Turn on CNN or open the New York Times, and you may encounter someone explaining how exhausting it is to be a black person. The idea that systemic racism is leaving blacks scarred and spent has been embraced across mainstream America, articulated by corporate CEOs and university presidents. The latest performative assertion of black oppression is playing out at the Juilliard School in New York City. The controversy has significance beyond the school.
In September 2020, the Juilliard School’s Drama Division announced a series of “community meetings” to address “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (EDIB) issues.” The school’s growing cadre of diversity bureaucrats would discuss Juilliard’s’ “anti-racism work.” The head of the Center for Racial Healing would give a presentation. Workshops would address such topics as “race in rehearsal” and “voice and speech and race.” NYU theater professor Michael McElroy, one of the school’s two external diversity consultants, would offer a three-day seminar in black musical culture.
These Drama Division meetings were part of Juilliard’s broader effort to bring race into all its activities, including music and dance. Damian Woetzel, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, became Juilliard’s president in July 2018 and proceeded to put increasing bureaucratic clout behind the concept that Juilliard has a racism problem. The school added diversity curricula and audition requirements. It beefed up its system for reporting bias incidents. It mandated diversity workshops for faculty and students.
Those efforts picked up steam after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Within a week, Woetzel and the EDIB taskforce had sent out three schoolwide emails on the “work” Juilliard still needed to do to become an “anti-racist community.” The school sponsored a blacks-only “healing” space. It recommended that students and faculty read the books of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Michelle Alexander to understand systemic racism.
On June 11, 2020, Juilliard’s provost, Ara Guzelimian, circulated a student petition. Lending an administration email account to a student communiqué violated school protocol, but the Juilliard Student Congress’s “Call to Action” was important enough to justify the exception, wrote Guzelimian in his cover letter.
The Call to Action charged Juilliard with “systemic injustice.” It demanded an end to the school’s “almost completely Eurocentric” faculty, curriculum, and performances and a “complete in-person season featuring the works of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] artists.” It called on Juilliard to create #BreonnaTaylor and #GeorgeFloyd scholarships in music, drama, and dance.
In early August 2020, the school’s black drama students issued their own Letter of Demands. The Drama Division student body is over 50 percent “BIPOC” with nearly all of those BIPOC students being black. That 50 percent black share of the student body is unlikely to have arisen spontaneously. Blacks are 12 percent of the national population, and there is no indication that they disproportionately study drama in high school and college. Yet the black drama students’ letter portrayed the Drama Division as nearly lethally bigoted. Its “racist environment is hazardous to BIPOC students’ bodies,” the letter charged. “Some students are silenced, broken, and limited by racism within the Drama Division . . . [They] have to endure harm and violence [and] sacrifice their physical and mental health every day in this institution.”
It was against this backdrop of increasing racial hysteria that Michael McElroy’s three-day “Roots to Rep” drama workshop took place. The workshop would combine history, research, and music to explore the journey of black people in this country, McElroy explained, with a specific emphasis on the way “the Negro spiritual . . . is the foundation of so many musical genres today.” McElroy asked students to prepare for the workshop by writing a paragraph about a key event in the history of black enslavement. The president of Juilliard’s Black Student Union, Marion Grey, saw this requirement as identity-threatening, but she kept her objections to herself, she told American Theater, in order to test whether the school would “protect” her in the face of such a racial assault.
On the workshop’s first day, McElroy offered a trigger warning that the forthcoming audio exercise contained the “N word.” Students could leave the Zoom session anytime they wanted, McElroy said. The lesson began with an auditory recreation of the African slave trade. A march through the jungle was followed by a slave auction, with the auctioneer extolling a “fine Black pearl” who would raise her owner “a fine litter of pickaninnies.” During this soundscape, the black students were texting each other about how “utterly broken” they were by the exercise, according to Grey, while white students and faculty, as well as a few black students, participated in the workshop without protest. Afterward, the white students recounted how moving the experience had been.
Grey then Zoomed an impassioned remonstrance about cultural appropriation and trauma. “I was like, ‘There are wounds here, and you don’t get to just explore someone’s history and culture with them—that is earned, you don’t just get that,’” she told the class, according to American Theater.
McElroy had offered this workshop numerous times before without provoking a similar meltdown. The slave-auction dialogue was taken from the widely aired miniseries Roots. The historical record contains no indication that Roots generated trauma when it was released in 1977. But Juilliard immediately terminated McElroy’s workshop and went into crisis mode. The president and provost met with Grey and her black peers. The administration launched new investigations of racial issues. Grey was not impressed. Despite getting an audience with the school’s top leadership, she did not feel “truly supported,” she told American Theater. She was the victim of a “culture of silencing.” Apparently Grey and her fellow students could not provide actual examples of such silencing, but that inability only proves how serious the silencing is. “Asking us the question, ‘When have you felt silenced?’ does not mean you will get an answer, especially when you’re not in the practice of making space for the student’s voice,” she said.
After spurning months of administrative outreach, Grey ratcheted up the pressure. On April 21, 2021, she released a teary video decrying the racism of what she called “Slavery Saturday.” “It’s maddening to have your humanity so disrespected, to have something done to you that is so wrong. It is so wrong,” she told the camera. A petition accompanying the video demanded the decolonization of the Drama Division and the hiring of an outside consultant to analyze the “inequitable, anti-black, and racist structures and systems that are built into the architecture of the Juilliard culture.” Grey claimed to be frightened that Juilliard would retaliate against her. “It’s terrifying to put myself on the line but I know my worth, I know that a wrong has been done to me.’’
The chance that Juilliard would offer any opposition to Grey’s video, much less retaliate against her for posting it, was zero. Two days after the video was released, Woetzel sent out a schoolwide email. He adopted every trope of threat and injury used by the black students: “I want to state unequivocally that this workshop was ill-conceived and should not have occurred in the manner that it did. I extend a heartfelt apology to the individuals who have been adversely affected by it.” Tackling difficult topics is a responsibility of artists, Woetzel said, but Juilliard must do so “in a manner that respects and protects the members of our community.” Woetzel called the auditory experience of enslavement “extremely distressing and problematic.”
Woetzel was implicitly accusing McElroy, who is black himself, of putting Juilliard’s black students at risk through an “ill-conceived” historical recreation. The school did not respond to an inquiry asking whether Woetzel had sought McElroy’s perspective before calling his presentation “ill-conceived.” The school also refused to spell out what exactly was “problematic” about the exercise or what criteria Juilliard would use in the future to ensure that pedagogy “protects members of [the] community.” (McElroy declined to be interviewed for this article.)
The dean of the Drama Division, Evan Yionoulis, apologized for the workshop, too, in an email appended to Woetzel’ s own. The workshop never should have happened, Yionoulis wrote, throwing McElroy under the bus as decisively as Woetzel had done. Yionoulis felt “remorse” for engaging McElroy and for not stopping the exercise once it was in progress, though it is not clear how the school could have known to do so. Yionoulis lamented the “trauma” caused by the workshop without explaining in what, exactly, such trauma consisted. The school will continue to try to “facilitate healing,” Yionoulis said, but it also recognizes that it “cannot fully change the impact of what happened, nor . . . erase all that was experienced in that moment.”
The Drama Division’s response to the students’ protests betrays the division’s very reason for being. Their complaints rest on notions about history and dramatic art so crabbed that they would destroy freedom of imagination entirely if they were widely implemented. Grey would erect gatekeepers around historical truths. Favored victim groups could expound on that history at will; others would need to “earn” permission to do so. It matters not that any given historical presentation is accurate; it may enter the public arena only if it does not offend the feelings of those who claim to be oppressed by its recollection.
But Grey and her peers notwithstanding, there are no barricades in history. Anyone with a commitment to the ideal of historical truth may explore whatever aspect of the past he chooses. Whites don’t get to bar blacks from studying “white” history, and they don’t need permission from blacks to study “black” history. A Japanese historian does not need to “earn” the right to research the Habsburg Empire; an Italian may become an expert on the Incas. To string “Do Not Enter” signs around territories in the past will smother human knowledge.
The idea that the recreation of the auction violated Juilliard’s duty to “protect” its students would rule out a large portion of dramatic art. Eugene O’Neill’s plays would be off limits, lest they “retraumatize” students with alcoholic parents. Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues of the Carmelites should not be performed lest those with aristocratic or monastic ancestors be shaken. Aristotle argued that tragedy provides catharsis through the reenactment and transcendence of suffering. But under Juilliard’s definition, there should be no passion plays, because they would retraumatize Christians.
The Left claims that American history teaching underplays slavery and other civil rights violations in favor of a triumphalist story of white supremacy. This claim is ludicrous. There is almost no non-racialized political history taught today, much less a whitewashed narrative of the City on the Hill. The focus is on marginalized groups and their mistreatment by white males. But if it were true that students are being kept in ignorance about America’s past betrayals of its democratic ideals, a visceral recreation of enslavement would seem an ideal way to pierce that ignorance.
It is taboo to question claims of racism-inflicted disability, since such a challenge denies someone his subjective “truth.” When it comes to race, subjective truth is now the only allowable truth. Nevertheless, the alleged psychic catastrophe occasioned by the audio recreation of the slave auction strains credulity. The experience of slavery is as remote from Juilliard’s black students as it is from Juilliard’s white students. Neither group has any realistic expectations of being subjected to such treatment. Imaginative empathy is a good trait for drama students, but so are emotional distance and objectivity. How broad must the protective cone be? Should museums shut down displays of slave shackles and whips? If the alleged emotional devastation here is taken at face value, it is time to retire the strained conceit of “white fragility” and replace it with “black fragility.”
The black drama students’ claim of being daily “broken” by the “harm and violence” they are forced to endure at Juilliard is equally unpersuasive. There are no racists at Juilliard, and the school’s leaders should say so. No one, it should not need stating, is engaged in violence against black students. To the contrary, Juilliard is filled with liberal, well-meaning adults who want all their pupils to succeed. Far from being oppressed, all of Juilliard’s drama students are fantastically privileged compared to actors in bygone centuries who picked up their thespian skills rattling around with a flea-bitten vaudeville or commedia dell’arte troupe.
The need to assert victimization at the hands of Western civilization is all consuming, however. It has led Juilliard’s drama students to opt for ignorance rather than knowledge, identity rather than imaginative freedom. Their August 2020 demands call for the elimination of all pedagogy that seeks to enhance an actor’s ability to transcend his particular identity. “‘Color-blind’ casting” (scare quotes in the original) must end, replaced by “color conscious casting practices.” No student of color should “be forced to leave behind their racial/ethnic identity when playing a role.” If a BIPOC student is cast in a non-BIPOC role, the director must justify that choice and reflect that justification throughout the production. The school should not “center” the General American Dialect in its speech and voice classes; doing so is “discriminatory.”
Leave aside for a moment the implications of these demands for dramatic art. They are self-constricting as well. At present, black actors have a monopoly on black roles, since no director today would think of casting a white actor as a black character, but blacks can also play white roles. Now, however, per the Juilliard students, if a black actor plays a traditionally white character, it must be as a black and the rest of the production must foreground that black identity. The musical Hamilton took this tack, but such color-focused dramaturgy would outlast its welcome in Shakespeare’s history plays, say, where the idea of a hip-hop Henry V or Richard III would quickly grow stale.
The essence of the actor’s art is the ability to embody a life radically different from his own and in so doing to take the audience outside of itself as well. It is not an erasure of an actor’s self to learn the General American Dialect; that neutral voicing is merely the launching ground for a range of imaginative possibilities. Peter Francis James’s kaleidoscopic reading of Native Son on Audible uses the General American Dialect for the narrative voice but adopts a stunning range of accents for the characters, each one providing insight into the novel’s fatal drama. But for today’s black activists, their identity is their greatest power and their greatest weapon, and so anything that seeks to subsume racial identity into something more abstract must be beaten back.
The August 2020 demands complain that BIPOC students have “few if any meaningful and authentic performance opportunities” because the curriculum is “disproportionately Eurocentric.” “Authenticity” is now defined by whether a role conforms to an actor’s skin color, not by the human truth an actor may attain within it. The demands do not tell us what ratio of “Eurocentric” to “non-Eurocentric” plays constitutes “disproportionality.” The tradition of performing theatrical scripts written by individual playwrights is almost exclusively a Western phenomenon. African drama was ritualistic and participatory; there was little distinction between the dramatic players and the audience; the rituals were passed down orally, not via writing. So whatever Juilliard’s ratio of “Eurocentric” scripts to “non-Eurocentric” scripts, it would likely not be disproportionate to the actual distribution of written plays in our cultural inheritance.
The Juilliard students use a different measure of proportionality, however: their own representation in the student body. Having engineered a student body that is over 50 percent black, Juilliard must now eliminate up to 50 percent of its classical curriculum to meet the BIPOC standard of authenticity. Thus do admissions quotas everywhere determine the future curriculum.
Racial identity is also the key to evading colorblind behavioral standards. The drama students demand that every black student on probation for missing or being late to class be taken off probation and his record wiped clean, since Juilliard’s attendance policies have a disparate impact on black students. Any white students on probation for missing class will stay under discipline. Juilliard’s self-described “rigorous” class schedule is “deeply rooted in capitalist and white supremacist hegemony.” It, too, should change to “prioritize the physical and mental health needs of the student body.”
Black drama students have been pushing back on the school’s classical tradition for the past ten years, according to a school observer. A drama division graduate expressed a typical view. His “light” had been extinguished at Juilliard by having to study “about [sic] how great white authors are,” he told American Theater. This self-pity would have astonished the division’s early leaders. James Houghton, one of those early leaders, expressed his goals for the program: “I want to see actors and playwrights coming out of this school with an absolute passion and joy connected to the craft of theater-making.” That black students should feel oppressed by studying some the greatest drama ever written shows how conclusively Juilliard has failed to articulate what were once its core values.
Juilliard’s ferment is nothing compared with the theater world as a whole, however (or compared with the classical music world, as described in City Journal’s upcoming summer issue.) During last summer’s George Floyd riots, a manifesto appeared online: “We See You White American Theater” (We See You W.A.T.). Rambling and repetitious, the document justified its redundancies as a “reflection of the significance [of those repeated demands] to the constituents” and as “also due to the interdependent functioning of the theatrical ecosystem.” Its inconsistent “tones and formatting styles” were designed to “retain our orality,” a technique “designed to hold the multiplicity and urgency we lay claim to given the persistent devaluation of our voices.” We See You W.A.T. insisted that “radical change on both cultural and economic fronts” was required to eradicate white supremacy.
We See You W.A.T. contained the usual accusations of vicious mistreatment lodged against an immaculately progressive industry: “We have watched you exploit us, shame us, diminish us, and exclude us.” As with the Juilliard demands, no examples of such shaming and exclusion were provided. But the manifesto’s peroration did attain a dramatic tension that had eluded the Juilliard students:
We see you . . . you are all a part of this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy. And this is a house that will not stand.
This ends TODAY.
We are about to introduce you . . . to YOURSELF.
That final sentence may have been puzzling, but the theater world reeled anyway. Regional theaters have been falling all over themselves trying to comply with the usual quota demands: casts, directors, and artistic staff must be over 50 percent minority, according to the online manifesto. There have been purges. In Philadelphia, the nonprofit PlayPenn, which supports the development of new work, fired its associate artistic director after receiving allegations that it “was not meeting community members’ expectations for racial and cultural competence,” reported the New York Times in September 2020. In Georgia, the Serenbe Playhouse laid off its entire staff following allegations of racism.
We See You W.A.T. demanded that half of Broadway shows should be plays “written by, for and about BIPOC.” Every new play on Broadway next season will be by a black author. We See You W.A.T. demanded that half of Broadway theaters should be renamed after artists of color and that theaters forswear advertising in any press outlet where the reporters and critics are less than 50 percent POC. Those two demands have been slower to yield results.
One president of a regional theater describes the present moment. This president is self-consciously “bean-counting, trying to hit racial quotas with plays and actors,” even though the community the theater serves is overwhelmingly white. The theater’s young employees “get all het up” over any diversity shortcoming. “Why did you use a white this or a white that?” they complain. The president asked the theater’s financial chief if he could name one “cisgender” white male director the company had hired over the last three years. There were none. On Broadway there have been no straight white guys running things for years, the president observes. Gay white guys will be the next target.
This theater veteran knows 40 to 50 theater professionals who have left the profession or are about to do so, “so toxic” has the environment become. Any alternative perspective or criticism becomes: “You do not respect us.” If a voice coach observes that a student’s voice is not coming from his core, the student will respond: “That is because I don’t feel comfortable in class with you.”
An arts consultant reports the “unspoken fear” of theater leaders: they will put on quota-filling plays, and no one will come. “I have talked to long time audience members who have no interest in seeing much of this new work,” whose main purpose is to indict white America, the consultant says.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the arts is only nominally about “inclusion.” In fact, it is about exclusion and the power that has motivated every revolutionary mob: the power of negation, the power to tear things down. This purportedly “inclusive” movement will result in a world of constricted imaginative possibility and stunted human growth.
A leader in the arts world, told of Juilliard’s travails, observes: “This is a crucial time to stand up and call out what is an overly emotional and irrational attack on the best of what humanity has to offer.”
He would not allow me to reveal his name or affiliation.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images