Ramifications from the recent deaths of black people at the hands of police, the protests that have followed, and accusations of systemic racism continue to spread and touch many institutions in a broad range of fields. Latest local case in point: a “Call to Action” letter sent to the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, Florida State University and Asolo Repertory Theatre from current black students of the Conservatory pushing back against a statement earlier released by the Asolo claiming, in response to the deaths and unrest, that, “We stand in solidarity with those who are committed to fighting oppression, racism and hate.”
That’s not what the students, and the 200-plus signatories of the letter (including Conservatory alumni and black directors, playwrights and actors who have worked with the Asolo) see in the theater company’s history. Five students—Nydira Adams, Daniel Ajak, Ptah Garvin, Naire Poole and Bonita Jackson Turner—reached out to black alumni of the Conservatory since 1996 regarding their experience while there, and they say that “the large majority of Black alumni either said no or that this is an area of concern” when asked whether they felt the faculty were operating in their interests as black students.
In researching the productions staged by Asolo Rep over the past 21 years, the students also found that of 187 shows, only four were written by black playwrights (with two of those four by the same playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, who signed the letter). Over that same period, only three black directors have been employed by Asolo Rep.
When it comes to the Conservatory, an examination showed that it has produced 91 plays since 1999-2000, none written by black playwrights. Only one black director was employed, and the school’s curriculum has included only two black authors. In addition, from 1999’s graduating class to the class of 2020, the percentage of black students who have graduated from the Conservatory is just 6 percent.
Beyond those statistics, the letter also points out incidents and behaviors that have troubled black students, from being “paraded” in front of community members at a catered event with the phrase, “Look! There’s five of them,” to the feeling of “being pressured to have a relationship with the white sponsors who pay for us to be here and who wear buttons with our faces on them as they proudly exclaim we are theirs.”
The students who sent the letter to the leaders of these institutions don’t want to be interviewed at this time, rather providing “suggestions instead of demands” in the letter to give an opportunity for the FSU/Asolo organizations to live up their earlier statements. Likewise, those to whom the letters were sent, when asked for comment, have not yet responded beyond this emailed statement:
“We have received a courageous and heartfelt letter from a number of FSU/Asolo Conservatory students. We are meeting with them as soon as possible to discuss urgent matters. It is important that we meet with the students before we speak with the press.”
We’ll follow up on this story as it unfolds.