Every year, the Women of Color in the Academy Project recognizes one University of Michigan faculty member with the Shirley Verrett Award for their efforts in empowering female students of color in the arts. Now in its sixth year, the program commended Anita Gonzalez, head of the Global Theatre and Ethnic Studies minor, Wednesday evening for her dedication to her students and the arts.

Gonzalez said she aims to introduce her students to diverse cultures — especially through literature and the arts — to create a stronger understanding of various cultural perspectives. She stressed her belief in bridging people’s differences through art.

“The very nature of theater is helping people who are unaware of a world to live within that world,” she said.

Gonzalez focuses her research on the role of performances in illuminating historical identities in America. She also studies ethnic and maritime performance and 19th-century theater, and is a published author and director. Many of her pieces delve into topics such as commonalities theater and dance share with the theory of Black performance in the new millennium.

The ceremony featured a series of Gonzalez’s colleagues and students who shared both their praises for her and their memories of Verrett — the award’s late namesake, an acclaimed opera singer and University professor. Music, Theatre & Dance graduate student Olivia Johnson said she looks to Verrett as a role model.

“I always hear about how (Verrett) was a woman of grace a woman of great kindness, yet very secure within herself,” she said. “That’s something I constantly strive to gain for myself.”

Social Work student Kristin Peterson was also inspired by Gonzalez’s diverse research. “Her cross-cultural exploration of the arts is really amazing and inspiring, and I’d be very interested in looking deeper into her work.”

Priscilla Lindsay, chair of the Department of Theatre and Drama, presented Gonzalez with the award.

“(Gonzalez is) a woman who has galvanized our department, who has been the catalyst for change and collaboration across the University and whose list of accomplishments is prodigious,” she said.  

Gonzalez acknowledged one of the biggest challenges she faced was encouraging people to move out of their comfort zones, especially when it came to learning about new cultures.

“Getting people of all ethnicities and experiences to move out of their own little box and understanding that the most important thing is to learn about other people.”

Gonzalez expressed her gratitude for her students, colleagues and, above all, Verrett. She said we are in a time in which intercultural understanding is necessary, and hopes to continue her work in this area.

“Our physical bodies die and our souls move on, but what we leave is a whisper of inspiration and perhaps a little healing,” she said. “That’s all that I hope for.” 

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