The final line of an explosive email sent in the fall of 2020: “We are people before we are actors.” With those words, Music, Theatre & Dance junior Ruby Pérez lit a fire among Theatre & Drama students and faculty alike by calling for change within the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. What followed was a week of striking students, intense discussions and movements toward change.
The initial statement sent by Pérez and Music, Theatre & Dance juniors Javier Soriano and Mary Handsome to the faculty garnered support from 100 current Theatre & Drama students and 13 alumni and included these demands as described previously by The Michigan Daily:
- Requiring the faculty to release a “unified statement expressing their support for those striking and their demands” by Sept. 19
- Allowing students to opt out of University productions without cause due to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic
- More transparency in decision-making processes regarding school plans
- A wider range of opportunities for performances instead of the required production
- The implementation of a “bail out system” in every class setting that will allow students to step away for a few minutes without explanation if a scene or topic becomes too much to handle.
With a new semester underway and plenty of time for the Theatre & Drama Department to have worked on changes, The Daily checked in with Pérez to see how she felt the work has been handled and what still needs to be done. As a young artist, activist and a winner of the 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award for her dedication to uplifting BIPOC theater-makers, Pérez hasn’t always felt like she’s seen herself represented in theatrical spaces.
“I grew up in a pretty Hispanic community. And then I came to Michigan, and all of a sudden I was walking into rooms fully aware of the fact that I was the only one who looks like me. It was the first time I faced that,” Pérez said. “You go into your theater settings, and you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, there’s not really (an) opportunity for me to share my story.’ ”
After the demands were issued, some changes went into immediate effect. A few large meetings between faculty and student representatives lead to the creation of a long-term accountability team. Their goals were to establish curriculum changes, bring in cultural consultants, create bail out language for emotional moments during classes and rehearsals and bring Diversity, Equity & Inclusion language and practices into theatrical spaces.
“The long-term accountability team was my idea and therefore my responsibility,” Pérez said. “So for most of the fall, I was kind of just sitting there like, ‘Okay, so how do I build a team? How do I build personnel and a purview for this team?’ I had no idea what I’m doing. I just knew that I wanted to do this. And it all had to get done.”
With the burden of change continuously getting pushed onto “Ruby’s Accountability Team,” the tasks quickly became overwhelming. She finally was able to reach out to DEI representatives who provided her with an action plan format that lends itself to theater. Pérez has been able to assemble a small team of students and faculty to delegate and work toward goals of BIPOC representation in auditions, student consultations for University Production show decisions, decolonized curriculum and future goals that will inevitably come up.
“Honestly, I just have a lot of hope right now,” Pérez said. “We’re having a lot more conversations that we weren’t having before. And I’m really proud of that.”
Now, the theater program is stronger than ever, with plenty of room and resources to improve even more. The Theatre & Drama Department just started rehearsals for “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Sam White, a guest director from the Detroit area. Pérez will be playing Prince Escalus in this modern-day representation, just one of the gender-bent roles in this show.
“One of the awesome things that Sam shared in the audition/callback process was that she doesn’t really care what your gender is, what your race is, she’s going to cast you,” Pérez said. “That’s the thing about Shakespeare. I don’t think I’m playing like a female prince. I think I’m just Prince Escalus.”
Working with a Black director to explore the different meanings of a classic text is something that excited Pérez. These types of opportunities are rare, but have been becoming more frequent due to student efforts.
Pérez’s work to use her power as a student and an artist to push for significant change in her school is inspiring, and its effects are already being seen. Theater classes are instituting inclusive language to make theater spaces safe for students and faculty. Curriculum changes are being proposed and classes have moved to be more focused on sharing BIPOC stories.
This positive change now has the potential to spread throughout the University, with artists and artistic spaces as a guide to a better, more inclusive learning environment.
Daily Arts Columnist Dana Pierangeli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.