In December 2015, weeks after members of the Black Justice League staged a sit-in in Nassau Hall, Princeton’s artists confronted how issues of race played out in their own community. At a meeting held by the Lewis Center for the Arts, students complained that there were not enough theater roles for minority students and of a lack of diversity among the arts faculty and in course readings. Some felt they had had to fight for a place beside more privileged students with years of voice lessons or performance experience. 

“There was a feeling that came out of those conversations that the Lewis Center could do more to be a resource for students of color,” says Monica Youn ’93, a creative writing lecturer. She now heads the committee that emerged from that meeting, the Lewis Center Committee on Race and the Arts, which aims, she says, to “tdismantle certain preconceptions about who is an artsy person, who gets to do art, and what sort of arts are valued.” The committee of about 20 faculty, staff, and students has supported changes in the center’s offerings: diversifying the curriculum, organizing events around topics like arts and social activism, and broadening the center’s reach on campus.

One of the first changes was a new class taught by assistant professor Brian Herrera on “Movements for Diversity in American Theater.” Since then other courses have been developed, including “Race and the American Musical”; a visual-arts class on photographic representations of race, gender, and identity; and a poetry class, taught by Youn, on “Race, Identity, and Innovation.”

The goal is “to dismantle certain preconceptions about who is an artsy person, who gets to do art, and what sort of arts are valued.”

— Monica Youn ’93, creative writing lecturer

Attempts to diversify the arts curriculum extend to classes that aren’t explicitly about race, says Michael Cadden, Lewis Center chair. In his fall course on “Some Contemporary Shakespearean Afterlives,” students studied a play about Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on the London stage, and discussed interracial productions of Shakespeare in the 1940s with Paul Robeson and José Ferrer ’33 that helped integrate American theaters. 

Incorporating a broader range of artistic styles and backgrounds has been a priority in recruiting new faculty, arts fellows, and visiting artists, many of whom have acted as bridges between the Lewis Center and independent student arts groups.

The dance department arranged a master class with a professional street dancer for members of the Black Arts Company, and created a new role for hip-hop lecturer Raphael Xavier to act as a mentor for student dance groups. These partnerships help bring Lewis Center resources to where the students are, explains Rebecca Lazier, a senior lecturer in the dance department. Some campus arts groups “have an idea of the Lewis Center, and they don’t think it’s for them,” she says. “We have to go out and do more collaborations and find more ways to demonstrate who and what we value.” 

The initiative has supported students who are exploring issues of race in their independent work. Edwin Rosales ’17, an English major pursuing certificates in creative writing, theater, and Latin American studies, is drawing on his own heritage in two Lewis Center thesis projects. He is writing a collection of short stories about an immigrant family from Guatemala adjusting to life in America, as well as a play called Spring, On Fire, set during the Guatemalan civil war. For Rosales, who left Guatemala at age 6, the play — which will be staged in late April — is a means of “finding a way back into my culture” and presenting it to audiences who may be unfamiliar with Guatemalan history. “It was an opportunity to tell a story that’s not usually told,” he says.

Tri Le ’20 and Kathy Zhao ’17, foreground, and Changshuo Liu ’19 perform in Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery.
Larry Levanti

Among the theater department’s recent partnerships is one with East West Theater, a student group created by Kathy Zhao ’17 to attract Asian Americans and theater newbies to Princeton’s drama scene. As an Asian American, Zhao says, she is often typecast. In a 2015 production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Zoyka’s Apartment, Zhao was cast as the Chinese owner of a laundry who sells opium and speaks in caricatured broken English. “I felt really ashamed to be portraying Chinese people this way,” Zhao says. “It was a misrepresentation of Chinese people in such negative stereotypes.” 

For her senior thesis Zhao chose to stage Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, a play-within-a-play whodunit focusing on the emergence of the term “Asian American” in the 1960s as a new ethnic and political identity. “I wanted to create roles for Asian Americans,” she says. The production was accompanied by an East West Theater symposium on Asian-American theater. 

Similar concerns led Alexandra Daniels ’17 to propose and perform in a version of the musical Hairspray with the lead character, Tracy Turnblad, recast as a mixed-race teenager. It was an idea she’d been working on since her freshman year, she says, when she was told she could never play Tracy because she wasn’t white. “How can I let the color of my skin define what roles are available to me?” Daniels says. 

Zhao and Daniels are part of a newly created team of 19 peer mentors. The student mentors “put a more approachable face on the arts at Princeton,” Youn says, by sharing challenges they’ve experienced in pursuing arts at the University. They work with student groups and members of the Scholars Institute Fellows Program for first-generation and lower-income students.

As the arts programs prepare to move next fall to the new Lewis Center complex south of McCarter Theatre, the committee hopes to build on efforts to provide a more welcoming and inclusive environment. The new season will open with drop-in master classes in a variety of dance styles, a new hip-hop piece by Raphael Xavier at the annual dance festival, and the premiere of a Lewis Center-commissioned adaptation of The Bacchae by award-winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins ’06. 

To encourage more diverse productions, the theater program has added thesis guidelines requiring applicants to explain how their proposals “improve the range of voices in the theater community,” says Jane Cox, the program’s director. Also in the works is an alumni mentorship program to pair undergraduates with arts professionals.

“So much of art is about telling stories and about the representation of people’s ideas and experiences, and it’s hard to participate in something where you don’t see yourself represented,” says Stacy Wolf, director of the music theater program. “Our goal is for every single student at this university to take a class in the arts, and we want everyone to feel welcome.”