Theater department discusses lack of diversity amid 2022 Oscar nominations

By Renee Walker, Mar. 1, 2022

Cal Poly Pomona’s Theatre Department ensured a thorough process to produce inclusive plays in its spring season after the Oscars gained backlash over its 2022 award nominations announced early February. Critics have echoed the lack diversity is reminiscent of the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

After various celebrities, including Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee, boycotted the awards in 2015 for the lack of Black nominees, the Oscars promised to promote inclusivity in further ceremonies. Yet only four of this year’s nominees are people of color, relative to the nine nominees from the previous year. Critics are questioning if the Oscars withdrew its promise of support for minority talent.

Members of Cal Poly Pomona’s Department of Theatre and New Dance commented on the Oscars and examined its own recent efforts to solidify diversity and inclusion within the program.

Courtesy of Chelsea Sutton

“There’s not a shortage of interesting or compelling Black stories,” said Jessie Portillo, an assistant professor in the theatre department. “There’s not a shortage of talented people who can put that on to the screen. There is a bottleneck in there and I think it’s at the studio and academy level.”

Although the criticism of the Oscars’ race problem surprised some, Black entertainers recognized this as a historical pattern. Haddie McDaniel, the first Black actor to win an Oscar, was seated at a segregated table located in the back of the ceremony hall. McDaniel was denied access to the “white only” party that was held after the awards. Yet, at the same time, the Oscars award films that depict the traumas of Black women. “Precious,” directed by Lee Daniels, won Best Picture in 2010.

“It’s troublesome. I think there is often a pendulum, and you go from one extreme to the other,” said Portillo. “We swing from trauma filled experiences or portrayals of Black women, which is highlighting all the ways a character is experiencing depression, to a strong Black woman who is devoid of all happiness because of her success.”

Department Chair, Bernardo Solano reassures that unlike the Oscars, the decision process to include diverse stories into CPP’s production season is thorough.

“Our full-time faculty meets to come up with the following season of plays and the process takes us all of fall semester because we are reading plays and discussing plays that the students and faculty have suggested,” said Solano.

Solano added that the department also has a list of criteria that the faculty and chair consider including gender of the playwright, parody and the race and ethnicity of the playwright. The biggest consideration the theatre department considers is the race and ethnicity of its students.

“We are quite aware of who is in the space. Sometimes we will have more Latinx students than Black students, or more Black students that Latinx students,” said Paula Solano, instructor in the theatre department. “They pick plays that have a lot of roles. Sometimes, they are specific to the African American experience. They definitely look at the student body and try to find plays that are relevant to them.”

In the theatre department there are 131 students. Out of the 131 in the student body there are 78 Latinx students, 21 white students, nine African American students, eight Asian students and a some students who are mixed race or non-identifying. Half of the plays this upcoming season will be written by people of color, so keeping the student body in mind, two out of three of these productions will come from a Latinx playwright.

Diversity and inclusion don’t stop at race and ethnicity in the theatre department; the department strives for gender inclusivity as well. This upcoming season includes three women playwrights, one of which requires 30 actors to portray characters.

“We are always looking for roles that engage our community of students. Some years we do a better job than others,” said Solano. “We are being much more deliberate than ever before, especially given the last two years of events.”

The theatre department is now in the process of developing its spring 2022 season. Tickets and reservations are now available for purchase at the CPP box office located in front of University Theatre.

Feature image courtesy of Chelsea Sutton