COPA students and the Office of Equity and Inclusion hold a virtual town hall to address accusations of whitewashing

Written By Nardos Haile, Co-News Editor

On Monday, April 5, the Office of Equity and Inclusion and student leaders in the Artistic Committee, a part of the Conservatory of the Performing Arts (COPA), held a virtual town hall meeting on Monday, April 5 addressing student concerns and issues regarding the potential whitewashing in a callback for the musical “The Wild Party.”

In a callback list sent out by COPA on Monday, March 29, several non-Black men were called back to audition for the traditionally Black character, Mr. Black.

Chris Blount, a senior acting major and a member of the Artistic Committee monitoring the town hall said that according to the Music Theatre International website, the role of Mr. Black calls for an African American actor. 

“Which was the same breakdown sent for the Point Park callback list but with African American removed from that,” Blount said.

The Point Park casting call for Mr. Black stated it was open to all ethnicities even though the role is traditionally played by a Black actor.

A year after the cancellations of musicals, “Adding Machine” and “Parade,” over student concerns of racism, homophobia and racism, “The Wild Party” callback indiscretion was said to have brought back unresolved traumas for Black and brown COPA students.

In the two-hour town hall, the Artistic Director and Dean of COPA, Steven Breese said “as far as this incident is concerned, I cannot tell you how disappointed and angry I was.”

Breese said he hired the director through faculty recommendations. The director is also a former Point Park alum which was another factor in Breese’s hiring process. 

“The decision was made about a year ago to hire this director. When we had to put off doing ‘The Wild Party’ last year, we began to do it this week. I reengaged that conversation,” Breese said. “We had a couple of conversations since then, and I asked her to be sure, based on our history here, to be inclusive in everything that she did. To ensure appropriate representation in all areas.”

Breese said at Point Park, directors do not consult with artistic directors before callbacks are announced. Thus the callback list was posted without any vetting. 

“When I heard she had called back white-bodied individuals for this African American male role, I was very angry. I was angry. I was frustrated. I did not understand,” he said.

Breese said that he called the director, and she said she was working to be inclusive but Breese stressed that the Playhouse intended for the role to be played by a Black man.

“I asked for April [Daras, the Dean of Theatre Arts] to place an email to say we are withdrawing this callback list, and we will repost [the callback list],” Breese said. “What bothered me most about it wasn’t that she [the director] had this idea, but there was no consultation with me prior to doing something that was clearly not the intention of the Playhouse.”

Another member of the Artistic Committee, Jaquel Spivey, a senior musical theatre major, said the emails sent to students after the callback incident “were well-intentioned but the wording was very harmful to many people of color. There was something about trying to be inclusive to students of color and white students. Not everyone was happy with the choice of words.”

An additional issue that the student committee brought up that intersected with the whitewashed callback list was the lack of inclusive hires in COPA’s faculty following the recent student calls to fire Breese.

“If this is a systemic problem, do you think you being a white cis-gendered man in charge of an artistic program is best? And you should continue to keep the job?” Gabe Lasley, a senior musical theatre major, said to Breese. 

“Point Park goes back so many years. So when you do look at the board of directors and when you look at the artistic directors and when you look at the Chair itself, in all of those 20 years and plus some, [those positions] have not changed race,” Zetra Goodlow, a senior theatre arts major and a member of the Artistic Committee, said. “It’s always been a white person that has been in a higher power.” 

Breese said he would remain in his position. He responded to Goodlow in support of more inclusive hiring in the conservatory.

“The world is changing, and [Point Park] must change with it. I’m not averse to helping that happen. I think we have to have it from the faculty, in the administration, and across the board of directors,” Breese said. 

But the students in the Artistic Committee and other COPA students said they were disillusioned with the prospects of reform and change with the culture in COPA and at Point Park.

“As somebody who is on the Artistic Committee with two other Black students, I can say we have been cut off many times. Our opinions have not held weight in the room,” Spivey said. “What makes it worse is we’re the only people of color in the room, not the only Black people, not the only non-passing people. We are the only people of color in that entire room of faculty and with one other student, who is white, and we have to defend everything.” 

Breese said the “mistakes” made do not mean that there hasn’t been progress made in reforming the culture at Point Park. 

“The absence of mistakes is not progress. If you examine my record as a dean at institutions, you’ll find that I find ways to help and make things better,” Breese said. “This is a difficult problem because the problem has been systemic and the racism that has festered at this institution. We need to correct that. We need to make that healthy, we have to fix that problem.”

But students like Mia Sterbini, a senior acting major, said, “I’m tired of diversity and representation being a band-aid for a broken system. I’m sick of watching Black people be traumatized for something that doesn’t even work for us anyways.”

In response to the students’ personal stories, Provost Jonas Prida thanked the students for their candor and insights.

“You’ve succeeded despite Point Park, not because of it,” Prida said.