George Mason University to center Black voices in artist-activist conversations

#WeSeeYouWAT issues and demands reach into a university performing arts school.

As the DC-area theater community reckons with and takes steps to combat racism through open, heartfelt conversations and real-world actions to bring forth equity, diversity, and inclusion, we at DCMTA want to look beyond professional companies to seek out what might be happening at local college/university performing arts schools. These schools are often the training ground for artists. 

Becoming aware that George Mason University College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) is presenting a series called The Artist-Activist: Centering Black Voices, we decided to learn more as part of what we would like to be continuing coverage of arts in the college/university context—places where students learn not only the art and craft of performance but how the performing arts intersect with social justice movements.

In conversation December 1, 2020: Theresa Ruth Howard

The Artist-Activist: Centering Black Voices will feature nationally renowned artists speaking in virtual conversations. The artists use their experiences as a jumping-off point “to ignite meaningful dialogue to explore timely and critical issues on the intersection of race, social justice, and the creative sector,” said Adrienne Bryant Godwin, director of programming for the College of Visual and Performing Arts

The series was curated by a panel of anti-racist Mason educators, with the conversations free and open to the public. “As part of an institution of higher learning, we aspire for our performing arts centers to serve as creative classrooms for community members and students alike,” said Bryant Godwin. “Our artistic programming can—and should—inspire us to think deeply about ourselves and our society.”

Godwin added, “I invited a group of incredible Mason faculty to curate a series featuring artists whose creative practice is inspired by their commitment to social justice, and vice versa. This cohort shared my belief that we must actively create opportunities to have honest, compassionate, and challenging conversations around race. We hope that the series will provide a platform for citizens of all ages and backgrounds to explore issues defining our past, present, and future.”

Among the curators: Roger Jeffrey, GMU School of Dance. Photo by Nina Wurtzel.

The curatorial cohort of Mason professors included Rachel Debuque (School of Art and Design), Roger Jeffrey (School of Dance), Nikyatu Jusu (Film and Video Studies Program), Patricia Miller (Reva and Sid Dewberry Family School of Music), Sherrice Mojgani (School of Theater), Michael Nickens (Reva and Sid Dewberry Family School of Music), Wendi Manuel-Scott (College of Humanities and Social Sciences Integrative Studies and History), Boris Willis (Game Design Program).

In telephone conversations with Sherrice Mojgani and Roger Jeffrey, I learned that though there is a wide diversity of students at GMU/CVPA, the faculty is much less diverse, with few Black faculty. The students are very aware of this and have brought the disparity to faculty attention. This was a very obvious disconnect in GMU/CVPA’s work to make itself a safe and comfortable place to talk about anti-racism with students feeling nervous about the issue.

Both Jeffrey and Mojgani indicated that the issue of “a Black body working in a white space” is industrywide in the performing arts; it has been going on for years. There is a dearth of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color in the industry including at higher levels. “What is causing this?” is a question that was raised as well as “How can trust be built?” The issues raised and demands put forth by We See You, White American Theater were also noted.  

In conversation December 1, 2020: Nicole Brewer.

Upcoming speakers for The Artist-Activist: Centering Black Voices will be anti-racist theater advocate  Nicole Brewer and diversity strategist and consultant Theresa Ruth Howard, on Tuesday, December 1, 2020, at 7 p.m. The conversation will be moderated by Michael Nickens (Doc Nix), director of Mason’s Green Machine Ensembles. It will conclude with live questions from the participating audience.

Asked about the importance of events like The Artist-Activist: Centering Black Voices series, Nicole Brewer said, “It isn’t critical for GMU to have events like this; it is critical for GMU to interrogate their own role in upholding racist policies and structures.” What can viewers expect? They should “expect me to speak about my lived experience and work with anti-racist theater as a Black, abled-bodied, cis, educated woman.” Brewer added, “There is room for all of us in this work.”

The Artist-Activist: Centering Black Voices with Theresa Ruth Howard and Nicole Brewer will be held digitally on Tuesday, December 1, 2020, at 7 p.m. It will feature opportunities for live questions from the viewing audience via Facebook and YouTube. This event will remain available for viewing until January 14, 2021. Registration for the event is not required, but if you RSVP here, you will be sent a reminder prior to the event with details for how to watch. Closed captioning for the Facebook video will be available. Additional The Artist-Activist: Centering Black Voices events will be announced at a later date. 

SEE ALSO Anti-racist theater and the #WeSeeYou movement: A Q&A with Nicole Brewer


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