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Towards a Multicultural Theatre Course Robin Murray and Meg Swanson We have only to look at the flourishing Yiddish Theatre in New York in the 20's, the amateur productions of Chinese opera on the West Coast at the turn of the century, or the Scandinavian variety shows which existed during the same period in the Midwest, to realize the extent theatre can act as a lens through which a minority community reaffirms its sacred myths and forges a sense of ethnic identity among its own. And we have only to look at the minstrel tradition, the stage Irishman, and the Wild West Show to realize the extent to which theatre can be instrumental in creating and perpetuating negative stereotypes while reassuring majority audiences of their superiority to people who are ethnically, racially, or culturally different. University theatre programs have a unique opportunity to contribute to a multicultural curriculum by creating new courses committed to the study of the theatre of American racial and ethnic minorities. The Introduction to the Theatre course at our university had been a fairly traditional one which illustrated the theatrical process by using plays from the canon. In 1989 it was decided to modify this course on an experimental basis to incorporate plays by and about people of color. The syUabus was changed so that approximately one half of the course content was devoted to the works of people of color. Plays by African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native American playwrights were included. Roughly half of those plays are written by women. What follows is a brief description of the issues which emerged in the experimental setting, the ways in which that experiment influenced the construction of the permanent course, and a brief description of the content of the new course. Of specific interest to us was how our predominantly white, middle-class, conservative student body would respond when presented with material which challenged their assumptions about what was important to study. The following observations were culled from informal classroom discussion, short writing assignments, and student evaluations of course content. One of our principal discoveries was that many white majority students are highly resistant, occasionally even hostile, to the inclusion of the works of people of color 105 106 Robin Murray and Meg Swanson within the curriculum. In course evaluations students told us they were"tired of this diversity stuff." Many of them implied that the university's commitment to diversity was simply a fad to be endured by the student. We further discovered that Caucasian students and minority students alike were ignorant about the history and culture of people of color. Students did not know about the existence of a segregated miUtary and were unaware of the race riots which occurred after World War I. They did not know of the Japanese internment camps or the laws which prevented the Issei from becoming naturalized citizens. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union were also unfamiliar to them. Our students did not have a vocabulary with which to discuss issues of race or ethnicity. In a class discussion during which the term "cultural assimilation" was used frequently, several students heard "a simulation," and concluded that we were discussing something related to computers. We encountered various forms of stereotyping among students, all of which seemed to emerge from the assumption that the white middle-class experience—their experience—is the standard against which all other forms of experience must be measured. The students seemed unable to identify social class distinctions among the characters in the plays they read. The middle-class African-American family in Kathleen CoUins's The Brothers was transformed by our students into an impoverished one. When informed that the characters were middle class, one young woman concluded that they must, therefore, be white. Sirrdlarly, students read Eduardo Muchado's Broken Eggs as a play about "the drug problem among the Hispanic underclass." Granted, drugs do enter into this play, though it is actuaUy about the price of upward mobUity among the Cuban-American middle class; one of the characters is addicted to vaUum and another makes social use of cocaine. But our students found it difficult to attribute patterns of...


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