In the late nineteenth century, Broadway experienced its first ever production starring African-American performers. In July of 1898, Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk opened on the rooftop of the Casino Theatre. The show had a successful run and proved to be revolutionary, paving the way for African-American and other minority performers in the realm of theatre. From that point on, theatre would no longer belong to just Caucasians. Over a century later, countless works of theatre showcase a diverse array of performers- African-American, Hispanic, deaf, and even wheelchair-bound performers- and the stories themselves are even more diverse than the storytellers.
In the early twenty-first century, a Hispanic student in a small Pennsylvania town studied West Side Story in her seventh grade music class. In March of 2012, as the only Hispanic student in the classroom, she felt a sense of familiarity in the characters on the pages she read. They’re Puerto Rican, she thought. Like me. She listened as the teacher told the class of the impact of the work on theatre. It was one of the first musicals starring Hispanics. I could be in this, the girl thought. The teacher asked for people to read for the characters, and the girl both hesitantly and eagerly volunteered to read for the character Anita. I’ll speak with the accent my abuela has. She read with confidence, wondering if the other students felt as comfortable playing the Hispanic characters as she did.
That day, I felt like maybe there was a place for me, someone of Hispanic origin, in theatre. Not every work is about people who are black or white; I realized there was theatre made for me too.
Theatre education is something that should be readily available to all students, regardless of age, income, race, or disabilities. In the seventh grade, I was able to discover through theatre education that there was a place where I fit in. I was able to see a piece of myself reflected in a theatrical work, and I was motivated to continue in my involvement with theatre and the arts. I was inspired by just one work read aloud in music class. Since that time, I have been heavily involved with theatre, and would consider it to be one of the most magical things in existence. In theatre, differences that may sometimes prevent people from even talking mean nothing. Theatre is the most diverse pool of any- I work with other Hispanics, African-Americans, Caucasians, homosexuals, heterosexuals, transgender people, poor people, rich people- but in our art, we do not regard these differences as a reason to not form a family. We, a theatrical melting pot, do theatre because we see ourselves reflected in the works we perform. No matter what show, I have always been able to relate to some aspect of it in some regard- and that can be very therapeutic. Theatre helps us to feel less alone. Because the stories and characters are so diverse, there truly is a piece of theatre that everyone can relate to. Everyone that experiences theatre in any capacity will have the same epiphany that I had in March of seventh grade. I am not alone. Nothing has ever caused me to embrace my differences more than that moment. Theatre education, to put things simply, changed my life for the better, and all students should have the ability to have their own revolutionary moment.
The power of theatre programs and education reaches far beyond what can be expressed in words. In theatre, we learn about others as well as ourselves. We embrace pieces of ourselves which we may not be able to acknowledge in other activities. We forget about our differences as we become different people entirely, all working towards a common goal. We empathize with things we may never have before, and we open our minds to and embrace each other’s differences. In the end, as the musical Ragtime states, “We have different lives and faces, but our hearts have common places.” And without theatre education, I would have never discovered any of this.
This piece was chosen as one of the Education Theatre Association’s 2016 Democracyworks Essays, the prompt for which asked high school to answer: “Why is it important for all students to have arts education opportunities?” In their writing, essayists considered how theatre and other arts education has been of value to them, and why it’s important that all students should be able to engage in arts education opportunities that are relevant to their own cultural and personal experiences. For more essays, click here.