Musical theatre tends to be dominated by whiteness. White characters breed white casting and white schooling in a positive feedback loop that has excluded artists of color for as long as the industry is old.
The University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance students know this — they live it. On a recent rainy evening, SMTD Junior Erica Ito put it this way: “[it’s] a predominantly white department in a predominantly white institution in a predominantly white field that we are entering that has a complicated history with people of color.”
“The Color Cabaret” deals with all of this. Divided into two parts over roughly 90 minutes, the student-run show gives artists of color opportunities to sing and perform in roles rarely offered to them. In the first half, students take on famous color-consciously casted songs that make a difference to them as artists. Disney princesses and “Hadestown” are both set to make an appearance. The second half takes on iconic roles in musical theatre that have not been traditionally performed by people of color — “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl” and “Music in the Mirror” from “A Chorus Line” topped Ito’s list of what to look forward to. The last few numbers will also tackle issues of intersectionality.
Ito, who is co-producing the show alongside SMTD junior Thani Brant, started work on the cabaret with a few other MT upperclassmen back in November. The show has been an on-and-off biennial tradition for the past decade, but Ito and her team have revamped it into something extra special for 2020.
The concept started in conversation — specifically, intergroup dialogues facilitated by director and SMTD senior Maya Imani. There, everyone involved had the chance to voice their experiences as performers of color.
“These are conversations that we have with our roommates at 2 a.m. or coming home from rehearsal,” Imani said.
She added that bringing such topics into a formalized space made people feel “like their thoughts and opinions about these things actually do have worth.” Imani and Ito both noted how special these dialogues quickly became, especially in their accentuation of every individual’s experience. Both women were pleasantly surprised by how much they could still learn from each other.
Therein lies the theme of the show, too. It’s “sharing our experiences with each other,” Ito said, “and then pushing that into the audience.”
Later that evening, Imani echoed this exact sentiment. “The cabaret is not about making a political statement,” she said. The performers are there to listen, support, validate and celebrate one another — the audience just gets to watch.
And while the show has been an undertaking for its upperclassmen leadership, the impact is not lost on MT underclassmen of color, either. In fact, these dialogues were the first time the freshmen had ever been in a room with only people of color.
“That sheer fact,” Imani said, reminded her of “how much the space, and who’s present in the space, can dictate what you allow yourself to bring out … How does being in a predominantly white space affect your artistry?”
The show might not offer an answer, but it celebrates the opportunity to ask the question. The weight of such an opportunity doesn’t go unnoticed by Ito or Imani. While they both spoke highly of their supportive department that works alongside “The Color Cabaret” rehearsals and schedule requirements, they made an important distinction: the faculty prepares their students for the musical theatre industry as it exists today. Ito and Imani are creating a show for the industry they’d like to remake for tomorrow.
“The Color Cabaret” plays this weekend on Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m. in The Newman Studio of the Walgreen Drama Center. Admission is free. Following the show, the actors will facilitate a round-table discussion to continue the conversations on being an artist of color in musical theatre.