Arts & Culture / Mosaic / January 17, 2018

Students prove plays can be cast responsibly


Sophomore Joel Willison is depicted directing “Minnesota Moon” during Fall term. He is now directing a studio “Marigold: A Sibling Sketch” (Dan Perez/TKS)


This week’s studio theatre productions will feature a cast primarily consisting of people of color. The play titled “Marigold: A Sibling Sketch” is an adaptation of a short written by alumna Morgan Blakey ’15. The playwright for the piece is senior Jayel Gant and will be directed by sophomore Joel Willison.

Willison stated he was inspired to direct a play that Gant, a black student, had written after one of the pieces Gant had submitted for Knox’s Playground productions was not cast with actors of the race they had envisioned their characters being.

“I watched that and felt horrible because I am Chinese-American and I grew up in Uganda all my life,” said Willison. “Yet I feel white in a way, so I said sorry to Jayel and they responded saying ‘Thanks, but that’s not gonna help.’”

Afterwards, Willison approached Gant again and asked if they had any plays that featured people of color in it. Gant responded that they had been working on “Marigold: A Sibling Sketch” and wanted to see it put on stage.

The play is about a mixed race family’s day-to-day life. Though the play is a prose-piece, it will feature complex choreography created by Gant themselves. Gant stated they were not nervous about having the play directed by Willison, despite the fact that it is a play written for people of color.

“I’m not against white people, or people who identify as white. [In regards to] interacting with race, it’s just about how you go about it. I told him he’d have to be okay with receiving feedback,” said Gant. “I was kind of able to see a progression in [Willison] from last term and that bravery in him.”

Gant told Willison the play had to be casted responsibly for him to do the play justice and that they would not allow him to put on the play if casting wasn’t done with integrity.

“Some of the issues we have with casting in theatre, especially with playwrights of color, are that if a playwright designates the race or ethnicity of a character, it’s considered a suggestion rather than something that was thought of deeply,” said Gant.

Gant gave the example of child abuse having a much different context for a black family than it does for a white family.

“What would it look like for a white father to be beating their black child and vice-versa,” said Gant. “It’s much more than just what’s happening on stage, there’s a huge context we’re bringing in with the bodies we put on stage.”

Getting people of color to join the theatre department has been an ongoing struggle. Willison realized this wasn’t just a systemic issue, but a Knox-specific one. He identified the theatre department’s history with being less welcoming to people of color and the tokenization of them as one of its main obstacles in getting  students of color to join. To combat the issue, Willison went to several cultural clubs such as ABLE, Lo Nuestro and Harambe to advertise the casting of the play.

The lead actors of the play will be junior Nabiha Mansoor and senior Noel Blakey. When Willison was asked how he’d respond if accused of prioritizing race over talent, he stated he picked the best actors for the role.

“From the auditions and how I saw the cast being, I don’t think there were better actors,” said Willison. “I would tell them to go talk to the actors they think are lesser, because I think they were the best suited for that role.”

For Gant, they see this production as less of a political piece and more as a chance for their own development as a writer. They don’t see it as an activist play, but instead a play simply about blackness. Casted any other way, that would be lost.

“This is my art and this is the art I want to be able to create, if [people] would just let me,” said Gant.

“Marigold: A Sibling Sketch” will be shown in the Studio Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 19.

Zarah Khan, Co-Mosaic Editor
Zarah Khan is a senior majoring in English literature and minoring in political science. She started volunteer writing during Fall term of her sophomore year.

Tags:  diversity playground playwriting Studio Theatre theatre department

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