I have created a visual representation of my identity (or lack thereof) as a White student with a big voice in a Musical Theatre graduate program. It is pencil on paper, and includes the titles of every song that I was assigned throughout graduate school that was written to be sung by a character of color.
One statement that has stuck with me for over a decade is a throwaway comment that my vocal coach made once during a coaching (and I’m paraphrasing, because I remember more the way it made me feel than what he said): “Julie, the thing that you need most in this business is to know who you are and what your product is, and to be unashamedly that thing no matter what anyone says to you or what box they want to put you in.” It hit me in the gut and has never left. There I was, studying in this program that so many people wanted to be part of, and I didn’t know who I was, because everyone was telling me to be things that didn’t feel right. I was being assigned scenes and songs written specifically for women of color, and being denied the opportunities to perform scenes and songs with which I identified for my entire graduate program. There were not many people of color in my graduate program, but my two best friends, the one Korean woman and one Filipino woman in my program were assigned the same 6 songs and 4 characters in every class–regardless of whether they could sing them, or if they could identify with the characters.
I chose pencil on paper, with no color, because the experience made me feel grey- without color, nuance, or a personality that I could identify with. I felt such a great conflict because of the experiences of my BIPOC classmates in both the graduate and undergraduate programs. While I was given ‘permission’ to sing whatever songs that sounded good in my voice (and only those songs- believe me I tried to sing more appropriate repertoire), the only permission my BIPOC colleagues were given was to sing the songs that fit the identities that had been ascribed to them. And no one was happy or vibrant because no one was able to be themselves; they were expected to act how they were told to act. Where is the Art or Beauty in that?