Spring break is just around the corner and will be quickly followed by casting for the last show in the Festival Playhouse at Kalamazoo College’s 58th season, themed “Black is Beautiful: An Ode to Black Life, Love and Strength.”
Auditions for Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, March 29 and 30. Ten students of Color are needed to tell this coming-of-age story of a young gay man in the Louisiana projects days before Hurricane Katrina strikes.
Assistant Professor Quincy Thomas talks about Marcus, what it means to take part in art that reflects and celebrates your experiences, and how the theatre department is working to create a safe space for all students.
Q: What can you tell me about the play Marcus and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney?
This play is really powerful. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s about sexual identity and personal identity and tradition and family. McCraney’s voice is so multidimensional and new and fresh and he is very much about poetry, the beauty of the voice and music, lyricism. He does all of this to create a space for voices that have historically been silenced or pushed to the margins. This is the story of a young boy right before Hurricane Katrina, and his community and the way that shifts, and his own sexual identity and personal identity. It’s a story many Black men have dealt with, particularly figuring out your identity in our country. But it’s a story many people have not heard or do not know because it’s not a traditional Eurocentric story. For me as a Black man and as a father, the story of young men coming of age in our country is so important.
Q: What do you know about director Anthony Hamilton?
I know he has connections to the Kalamazoo arts community. He is another one of those young, bright voices. I believe he’s going to be able to capture the nuance and the poetic power of this piece. He will not only do this story justice, but also teach our community that is predominantly white about these kinds of stories.
Q: What is important about this story? Why is this a story that needs to be told here?
On a broader platform, Black stories need to be told. Art is the way we look at the world and the culture we’re in. If you want to know what’s important to a community, all you have to do is look at the art they create. When you do not see yourself in those things, that tells you that you are not important to that culture. Traditionally, theatre has been a white pastime, it’s been very Eurocentric. Despite the progress we’ve made, and how far we’ve come, theatre is still very, very white. Without the presence of Black people and people of Color in an artistic culture, not only are you saying something to the people who are absent, you’re saying something to the people who consume that art about who is important.
Black people need to see themselves on stage. It’s also important to non-Black audiences being able to see the world and culture without stereotypes. There are still so many aspects of the Black experience that people don’t know, that people have never seen and that shapes the ways in which Black people are perceived and interacted with in the world.
Specifically, this is an important story to tell on a college campus because it’s the coming-of-age story of a person trying to figure out who they are and what it means to be a man. The kind of people we need to be, who we want to be, the things we might be afraid to embrace because of cultural pressure. Those are things students are grappling with. Who am I now? I’m not the person I was. Who am I becoming?
We don’t have a shortage of coming-of-age stories. There are a lot of these stories about white people. Where are those beautiful stories about Black joy and heritage and history and legacy? Where are those stories that tell a Black person, this is who you are, this is your past; you may need to challenge that, you may need to muddy that, you may need to change that. Who do you need to be for your community and for yourself?
Q: What is the value of telling Black stories in the context of theatre?
One of the challenges to any theatre right now that wants to do diversity, equity and inclusion work is that we have to remember that it is not work people are used to seeing, particularly in a sustained fashion. We all need to create a new culture where people of every race, color and creed say, this is theatre for everyone. We are not at the place yet where Black actors trust that those shows are going to be handled in the right way, cast in the right way, not told from a Eurocentric lens. We have to establish trust in our community so that BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of Color] actors, BIPOC crew, BIPOC stage managers feel welcome. That has not happened yet. We need to continue telling those stories whether we have trouble casting them or not. That is anti-racism work and that doesn’t stop. As a Black artist, there have been plenty of times where I haven’t auditioned because I know that I’m going to read to a bunch of white directors, words written by a white person, for a role intended for a white person. If I’m being cast for diversity clout, I may not go. If I feel like they just want me because it’s February, I’m not interested in that. It’s not enough to just do a play. We have to create a culture.
I wholeheartedly believe the K theatre arts department has the desire to make change happen. That means we’re going to have moments like this. This is the season of Black joy. We need more than a season, but the cool thing is, when we sit down and talk about the future, next year, we’re talking about shows about people of Color. We’re going to continue to do shows about people of Color. We’re going to tell those stories. We’re going to do it beyond a season of Black joy. And that is the work that needs to be done. We’re not just interested in putting non-white actors on stage. We also want to get more BIPOC designers, BIPOC crew, BIPOC costume designers. If you’re a Black woman in a play, who’s doing your hair? Who knows how to light you? Skin tones are different, being lit on stage is different. These are things a lot of people don’t consider, what it means to put a Black body on stage. This department is looking to understand all those things.
We are committed to creating change and theatre that is proactive and for everybody.
Q: What do you see as the value of the experience for students?
It is more than getting up on stage and saying lines. Experiential learning is very important at K and the things you learn when you’re involved in a production translate to all kinds of different jobs. Public speaking, textual analysis, team building, communication, time management are all valuable lessons learned in a production process. If you are a student of Color, you more than likely have not had that many opportunities to create art that looks like you, to partake in art that speaks to who you are. Anytime you get to create art, it’s a privilege. So rarely do students of Color get an opportunity to create art for them, art that talks about their world, their trauma, their pain, to go through the process that enables you to give the world a view into the culture and community that is a part of your life and is your identity. When you’re in college, you may or may not have that opportunity. After college, the opportunity to do that kind of work dwindles dramatically. An opportunity to have a voice, to be heard, to have that voice guided by a fantastic director who understands Black art. The opportunity as a person of Color to be able to tell your story, showcase your identity, while being directed by a person who has walked a version of that walk, that is an opportunity you may never have again in your entire life. That is an opportunity you jump at, particularly if you care about creating art that makes a difference.
Q: In your experience, why don’t many Black students get involved in theatre at K?
I believe it is wholly, singularly about trust. People of Color in theatre, unless they’re coming from a historically Black institution, all have horror stories about the way they’ve been treated in costume shops, in makeup chairs, while their hair is getting done. A lot of university theatre departments will talk a big game and not follow up. For Black students in my experience, reluctance to audition generally comes down to, “I would love to do that play but I don’t want to be mistreated.”
I personally will do everything in my power to ensure they are supported and feel safe. I can’t speak to how it was before, but I personally am committed to doing the work to ensure that Black artists are safe in our spaces. And if something happens that they are not, it will be handled. If students speak up, report, they will be supported. We can’t get the work done if students are being mistreated.
Q: What would you say to Black students about this opportunity?
I know this has happened to you, I understand the fear that you have in doing the thing, but I promise you that we’ll keep you safe. You will have a voice. This is a collaborative process.
We can have all the great intentions in the world, but if we are not creating the space, then students can’t fill the space. I’m committed to creating spaces for these students that are better than they’ve been for me. There’s not a reality where I’m going to allow any student to be mistreated in our department. It’s personal for me. They have my word, and if something goes down, I would involve myself. You have to protect these students, and traditionally, education has not done a very good job of it. It’s not students’ responsibility to create safe spaces. It’s our responsibility.
Q: Why should Black students audition for this show?
There’s a risk. There’s a gamble in auditioning. It’s not easy work, but when you are an artist of Color and you actually get to do the thing … when you have a story about people of Color and you have artists of Color and directors of Color, that personally affects you, changes you. You come out the other end of that process a person who understands their own world and the larger world in a better way. Theatre is the world through a particular lens. When that lens looks like you, there is something remarkably empowering about that. When there are people dedicated to telling important stories about people like you, that is healing, affirming, life changing, even if you only do one show. There are shared languages, shared moments, moments of trauma only the cast and director you are with are going to understand. You will come out the other end of it feeling empowered, feeling you have been heard, your voice matters.
Feeling you’re not just screaming into the void is very important. It is a wholly valuable experience. It’s never going to be a perfect experience, because there isn’t any such thing, but it is going to be invaluable.
Auditions for Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet
- Written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney
- Directed by Anthony Hamilton
- Festival Playhouse at Kalamazoo College (at the back of the Light Fine Arts building, near Dow)
- Casting 10 students of Color
- Tuesday and Wednesday, March 29 and 30, at 7 p.m. Please arrive by 6:45 to fill out an audition form.
- Callbacks will be Thursday, March 31, and the show will run May 12-15.
- No experience or preparation necessary.
- Visit theatre.kzoo.edu/opportunities/auditions to learn more.