Last semester, I was approached by a few friends and invited to join them in creating a theater student group dedicated to people of color. A few months later, “Second Shades” is preparing for its first showcase. I decided to interview two of the founders of Second Shades and share what they had to say about this group and about people of color in theater. Despite their busy schedule, Rebecca Hsieh ’17 and Jonah Toussaint ’17 spoke to me separately. I asked them a series of questions about their experience so far.
The Argus: Hello! Why don’t you introduce yourselves first?
Rebecca Hsieh: I’m Rebecca Hsieh. I’m class of 2017 and I’m the president of Second Shades, which is the person of color theater group on campus.
Jonah Toussaint: Hello, my name is Jonah Toussaint. I’m a junior. I live in [Malcolm] X House; [I’m a] psychology & theater major; and I’m the treasurer and co-founder of the organization Second Shades on campus.
A: When did you decide to create this student group, and why?
RH: Liam Tran, who is also class 2017, we took acting together last semester and we were just talking about diversity in theater, and he mentioned one day that he thought that there should be an actors of color union and we ended up taking that idea and then expanding it to just anybody who is interested in theater, for people of color who are interested in theater. We are mainly just concerned that the racial diversity in the theater scene isn’t very good. Even in the Theater Department shows there aren’t a lot of people of color. The only exception that I could think of is “In the Heights,” or this semester there is “Marisol” with a lot of people of color, but otherwise it’s very, very white.
JT: There was a group of students who had acknowledged that there was a severe lack of representation on the part of students of color in the theater community, not only students but also the shows that would go up, the types of theater that would be adhered to, and the curriculums that are taught. Wesleyan is probably better than a lot of other schools but the issue was so bluntly obvious to us come halfway through our time here at school, and we [thought] that it was about high time that some changes got made into who was represented on stage, in terms of not only actors but also directors, playwrights and subject matter.
A: How has the experience been for you since the beginning, in terms of creating the group and trying to get students to participate and get involved?
RH: It was definitely really challenging at first because our goal is to try get more people of color into theater. So, we’re trying to get more people who don’t have as much experience. So, a lot of people would be really hesitant; really reassuring them that it’s O.K. not to have experience was definitely a part of the challenge, because in theater experience is very important, so that sort of got in the way of the casting or recruiting process. But now that we’ve got rehearsals underway we have enough material for the showcase and it’s been great lately.
JT: For me, personally, starting out, I was so excited. I’m still excited now but starting out I was like: This is it! This is like the big thing that the school needs. This was going to be actually giving people the opportunity who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise to do what they want to do. And even people who wouldn’t know that there are all these opportunities out there for them because theater is always considered a very stereotypically white thing. So, no one would want to do it because it’s all white people…so it’s being able to explore that option.
A: What do you hope the role of this group will be on campus and what do you hope for it to achieve?
RH: Something that we’ve seen is that not a lot of people of color audition for Second Stage shows. I’ve been to a lot of callbacks where I’m the only person of color and in order to sort of rectify that or help improve on the situation we’re hoping to provide a safe space for people of color to experiment in theater so that they can hopefully gain the tools and techniques they need to go on and produce full-on productions with Second Stage.
JT: I hope we can be the “black” Second Stage, “black” being used loosely to mean any person of color. I would never want to fracture the theater community here; it’s already small enough. But that this would become an established way to fund and create theater on perhaps smaller, less elitist and even less professional standards than what’s happening now.
A: Can you tell me about the upcoming showcase? When is it, and what does it entail?
RH: The showcase is [on Nov. 23] at 8 p.m. in the basement of X House. We’re just going to put on some short scenes featuring people of color in traditionally white roles or roles written for people of color, and all the scenes are super short…and we decided to have short scenes because that would be less stressful for somebody who hasn’t had any experience in theater.
JT: This is like our breakout introduction of who we are…. This is the big, “Hello University! How are you doing? We’re here; we mean business.” It will be really fun. It’s running about 50 minutes or so. I’ll be MCing the event, so come through!
A: What do you have in mind in terms of the future for this student group over the next couple of semesters?
RH: We’ve been talking about having workshops for people of color to teach them the fundamentals of how theater works, whether it would be acting or auditioning techniques. And we hope to continue to have this annual, or maybe every semester, showcase as well.
JT: I would want the group to be a resource for people…. It would be an established place where any student of color who wants to put up a play can just hit it up and we make it happen for them. I want to get full-scale shows. We’re hoping to work with other student groups on campus to maybe get collaboration plays.
A: For someone who doesn’t do theater as an extracurricular activity, why would you, if you would, suggest them to join this group, participate in or contribute to it? Why do you think theater is important, especially, for people of color?
RH: At least for me, my experience in theater is mostly in acting and I find that it really helps me sort of empathize with people who I wouldn’t expect to empathize with, because an important part of acting is to not judge your character no matter what you think of them and to suffer with them. There is this Tom Hiddleston talk about how acting means to have compassion with the character and to suffer with them and I think that’s valuable for anyone in general, not just people of color. And also the ability to work under pressure with tight deadlines is an incredibly valuable skill to have and I think theater is very unique in that it’s nearly impossible to have extensions. Once you have a show date, it’s set. It forces you to think about how you manage your time and I think that’s incredibly important especially because at Wesleyan so many students do so many things at the same time so that’s a very valuable skill to develop.
JT: To those in the community who identify as persons of color and who have not had the opportunity to partake in theater, I think this is absolutely the best opportunity to get started. I believe we’ve done our best to make it a safe space. It’s often scary to walk into a room, an audition or a classroom where the vast majority of people are white and I’ve been doing theater for many years…. I would say to them that theater is everyday life. There is theater in every interaction we have and…you should absolutely take advantage of the resources that we have, and explore life!
A: Do you think since the day that you established this group anything has changed on campus or for you personally, in regards to the theater scene on campus?
RH: For me not a lot has changed in a very visible way because we haven’t had our showcase yet. I mean, we are very small and relatively a new group but ever since we started talking more about it I’ve had more people of color come up to me and say, “Oh, I’ve never had experience in theater,” or “I do have experience in theater but I never felt comfortable doing it at Wesleyan because it’s so white.” And these people started talking to me about opportunities with Second Shades. For example, I know people in other scenes that have never done theater before and that’s just a really exciting thing to be able to provide a safe environment in which people of color can explore something that they might usually be [excluded from].
JT: Yeah, it was really surprising actually. It was over the summer, August, that I was staying at a friend’s house and I got the email what the faculty show was going to be and I was like, “Don’t tell me they’re doing a play written by a Hispanic man! That’s phenomenal!” And they’re bringing a person of color director from New York City…and the cast is mainly people of color. To see the school make a genuine effort to change that, not only this year but also the one past, it really gave me hope for what the future can bring.
This interview has been edited for length.