The Theater, Film, and Media Studies (TFMS) department’s production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June will open on Wednesday, November 14. The play, written by author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., explores the lead character, returned veteran Harold Ryan’s embrace of toxic masculinity in the post-World War II era. “Harold stands for everything that we claim that we reject. But he gives some really, really good insight into who we are as people, “ Mark A. Rhoda, director of the production stated. “It’s very timely because of Trump. Harold Ryan is as reprehensible as Trump is, and Harold Ryan stands for a hell of a lot of what Trump stands for,“ Rhoda said. The play, first performed in 1970, has been revived in recent years, most notably by the Wheelhouse Theatre Company in an off-off Broadway production.
However, several students in the department noticed that the cast list, released shortly after auditions, was notably less diverse than past TFMS productions. Soon after the list was released, somebody had scrawled the words “And the cast is all white because…” on top of the casting list. “It didn’t really occur to me at first, it was actually somebody who did get in,” commented McKenna Johnson, a TFMS Major. Johnson explained that a cast member had said to her that “there is no reason that the cast should be this white,” which caused Johnson to consider the diversity of the cast.
Daekwan Jacobs, another TFMS major who auditioned for the performance, said that when he saw the cast list “I was first a little bit shocked, actually, and I scrolled through the list of names and tried to identify people I knew… and I switched to the other motive of ‘where’s the diversity part?’”
Regarding the message written on the casting list, Rhoda stated that “whoever scrawled it was ignorant. It’s not an all white cast. We have a student of mixed race in the cast. We also extend beyond that in terms of diversity.” Johnson had previously talked with Rhoda and explained that using a single student of mixed race to justify the cast was an example of tokenism. “He kept saying that ‘[the scrawled message was] wrong’, and I was like ‘I don’t think that it’s wrong to point out a whitewashed cast,’ and he said ‘no, I mean it’s wrong, one of them is a mixed kid’, and I was like ‘that’s just tokenism,’” Johnson also felt that it opened up “the very nuanced discussion of light skinned people of color” in the theater industry.
“I know a lot of things could go into play when casting, but when a cast is all white with a person who passes [as white], it kind of shoots out the message that there is a lot of tokenism and the idea of whiteness in general is being portrayed,” Jacobs explained.
Johnson explained that the casting decisions were particularly odd because of the show’s connections to the rise of Trump-era toxic masculinity. “Objectively, the people who are in the most danger from this kind of toxic masculinity are not represented.” Johnson explained that she was disappointed in the decisions, “I know [Rhoda] works really hard to be an ally and to represent marginalized groups where he can, I think the TFMS department as a whole is really interested in righting historical wrongs in the way that they cast things.”
“[The concerns] are, in a way, springing from much deeper issues about race relations on campus, and we, as a department, can’t speak to that,” Rhoda explained, “That would mean, and rightfully so I think, bringing in someone from the administration, whether that’s a Dean Brown or Tuajuanda Jordan, the president of the college.” At the TFMS level, Rhoda explained that “what we can, as a department, do is to address our policies for selecting a season and for casting.”
J.W. Ruth, a cast member who plays the “pacifist, hippie, peace-lovin’” Dr. Woodley, told TPN that he thinks the issue is “definitely fueled by other issues of race on this campus over the past few years, so people on this campus have more, overall, valid reasons for getting angry.”
Johnson agreed that there is an undercurrent of racial issues on campus, but argued that “there’s nothing that Tuajuanda or Dean Brown can say as a blanket statement that’s going to get rid of the feelings and the day to day things that make people feel this way. It really will have to start with people, but also with individual departments taking it on themselves.”
“The idea of theater challenges society’s norms and cultural everything, it challenges what we see in everyday life, so to show what we see in everyday life, like erasure of identity and tokenism, and then to say it’s not really an issue here but a broader issue, it’s again part of that erasure,” said Jacobs.
After talking to several students about the issue, the TFMS department is planning on hosting a talk back to students within the department to discuss casting issues.
“A lot of issues that get brought up spark a big conversation, then there’s quotes of promises or changes that will happen, then it never actually happens,” Jacobs stated, referring back to past issues regarding race relations on campus, “as a community we should keep the conversation going.”
“I don’t want this to seem like a personal attack on anyone, any student, anybody on the cast, even the director himself, this isn’t a personal attack, but just to bring awareness to an issue that is often forgotten and often not even recognized,” Jacobs concluded.
Similarly, Johnson stated that “there was talk of boycotting the show, but I want people to understand that when you boycott a production… the people that are really going to get screwed over are the people in the show because this is a student production.” Johnson, a longtime student of Rhoda, attested to his character and explained that she does not believe there were bad intentions in the casting process. Johnson also clarified that the casting process was especially rushed this year, as the college closed due to the impending Hurricane Florence during the week of auditions, which could have hindered the department from taking diversity into consideration during auditions.
“I don’t think anyone had any bad intentions in mind, especially Mark, knowing Mark, knowing that he has directed shows that are meant to be inclusive,” Kevin Glotfelty, who plays the lead, Harold Ryan, explained, “I understand the controversy, I understand the difficulty, and I understand where people are coming from and the want for inclusion because that’s definitely a problem and needs to be fixed, but I don’t think there was any hostility or bad intentions, if anything it was overlooked.”