Directors of Diversity Initiative
This past summer, Heritage Theatre Festival closed its 45th anniversary season with a production of Eleanor Burgess’s The Niceties, a powerful two-person play that highlights the delicate and sometimes incendiary balance surrounding issues of race and power in academia. It wasn’t the first time the show’s powerful words had been heard in the Drama Building. A year earlier, The Niceties was part of a special series headed up by Caitlin McLeod of the Drama Department, and supported by the UVA-wide Directors of Diversity (DDI) initiative. The series, McLeod said, is “aimed at creating conversations through play readings of works that present clear, sympathetic voices of unique and unheard segments of our population. We have been hitting a kind of panoply of different groups, and there has been a lot of enthusiasm for each event.”
The program, launched in the spring of 2018, features a staged reading format performed by rehearsed actors with scripts-in-hand. Each play is followed by a discussion featuring the actors, director, UVA scholars, or invited speakers. It began with Just Like Us, by Karen Zacarius, which chronicles the experience of four Latina high school graduates, two with documentation, and two without, as they look at their respectable options for adulthood. The program turned a spotlight on student work with Black People Versus America, a trio of plays written by Markiana Smith (College ‘19) and featuring UVA's Paul Robeson Players. McLeod worked with the group to find a published piece to perform, but was told again and again that its members were only interested in presenting original work for the series, "The professor in me is sitting there thinking that they should learn a published play, but after the events of August 2017, and seeing what those students had gone through since, I realized these students have gone through something no one else has, and they are doing an amazing job of managing the experience," McLeod said. "The reading created a bridge between these students and different departments, and it highlighted a goal of this series, which is to create a culture of belonging, and to establish the drama department as a space where often-marginalized students can express themselves, which is very important to me.”
The last play in the series, Instrumental Journey, was inspired by MFA graduate student Michael Miranda’s trip to a south Asian theatre conference where he came across the play. It is based on the symbiotic relationship between music and migration and is presented using the form of a classical fugue as it chronicles a tale of music shop owners forced from their land, who survive a long and treacherous journey by selling instruments along the way.
McLeod is currently working with the transgender community to produce Trans Scripts Part I: The Women by Paul Lucas on November 22 and 23, 2019; and the Muslim community on Grounds and in the community to identify the right vehicles and provide a proper platform. Next spring, she said, will also feature a week-long residency by noted writer and activist José Torres-Tama, a New Orleans artist known throughout the world for his work documenting the immigrant experience. “What I am finding is that all of these communities are filled with creativity and expression. It is amazing how this outlet creates a sense of acceptance and belonging for the participants.”