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N.C. A&T prepares theater students by teaching them how to deal with racism in their profession

GREENSBORO Miller Lucky learned an early career lesson about racism in theater in the mid-1980s, during his first week in a graduate acting class at a large, predominantly white Southern university.

One of his favorite professors asked students to present monologues.

After Lucky presented his, the professor asked him to do another.

“I was pretty excited because I thought, ‘Wow, he’s asking me to do two of them,’ ” Lucky recalled. The professor then asked him to do a third monologue.

Lucky said he likely presented monologues from plays by Charles Fuller, Richard Wesley and maybe Lorraine Hansberry.

“Finally, he blatantly said to me, ‘Do you know anything other than something Black?’ ”

Sure, the shocked Lucky said. Then he posed a question of his own:

“Can you all perform anything other than white?” he asked the professor and class.

The class roared with laughter.

“We went on and had a wonderful experience together,” Lucky said. “But it let me know young in my career that the standard of the profession was from a white perspective, and anything Black seemed less than.”

Thirty years later, he can still envision a similar incident happening today.

Lucky vowed to draw on that lesson when he fulfilled his plan to teach at one of the country’s historically black college and universities.

He now directs the undergraduate acting program at an HBCU: N.C. A&T, where he received his undergraduate degree.

“I will prepare my students by teaching them all genres, beyond African American,” he said.

It’s just one way that A&T’s theater arts program prepares students to deal with racism in the professional theater world.

While the public views the theater world as a more accepting work environment for all races and sexes, Black professionals in the business say that racism still exists there.

A&T’s theater arts professors renewed discussion among themselves on that topic last month, after national theater artists decried racial injustice in their industry.

The artists — Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC — published a statement addressed to “White American Theater” at It demanded “a more equitable and safe space for BIPOC communities in our nation and inside of the American Theater.”

It reiterated longtime issues such as programming, casting and discrediting the contributions of BIPOC theaters, “only to co-opt and annex our work, our scholars, our talent and our funding.”

They wrote it in response to the unrest that has roiled the country since George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

So far, 80,000 signatures accompany its list of demands.

Some racism in theater is intentional; some is unconscious bias, said Donna Bradby, an A&T alumna who now teaches and directs in its theater arts program.

Graduates still might hear racial slurs and even the N-word from audience members, managers and directors, Bradby said.

Although Black actors might use the word with each other, non-Black actors might have to be reminded that they can’t join the conversation and do the same, Bradby said.

“We believe that confronting these issues when they are in college and being transparent about what they are going to confront has helped our graduates be so successful,” she said.

Founded in 1969, A&T’s undergraduate theater arts program is nationally ranked by Black Broadway as one of the top five for African American students.

Accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre, it enrolls an average of 45 to 65 majors annually in acting and theater technology. That keeps it small and intimate, Bradby said.

Many graduates have been successful.

NaTasha Yvette Williams’ Broadway performances include “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Waitress,” “The Color Purple” and “Chicago the Musical.”

Zonya Johnson, who goes by the stage name Zonya Love, replaced High Point native Fantasia Barrino as Celie in “The Color Purple” on Broadway.

Among other credits, Love has also performed off-Broadway and in a national tour of “Avenue Q.”

Lelund Durond Thompson coached Jennifer Hudson for her role as Aretha Franklin in the upcoming film, “Respect.”

Stanley Lee Ralph III stage-manages Broadway tours, one of few African Americans in the job.

To name a few.

At A&T, students learn how to compete for work in a predominantly white theater world.

“When African Americans choose to go to an undergraduate program at a predominantly white institution, there are issues that happen around racism that they spend their whole time fighting,” Bradby said. “And they miss out on the work.”

Vanita Vactor, who retired last year after teaching African American drama, taught about the long history of African Americans in theater that began well before Hansberry’s 1959 landmark play “A Raisin in the Sun” or 1981’s “Dreamgirls.”

They learn plays by Black playwrights, such as August Wilson, but also by white playwrights, such as Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, as well as Greek theater.

They presented Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” in spring 2019, and “Oedipus the Queen” — Lucky’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” — in fall 2019.

Faculty member prepare them to arrive at auditions early, well-groomed and professionally dressed, comparable to white actors.

“There are things I can say to my students ... that white professors can’t say to them because they will be called bigots or racists,” Bradby said.

One young man didn’t know why he didn’t get cast in professional shows.

“I said, ‘You need to put some product in your hair. You need to groom yourself. Your hair looks a hot mess,’ ” Bradby said.

In the professional world, the students might get questions about Black hair or about Black playwrights, such as Wilson.

“If I could get paid for the amount of times I’ve had to prevent someone from touching MY hair or having a conversation about why it isn’t OK, I’d be typing this from my beach house in the Caribbean,” Zonya Love said by email from New York, where she lives.

But the students don’t need to be the spokespeople for the Black race, Bradby said. Those asking questions can always research such subjects as hair or playwrights.

A 2009 A&T graduate who grew up in Greensboro, Darell J. Hunt, now works in New York as an actor, arts manager, critical writer and dramaturg, which is a literary adviser or editor in a theater.

During the audition process, Hunt said, “one of the most aggravating things we deal with as actors of color is white creatives telling us how to be Black, in reference to delivering your sides (portions of the script), delivering your lines, the character choices you have made.”

He has heard “Can’t you be more Black?”

“What they mean is, ‘Can you be more of the caricature that we associate with urban Black people?’ ” Hunt said.

Bradby said some white directors have told her she “wasn’t Black enough.”

“You just assume because I am African American, when I perform somebody who is traditionally a Black female, I’m going to talk in a certain cadence, I’m going to put my hands on my hips,” Bradby said. “And you assume that an African American male actor is always going to play the angry Black man. No. We can play lots of different roles.”

She tells A&T students that when they encounter a racial issue, “don’t let anyone take you out of character” — neither your own personal character nor your character on the stage.”

“If someone says something that is not right, I have to make a decision: Am I going to call you on it, give it a pass, turn down the job?” Bradby said. “You are going to handle it in a way where you remain in character, and totally respect yourself.”

For NaTasha Williams, “It’s not that I haven’t experienced racism professionally. But I have been blessed to have almost all of that escape me.

“That being said, of course I have been in rooms where inappropriate jokes are made or uncomfortable comments about my ability to ‘riff or sass or Blacken things up,’ ” Williams said in an email.

A&T and theater prepared them for life as an artist, Williams, Love and other graduates say.

“I stand on the shoulders of the Greensboro Four,” Love said in an email. “I am reminded of their strength and courage and use it to propel me into standing up and speaking out. I have great pride in my Black self. I have unshakable work ethic. I am not afraid to work hard, to go above and beyond as it is a necessity. I speak up for injustice in the rehearsal halls and in the streets. A&T definitely has some responsibility ... for me being who I am today.”

Vicky Walters, a rising senior theater arts major from Atlanta, said she hasn’t encountered much racism.

But before she chose A&T, the predominantly white university she had planned to attend gave her a full scholarship to the theater technology program — not the acting program that she wanted.

On that university’s website, Walters saw more Black people pictured in the tech program than the acting program.

That showed “barely any Black people in the acting field,” Walters said. “That was the biggest factor of me deciding to go to an HBCU, where I’m not the only Black actress on the stage. I’m not going to be playing a supporting role my whole four years of college.”

Walters now aims for Yale for graduate school, where she plans to study theater management.

“You see a nice mix of all races,” she said.

Walters agrees with issues raised in the letter to “White American Theater.”

“If it’s not a Black production, like ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ or ‘The Lion King,’ it’s hard to find more than one or two Black actors in a cast of 20,” she said. “And if you do, five are in ensemble, which I don’t think is a correct depiction of talent in this world.”

Bradby said she believes the letter “is going to open a much larger conversation within the theater world. I hope that the conversation will turn into action.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

North Carolina unemployment rate falls to 7.6% in June

RALEIGH — As North Carolina slowly reemerged from quarantine, the state’s jobless rate followed suit and declined dramatically in June, officials announced on Friday.

The announcement wasn’t all that surprising. North Carolina hit rock bottom in March and April when Gov. Roy Cooper was forced to shut down the state in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

In response, roughly 943,000 unemployment claims were filed, according to the N.C. Division of Employment Security.

But as restaurants, hotels and retailers bounced back so, too, did the number of employed hit hard by a pandemic that has crippled the state’s economy along with the rest of the country.

North Carolina’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment fell from 12.8% in May to 7.6% for June. Likewise, the number of people employed grew by 227,500 to more than 4.4 million people overall.

Still, the rate was twice the percentage reported before the pandemic began, and total employment remained 444,000 below the state’s June 2019 figure.

The state rate reached 12.9% for April, now the highest for North Carolina since 1976 when the federal government began keeping records.

The national unemployment rate for June, announced two weeks ago, was 11.1% — a drop of roughly two percentage points compared to May.

Friday’s improved state economic figures contrast with yet another record high for hospitalized coronavirus patients in North Carolina at 1,180, according to state health data.

COVID-19-related deaths during the pandemic have now exceeded 1,600. About 95,500 cumulative positive cases have been recorded.

Cooper’s stay-at-home orders in March brought most nonessential consumer commerce to a halt. Those restrictions prohibited dine-in services at restaurants statewide.

The unemployment percentages are based on employment activity in mid-June, three weeks after Cooper lifted the order and allowed most businesses to reopen at partial capacity, including restaurants for in-person patrons. Personal service providers, like hair and nail salons, also could reopen.

So it’s not surprising that the leisure and hospitality industry led the way in employment growth, restoring almost 69,000 jobs for a 22% uptick compared to May. Still, the raw total of the industry’s employment is more than 136,000 below the June 2019 total.

The category that includes retail and transportation also saw over 22,000 more people employed in June. All other broad industry categories saw some increased employment except for two that were flat: information services and publishing, and mining and logging.

Bars, gyms, movie theater and entertainment venues are among businesses that will remain closed until at least Aug. 7. Cooper and his allies said they constitute high-risk settings for coronavirus transmission.

The unemployment rate decline comes even as daily jobless benefit claims filed with the state still exceed the average weekly total received before the pandemic. More than 8,500 claims were filed on Thursday, according to the Division of Employment Security, bringing the total since mid-March to more than 1.94 million.

Nearly 1.1 million individuals have filed for claims during that time, but the growth of that number has slowed. More than $5.8 billion in state and federal benefits have been paid.

Some public school districts — Guilford, Durham and Orange County among them — decided this week to keep school buildings shuttered for students when K-12 classes resume Aug. 17. Cooper announced Tuesday that public schools could reopen their classrooms to students as long as face masks were worn and social distancing practiced. But he left the door open for districts to only offer remote learning for now.

In a letter released Friday, Cooper asked the state’s congressional delegation to back another federal coronavirus relief package that contains more money and flexibility for local and state governments to fill anticipated revenue shortfalls.

Cumulative city and county tax collections are projected to be $1.25 billion below prior expectations in the fiscal year that began July 1, Cooper wrote, while state coffers also are expected to fall $2.6 billion short of previous projects. Funding from the initial relief law helped with COVID-19 needs but lacks flexibility to replace lost revenues, he said.

“We are unlikely to return to previously expected 2020 revenue levels until at least 2023,” Cooper wrote. He’s also asked for additional funds to help reopen K-12 schools and universities for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

He’s also seeking a more generous federal match for Medicaid spending by the states.

Decisions, decisions: How should Guilford students be educated in the coronavirus age? Parents sound off.

GREENSBORO — When Renea Myers found out Guilford County Schools was considering keeping high school students home to learn remotely while sending younger children to school, she wasn’t thrilled.

So she and some fellow parents decided to start a petition to convince the Guilford County Board of Education to support one of the other two options Superintendent Sharon Contreras is proposing — options that were laid out Tuesday during a school board meeting.

Myers felt if elementary and middle schoolers were going to receive classroom instruction, high school students should, too.

“Anytime you put a plan forth like that, it should be fair to all the students,” Myers said. “We just felt like it wasn’t fair to leave them out of these scenarios.”

As school board members consider ways for Guilford County students to be educated in the coronavirus age, there are no shortage of opinions from parents and others about how that should be done. Some want to maximize classroom time for students. Others, like grandparent Bennie Jackson, think the district should focus more on remote learning.

“Put the money into getting tablets for all the kids,” he said.

With the academic year starting Aug. 17, a lot of eyes are on the school board’s much-anticipated decision, which is expected July 28. Whatever they decide, it will very likely have huge consequences for students and their families.

“I’ve been glued to every piece of information I can get my hands on,” said Kelly Burkett, a parent and teaching assistant.

Gov. Roy Cooper has told North Carolina school districts they can either use remote learning or return to in-person instruction with students, teachers and staff spaced the obligatory 6 feet apart. However, to ensure social distancing, school districts are finding they would need a blend of virtual and in-person instruction.

With the state seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases dating back to early June, Contreras said during the school board meeting on Tuesday she wants to begin the academic year with five weeks of remote learning. She then hopes to bring students back under one of three scenarios.

Her preference is to have either grades K-8 or K-9 receive in-person instruction — Contreras wants to ensure young students learn the basics — while leaving high school students to take online courses from home. That would, in turn, free up classroom space in high schools for the lower grades to move in and spread out.

However, Contreras said Tuesday she’s not sure if the district has the staffing needed to make that happen.

Burkett, whose children will be in the second, sixth and eighth grades, said she likes the idea. She admitted she might feel differently if one her kids was in high school, but also thinks older kids are better equipped to handle online learning than younger children.

The other two scenarios Contreras proposed Tuesday involve a mix of virtual and in-person instruction. In one scenario, a group of students would be in class on Mondays and Tuesdays and another group would attend Thursdays and Fridays. The days not spent in school would be devoted to distance learning.

In another scenario, two groups would attend on alternate weeks. So one group would attend a week and learn remotely the next week.

Parents also have the option of applying to one of the district’s new virtual academies.

Maud Clapp, a grandparent to five students, said it would be better to keep school buildings closed in order to minimize the risk of anyone being infected with COVID-19.

“I know the teachers need a job, but can’t you do it from home?” she asked.

For parent Jaime Austyn, the possibility that in-person instruction might be delayed five weeks is troubling. One of her children attends Haynes-Inman, a special-education school in Jamestown, and requires a wide range of care.

“She did not thrive from March through June,” Austyn said. “I felt heartbroken, because, you know, you want to give your children the best.”