former Student Lauren Zika, Former Student

*Some of the Founding Members of C.O.R.E.

Page 5 of 5

From HSU:

The University learned of this today, and we haven’t been able to thoroughly examine the details and requests contained in the group’s press release. But we take these matters very seriously and will look at it closely.

We certainly condemn any racist actions by individuals or groups associated with HSU, and are focused on addressing any institutional racism.

We are fully committed to the mission, vision, and values of Humboldt State. You can read our full statement here, but the ones below are particularly relevant to this conversation:

· We will be renowned for social and environmental responsibility and action.

· We believe the key to our common future will be the individual citizen who acts in good conscience and engages in informed action.

· We will commit to increasing our diversity of people and perspectives.

· We will be exemplary partners with our communities, including tribal nations.

· We believe in the dignity of all individuals, in fair and equitable treatment, and in equal opportunity. We value the richness and interplay of differences. We value the inclusiveness of diversity, and we respect alternative paradigms of thought.

· We believe individuals must be environmentally, economically and socially responsible in the quest for viable and sustainable communities.

In recent months, many campus groups have shared messages of solidarity with communities of color and our commitment to address inequities, reduce harm, and enact positive social change. Please feel free to read those messages, which are collected here. https://president.humboldt.edu/message-solidarity

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Grant Scott-Goforth's position with the university.
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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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