MU theater troupe looks at affirmative action

Monday, October 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:26 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 12, 2009
Doctoral student Noah Lelek, front, runs through the script of the play "Identity Politics" with fellow doctoral student Emily Rollie and former faculty member Sally Foster at the Fine Arts Annex on Wednesday, Sept. 23. The script was written by the University of Missouri's Chief Diversity Officer Roger Worthington.

COLUMBIA — Yelling echoed through the hallways of MU's Corner Playhouse one Wednesday afternoon. To an outsider, the scene looked like a heated argument over affirmative action, but for the people engrossed in the debate, it was just another rehearsal.

"Identity Politics" is the latest script for a student interactive theater troupe, which encourages classroom discussion on volatile topics around race and religion. Written by Roger Worthington, MU's chief diversity officer, "Identity Politics" shows four students and one professor talking about the politics behind a new hire in the department.

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The script never confirms the ethnicity of the new professor. Rather, it focuses on the various perspectives that can consume conversation about affirmative action.

“It’s an interesting piece because I think it gets at the issues very well without people throwing things at each other,” said Suzanne Burgoyne, a director and faculty advisor for the troupe.

Burgoyne, a curator's teaching professor in theater, and Clyde Ruffin, a professor and chairman of MU's department of theatre, direct the two interactive theater program's two troupes: the Difficult Dialogues troupe, which focuses on differences in race and religion and is used in the Difficult Dialogues program at the university and is made up of students; and the National Science Foundation Advance troupe, which explores gender roles in science and engineering departments in higher education and is made up of teachers and older community members.

The new script, which is being performed for the first time this month, refers to race-related issues that have appeared in the news, such as the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the DREAM Act, a federal proposal that would allow illegal immigrants who graduate from high school in the United States to get a college education in the U.S.

Mallory Taulbee, an MU graduate who has performed with the troupe for more than four years, said the new script raises concerns about how to encourage minorities without completely losing standards. “We don’t necessarily have the answers,” she said.

“Identity Politics” contains statistics on diversity at an imaginary university similar to MU. One character points out that the number of minority professors on campus has increased 15 percent. Another character quickly counters that there are only 75 minority faculty members total.

The script comes at a time when Americans continue to puzzle over race in society. “I mean, there was this whole thing about, ‘OK, now we’ve elected Obama! We’re living in a post-racial America!’” Burgoyne said. “Well, not so much.”

Sheldon Price, a new member of the troupe and a sophomore studying theater at MU, shares her view. “Racism isn’t dead. It's 2009, but it's not,” said Price, who plays "Sean," a supporter of affirmative action.

At the rehearsal, Sean found himself cornered by the others students, who saw affirmative action as unfair. That occurred as the ensemble rehearsed a "talkback" with the audience that follows the scripted scene. Burgoyne posed questions the audience would most likely ask, and Price, playing the "Sean" character, revealed that he was Native American and had received a small scholarship for his heritage. The other characters pounced, declaring the scholarship unfair. When the directors cut in moments later, Price and his fellow cast members broke character and chuckled as Price admitted that the rehearsal got a little intense.

But for Taulbee, that's one of the wonderful things about the script.

"None of the characters are actually correct," she said. "There's no good guy and bad guy. Now sometimes there's a perceived good guy and bad guy. It's talking about affirmative action. ... Is it good? Is it bad? Some characters take it in extreme."

Taulbee, who is also in "Identity Politics," said that in her years with the troupe, she has found that audience members confront their fears about these hot-button issues.

“People aren’t discussing things and they’re afraid to discuss them,” she said. But once they see the scenes acted out, she said, they internalize the scene as a memory and become more willing to talk.

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