The more “progress” they make, they crazier their demands become: Revolution Comes to Juilliard

The more “progress” they make, they crazier their demands become: Revolution Comes to Juilliard. By Heather McDonald.

Juilliard is a private performing arts school in NYC.

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. …

In 2020, [Juilliard] 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. …

The Juilliard Student Congress’s “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. … 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.”

Now for the real crime, a “racial assault” no less:

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.

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. …

McElroy [who is black himself] had offered this workshop numerous times before without provoking a similar meltdown. …

Not good enough:

The president of Juilliard’s Black Student Union, Marion 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. …

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. …

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 …

What if the activists were taken seriously?

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. …

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. …

When too much is never enough:

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. …

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 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. …

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 2016 Broadway hit “Hamilton” tells the story of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. It casts non-white actors as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures. How woke!

When being black is your only asset:

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. …

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. …

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.” …

Quotas quotas everywhere, talent shown the door:

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. …

During last summer’s George Floyd riots, a manifesto appeared online: “We See You White American Theater” (We See You W.A.T.). …

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 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. …

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.

POC? “People of prejudice” more like.