Studying Theatre at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

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Hear from distinguished alumni and faculty on how HBCUs are uniquely equipped for training the next generation of Black theatre artists.
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“I stand here today knowing that my Howard University education prepared me to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and T'Challa,” said late actor Chadwick Boseman during his 2018 commencement speech at his alma mater.

Boseman, who died August 28 from colon cancer, leaves a legacy of his starring roles in films like 42, Get on Up, Marshall, Black Panther, and soon to be Netflix's upcoming film adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Despite being so well-known for his acting, Boseman graduated from Howard’s Department of Theatre Arts in 2000 with a degree in directing and was a Drama League Directing Fellow the same year.

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Phylicia Rashad Joseph Marzullo/WENN

He is one of many of the prominent performing artists who have graduated from a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Howard University alone boasts Tony winner Phylicia Rashad and her sister Emmy winner Debbie Allen, Tony-nominated orchestrator Harold Wheeler, Amber Iman (Hamilton, Shuffle Along, Soul Doctor), Tracie Thoms (Falsettos, Rent), and Zurin Villanueva (Clueless, The Lion King, Mean Girls) as alumni. Tony winner Anika Noni Rose graduated from Florida A&M University, Tony-winning director Kenny Leon graduated from Clark Atlanta University (formally Clark College), Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson and Tony nominee Brian Tyree Henry graduated from Morehouse College, just to name a few.

A HBCU, as defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965, is a “…college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.” According to the U.S. Department of Education's accredited list, there are 101 HBCUs throughout the country, and they note, “HBCUs offer all students, regardless of race, an opportunity to develop their skills and talents.”

For all students, the transition to college requires an adjustment— to a new structure, a new sense of independence, and a new environment. For Black students who attend a predominantly White institution (PWI), they have to juggle all of these changes while navigating the obstacles and pressures of operating under the White gaze.

“There are too many stories told by [Black students who graduated from PWIs] who say they spent their last four years playing trees…they were always secondary in the conversation and not even considered when the seasons were developed,” says Eric Ruffin, an associate professor and co-coordinator of the acting program at Howard University. “…They found themselves competing to stand out and become that ‘special Negro’…they’ve spent four years of erasing who they are, operating from that double consciousness…they don’t know who they are.”

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Zurin Villanueva Joseph Marzullo/WENN

At Howard, authenticity and individuality is paramount—‘Black’ isn’t a qualifier or a prefix. “‘Black’ is off the table,” says Howard University alum Zurin Villanueva. “You’re not the ‘Black actor,’ the ‘Black ingenue,’ the ‘Black Sutton Foster,’ I’m just Zurin! That is a radical feeling.”

That liberation from a White standard begins during the audition process. “Be you, honey! Own the room...I know whether or not I want to watch you when you walk in the room,” says Anedra Small, an assistant professor and the recruitment coordinator at Florida A&M University (FAMU). Villanueva remembers each auditonee singing one by one in the room at her Howard audition, but there wasn’t a feeling of competitiveness nor rigidity that she felt during other college auditions—in fact, it was one of community and hyping each other up.

Marty Austin Lamar, who is a FAMU alumni and now a full-time lecturer and the musical theatre BFA coordinator at Howard, says when it comes to auditions, “We’re all very aware of limitations in our communities…It is our job before we make a decision to say ‘no,’ [to] find out some background and backstory. How long have you been studying? We often hear ‘I’ve never taken a dance class, I’ve never taken a singing class, I’ve never had an acting class.’ It’s then my responsibility to try and give you some tools, try to begin to build your toolbox—whether you’re accepted or not—so that you can leave with more than what you came with, even in the audition setting. That is what you will find at a HBCU.”

By nurturing the individual from the beginning, HBCUs provide a freedom for students to focus solely on becoming the best theatre artist they can be, which includes opportunities to participate in and lead student-run productions. “You become an independent, thinking, discovering actor,” says Villanueva.

When it comes to developing artistry in the classroom, students explore a wide array of styles and genres—HBCU’s curriculum doesn’t focus solely on the few playwrights who are usually highlighted from the Black theatrical canon, like Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson.

“There’s this misconception that at a HBCU the only thing that you will do is work from the Black theatre canon,” says Luther Wells, a professor and associate director of theatre at Florida A&M University. “We are teaching theatre, not just Black theatre…[but] it is going to come from this perspective how we live as Black people in this world.”

The same goes for Howard, with Villanueva studying the Greeks, Shakespeare, Neil Simon, Brecht, Kabuki, and more. Howard students can also expect a range of styles to be reflected in the Mainstage programming—during Villanueva’s time there, the department produced a musical adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Are Watching God, A Chorus Line, Working, and Company for their spring musicals.

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Eric Ruffin Norman Deshong

“We find ways [for students] to be at the center of the narrative. We don’t tell a story unless we see how it is relevant to our communities and necessary to our students and their training,” says Ruffin.

While there is no doubt that exploring the full spectrum of the theatrical canon is beneficial as an actor, Villanueva found that upon entering the professional world after graduation, the expectation was for her to do “the Black stuff.” But she acknowledges that that mindset is slowly changing because of color-conscious and multi-cultural casting of traditionally White shows.

And for students wanting to study the technical side of theatre? “We have a B.S. track with focuses on management, marketing, and technical design. It is hands-on. The students have an opportunity to design productions and see it manifest itself onstage,” says Small of FAMU. For Howard, lighting, sound, scenic and costume design are integrated in the BFA curriculum. While Lamar and Ruffin point out that the department is underfunded, that didn’t negatively affect Villanueva’s perspective on it as a student. “Those teachers are excellent and they train the mess out of you,” she says. “You get to a point where you can both do your craft and learn a technical skill. Let the children know, they don’t play.”

Villanueva understands the transformative power of being a Howard theatre student, so she gives back to its community when she’s in the area through talkbacks and workshops, like when she was at Washington D.C.'s National Theatre for the world premiere of Mean Girls. It comes as no surprise that the community established among Howard’s theatre students continues long after graduation, including a 10-year reunion for Homecoming. “We are family,” says Villanueva.

The existence of HBCUs isn't an excuse for PWIs to ignore or undervalue their Black students. All educational institutions should focus on creating equitable and anti-racist spaces for their students. For guidelines on this topic, read How to Create Equitable Spaces for the BIPOC Students in Your Theatre Program.

HBCUs are not a monolithic experience, and neither are theatre departments. College is a very personalized experience that requires lots of research before making a decision on the best fit for each student. If you’re interested in learning more about the HBCU experience, you can watch Lamar, Ruffin, Small, and Wells discuss studying theatre at a HBCU in College Theatre Auditions from Playbill and The Growing Studio.

You can also look through resources like The Hundred-Seven, HBCU Connect, HBCU Lifestyle and the U.S. Department of Education.

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