Troupe aims to open theater roles for women of color

by Brihathi Cherukuri / Beacon Correspondent • November 5, 2014

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When Nyla Wissa arrived at Emerson from the Boston Arts Academy, an arts-focused high school, she was surprised to find a lack of people of color in the performing arts department.

“I wanted to do theater,” Wissa, a senior performing arts major, said, “but I also thought that there was a sisterhood lacking here.”

In February of 2013, Wissa formed a theater troupe called Flawless Brown, which she called a community and a safe space for its members, who are all women of color. The group now has 12 members.

Flawless Brown will stage its second show, comprised of 20 original short performances about being women of color at Emerson and in society, on Nov. 19 and 20 in the Multipurpose Room.

Wissa and other troupe members said they see a lack of roles for people of color in Emerson’s established theater groups, and hope to change this with Flawless Brown.

“If you’re going to have students of color at a predominately white college,” said Wissa, “you also have to embrace their cultures as well.”

According to data published by Emerson in October, about 65 percent of the student body identify as white, but only 3 percent identify as specifically black or African-American.

Sophomore Alyssandra Taylor said that many Emerson students don’t understand what it is like to be a woman of color.

“At Emerson there are not many opportunities for women of color to be on stage,” said Taylor, a performing arts major.

According to Larianny Perez, a sophomore performing arts major, and one of the troupe members, many Emerson Stage plays are based in the ’50s and ’60s, making it difficult for black women to land roles that aren’t either a maid or a servant.

Felicity Poussaint, a sophomore performing arts major, added that roles in theater productions often include brunette, blue-eyed characters.

“I wanted to join the group because I didn’t fit into the student theater groups,” Poussaint said.

According to Benny Sato Ambush, the producing director of Emerson Stage, the number of students involved in Emerson Stage far outweigh the amount of roles that can be assigned. He said that at any given time, there are roughly 270 eligible actors for Emerson Stage. In his seven-year career at the College, the largest number of roles offered for actors in the entire Emerson Stage season is 118.

“You see a discrepancy there,” said Ambush. “So part of the issue about casting is numerical reality.” 

Ambush said that there is a wide range of roles at Emerson Stage, from classical to contemporary. He added that there are often characters from different countries because Emerson Stage does plays “from the world canon.” 

“This is a perception, that actors of color only get maids and secondary roles,” said Ambush. “I would invite them to look at the casting record of actors of color and form a more informed conclusion.” 

With Flawless Brown, Wissa said she wanted to create a place where women of color could express themselves and their problems. She said the troupe’s meetings are informal, with a lot of “girl talk” and conversations about politics and current events.

“We discuss all sorts of things: our lives, street harassment, life lessons that we have for others,” said Taylor. “We talk about everything and try to make sense of the world that we live in.” 

Taylor, who has been in the troupe since its inception, said although she had friends before joining, she wanted a circle that she could rely on to understand the challenges she faces. 

 “I feel like I have 11 new sisters,” said Taylor. “We come from different backgrounds, but we share a lot.”

Flawless Brown meetings are held every Monday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. on the 5th floor of the Tufte Building. 

Wissa said she started the troupe with her own pocket money.

“I’d rather go broke and people know about it,” said Wissa. 

Last year, the groups’ only expenses were shirts and flyers, Wissa said. The flyers came out to $70, and the shirts were about $125. 

She said she liked the idea of having a donation bucket at the upcoming performances, which are free. The troupe has not applied for recognition by the Student Government Association, Wissa said, meaning it cannot receive college funding.

“From what I was told about ‘excluding groups,’ I figured [applying to SGA] would be a waste of time for me,” Wissa said.

Kassandra King, the SGA vice president, said that while every on-campus organization is able to apply for SGA recognition, SGA has a rule that requires all groups it recognizes to give all Emerson students the option to be involved. 

“I strongly believe in what [Flawless Brown] is trying to do,” King, a senior political communication major, said. “At the same time, that rule is there to protect students from discrimination on campus.”

 The November showcase will feature various genres, including monologues, scenes, and poems, said Wissa, who added that she doesn’t like to label the pieces to not limit members’ writing.

“If they want to call them dance pieces, even if there isn’t dance in it, then so be it,” said Wissa. 

The subjects will range from love to identity and growing up, in the context of being women of color.

“We break barriers and stereotypes that we face within and outside of our culture,” Wissa said.

She added that the upcoming event emphasizes audience-to-actor interaction.

“It’s straight-on street theater,” she said. “If you feel it, then you can let us know that you can feel it.”

Following the performance, Wissa said there will be a Q&A for audience members, and the group will be open to hearing any questions about the event.

From the troupe’s first performance last semester, Wissa said attendees of various races and genders told her they loved it and thought it was a great idea. She said she believed some parts were extremely relatable to a wide audience.

 “You can expect laughs, tears, even feeling uncomfortable, you can expect an awakening,” said Wissa. “Things that aren’t being said on campus about the lack of diversity, and about what it means to not have theater for people of color.”