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  • Empathy as a Diversity Teaching Tool: A Performance-based Class in Multicultural Dramatic Literature

In spring 2011, the Department of Theatre Arts at our Midwestern, small-town university offered for the first time a new general education course titled “Multicultural Plays: Acting the Text.” In the course, students studied and acted scenes from plays written by African American, Native American, Muslim American, and LGBT playwrights. In proposing the course, I argued that acting scenes from these plays would demand both intellectual and emotional understanding of an Other, so that students would have more information about, and be more likely to develop informed empathy with, people unlike themselves.

New understandings of empathy point to its connection with reason in the human brain, and its centrality in an innate human-brain function for connection with others (Dolby 57ff.). I planned traditional research to develop historical/cultural knowledge as background for understanding the plays and course activities aimed at developing “informed empathy” in my students.1 The goals of the course were to help expand understanding of diverse experience in the United States, empathy with those marked by my students as Other, and to make available and examine at our largely white Euro-American institution some of the rich dramatic literature written by and for people of color.

The university has a student population of about 9,000; students of color account for approximately 7.5 percent of that total, with an estimated 10 percent identifying as gay/lesbian/bisexual/ transgender (Barlow).2 Our students meet the second highest admission standard in the state system after the flagship campus, and are mostly students from rural areas and small Midwestern towns. Many who registered for my class had limited experiences with a racially or ethnically diverse community or an “out” community of people who identify as nonheterosexual.3 The idea for the class arose, in part, from the deep and varied body of dramatic works that focus on people of color and people of diverse sexualities. Although our department is more racially diverse than the campus at large (12 percent were nonwhite at the time of this class’s first offering), it is still difficult for a small department within a largely homogenous campus to produce plays with characters of color when the pool of potential actors is small. Access to much of this body of literature through our department’s production season seemed unachievable, and the entire community was missing the potential benefits of exploring the literature.

Ultimately, I strove to instill an empathy and intellectual understanding that would travel beyond this class and transfer into more empathetic relationships with Others in students’ lives. Once the idea for this class began taking shape, it seemed an obvious route toward solving both problems: it would help participants think about and understand the experiences of people of color and/or of people who are members of the LGBT community.

The twin learning goals of knowledge and empathy served as the foundation of the course. In any acting project, actors must (or should) analyze the script and the characters’ given circumstances. For this class, students also researched historical contexts and the playwrights’ backgrounds. The [End Page 69] research and analysis functioned to deliver knowledge about and context for Others’ life experiences, the social structures operating in their lives, racism in a historical context, and how the playwrights’ lives and/or purposes drive the plays’ structures. This knowledge, I hoped, would inform the empathy that, as actors, students needed to play the roles well.

The process of creating performances requires understanding of the text and the character and encourages identification with a character and his/her situation, background, and reactions. Acting a scene, rather than simply reading it, contributes to meaningful explorations because acting can provide a useful path toward empathetic understanding in the actor of someone else’s experience.4

Empathy and intellectual understanding work in and through the spectator as well. The performance of a character of color, speaking his/her own experience, “makes present—the ways that current constructions of race and gender are shaped through history” in a way that textual analysis based on reading cannot (Wannamaker 339). There is...


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