Commentary: lack of diversity manifests on stage & behind the scenes in Queen’s theatre

Queen’s performing arts may be a microcosm for the University’s larger issues of racism

In 2016, Queen’s production of Othello drew controversy over casting a white female student as Othello.
Dhanish Chinniah, director of 2019’s Fun Home, was the second visible minority to direct a Queen’s Musical Theatre production since 2012.
In an interview with The Journal, Chinniah, ArtSci ’19, openly recognized the incredible opportunity of having full creative control over a musical as a student but was also vocal about the obvious flaws in the system. 
He described his experience in the drama department at Queen’s as “similar to an abusive relationship, where [he] was gaslighting [himself] and gaslighted by other people.”
When discussing the cause of racial homogeneity in casting, Chinniah argued the lack of diversity goes deeper than just race, adding it’s also impacted by socioeconomic status. 
“People who fit the ideal culture at Queen’s—often white, upper middle-class Ontarian students who had a traditional background in theatre—were always getting cast,” he said. 
Chinniah said the lack of minority representation in the drama faculty is difficult to navigate, especially for students who are the only minority in the room. He recounted an uncomfortable experience self-advocating in a table read of around 30 people. Chinniah and two other students brought up the question of using another word to replace a racial slur in the script, which was meant to be read by a white student. 
“It was up to the three BIPOC students in the room to advocate, diffuse tensions, and explain why a qualifier was necessary to the white leadership,” he said. 
Chinniah also said that when overtly racist incidents did take place in his time as a student, the overwhelmingly white faculty was left to respond with “no lived experience or understanding to actually fix racist problems.” 
The intersection between ingrained racism and theatre has also been proven in controversial Queen’s drama performances. 
There have been two major incidents regarding an extreme lack of diversity in productions on campus, including Othello in 2016, organized by student-theatre company Queen’s Vagabond, and Concord Floral in 2017, directed by Professor Greg Wanless as a Dan School major. 
Othello is a highly sought-after role for actors and is one of Shakespeare ‘s only leads written with the intention of having a person of colour in the spotlight. However, in 2016, a white female student was cast in the role. Race and sexuality are not interchangeable; the entire plot revolves around the racial discrimination Othello faces as a Moor in Venice. 
The production was cancelled after facing serious backlash from the Queen’s community, but it’s important to consider the systemic failures and culture at Queen’s which would initially permit this artistic decision to be made. 
Although there was an open forum addressing the casting issues of Othello, Concord Floral was cast the next year with an almost completely white cast. 
The show, written by acclaimed playwright Jordan Tannahill, revolves around a group of teenagers in northern Toronto fleeing to an abandoned greenhouse. It’s a gothic mystery with illness, transformation, and discovery in every line. The original cast featured teenagers from various backgrounds and ethnicities to reflect the setting. This theme of diversity aligned with the playwright’s vision and continued in performances following the premiere. 
Once again, an open forum was held to discuss failures of diversity and inclusion in the Queen’s production. The 2017 production was spearheaded by a Queen’s drama professor, suggesting that racial homogeneity is perpetuated by those in positions of power. 
There was a noticeable effort to promote diversity on stage in last year’s major productions of The Drowsy Chaperone and Mr. Burns, though it’s important to consider whether these changes are surface-level and performative. Having a couple visible minorities on stage doesn’t always indicate systemic change and as Chinniah described, biases and microaggressions are still present behind the scenes. 
“Western theatre is historically racist,” Chinniah said. “Like at Queen’s, if you’re a BIPOC theatre creator, you’ll have to carve out a space for yourself wherever you go. But if you have a passion for theatre, then go for it.” 

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