Photo by Cory Koehler

Faith Parris ’24 dances in ‘Exhibit Noir’

November 17, 2020

Special Feature: Cultural Changes in Cornell PMA

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Virtual Vibrance was held electronically on Halloween. Viewers got to see two events over the course of the day; both were created by Black women. The first event, “Exhibit Noir” featured three Black female dancers, including creator Faith Parris ’24, who all performed different cultural dances of the African diaspora. They wore masks to obscure their faces while they danced in front of a white male spectator. The second exhibit “In the Parlor” was a table reading of the play by playwright Judy Tate, directed by Cornell’s Carley Robinson ’21. 

Virtual Vibrance represents a big shift in the Cornell Performance and Media Arts Department, which has struggled with diversity and inclusion in the past. Since an open letter written to the University over the summer, and the recent spike in awareness of the systemic racism against people of color, Cornell PMA has worked to address these complaints and adjust performances and syllabi to better meet the needs of their students. Prof. Nick Salvato, performing and media arts, believes Virtual Vibrance is a good example of what the department needs to be doing to support their BIPOC students, he explained how “We [as faculty] have an obligation to offer more robust support to the projects that BIPOC students helm… [This was] achieved in the case of Virtual Vibrance, so I see the project as modeling good practices for the future.”

Parris felt fortunate that she got to take part in this. “I’m very surprised that this is happening in my first year,” she said. “But Cornell made it very welcoming … I had a ton of support.” 

“Exhibit Noir” was a very personal event for Parris, as she used it as a way for her to explore her own blackness and as a way to address the recent social movements. The final dance in the sequence of three dances was danced by Parris, the only one without a mask, to represent her celebrating her own liberation and culture as an Afro-Carribean woman. 

However, she recognized that her experience in getting to tell her story isn’t universal at Cornell: “I do appreciate Cornell’s transparency in the fact that they acknowledge the strides that weren’t taken in the past and how rare this experience actually is. Coming here I thought, ‘This is amazing! Students get all of their stories told and their voices heard!’ But that isn’t as true as we would like it to be.”

Robinson also recognizes the significance of this event, and extends her thanks to the graduate students for it: “[Virtual Vibrance] was originally the graduate students’ slot, and they decided, unprompted, that they were going to reach out to the undergrads like ‘Hey, we know you have been incredibly ignored in the department. We have the power and the platform to help you do whatever it is you want to do.’”

Robinson tried to make her reading of “In the Parlor” a safe haven for its participants, emulating what she hopes for the Cornell PMA department will one day be, “The department has this elitism that is rampant throughout the theater community, that [the performance] has to be perfect… but the industry standard is unsustainable … and if I have 100 pages of reading per class, per week, and then on top of that rehearsals are 24 hours a week? It’s like, we are students!” As such, and knowing the constraints of the virtual format, Robinson lessened the time commitment for rehearsals from what a normal production would require, and opted to do a table read. 

This allowed her to get closer to the people she was working with and bring students who weren’t in Ithaca or who did not have as much performance experience into the production. “I try to get people who I don’t know or who had a terrible audition into the room,” she explained. “Once you get them introduced and comfortable in the department, then anyone can make art.” 

One of these artists is Amaris Henderson ’21, a friend of Robinson. Henderson, despite being a senior majoring in PMA with a concentration in acting, has not had the chance to perform. “I’ve never been in a show before [“In the Parlor”], and I’m probably not the only senior who has had this experience,” she discussed. “I don’t necessarily think that it’s been by choice, but rather it has been due to lack of clear information as to what opportunities are out there.” She tried to get performance experience outside of the department, through clubs and organizations but was denied. “I wish I could have joined more musical groups that are welcoming. It was really strange that I wanted to perform, and since my department wasn’t giving that to me I went out [to other performing arts opportunities and groups] and I still got told no.” 

She discussed how discouraging the audition process was, “I have auditioned … but I never got called back, which I thought was weird because I’m a major and my concentration is in acting. I think there hasn’t been open arms for people like me, and sometimes you start to notice that the same people get casted in every show and it turns you off from auditioning again.”

Henderson feels that the department should be more considerate for the students in its major: “The department is more catered to minors than it is majors, but there’s so few majors that I wish they took care of us better and made us feel special. If the department is even going to bother with making a sequence and [acting] concentration, they should at least promise their students that they will be given a space to act.”

However, she thinks that the students who often get cast repeatedly could help address this problem. “We need to learn to be unselfish when it comes to opportunities,” she notes. “If we know we have done something plenty of times say ‘hey, it’s time to sit down and let someone else go in and take that opportunity.’ Students should encourage their classmates to audition, and professors should too and help their students prepare for it.” 

Besides a lack of opportunities to perform, many students also struggle to find opportunities for genuine mentorship within the department. Allen Porterie ’20 comments: “Many of the faculty members have these connections to working directors and actors and they aren’t really leveraging them all the time, which leaves a lot of students of color out of the loop. I had to create a lot of opportunities for myself with my friends in the department in order to grow.”

An important way that PMA has worked towards addressing this need is by increasing faculty diversity. Professor Salvato reflects: “My department’s faculty was almost entirely white when I came here in 2006. Since that time, we’ve significantly diversified our faculty to include a number of BIPOC professors.” 

Certain faculty, such as Professors Jeff Palmer, Ellen Gainor, Aoise Stratford, Sabine Haenni, and Samantha Sheppard — all PMA — were cited by the students as being positive influences and figures who made them feel welcomed and seen in the department. 

Henderson discusses the progress she has seen in terms of the way faculty interact with their students, “Professors are starting to pay attention to their BIPOC students… The other day I got an email by one of the professors saying that they heard I was a great writer and musician and they wanted me to make a piece… The fact that I got that email shows the department is changing and they should continue that process.”

The most impactful way the department has tried to remedy its student’s grievances is by increasing student participation in the Performance & Events Committee. Robinson applauds the changes that this shift has brought: “The Performance and Events Committee has basically been revamped … They have been extremely willing to take feedback and… have listened when we say these are our opinions but this is a lot of labor, and it is not our job as students to fix the department, it is yours as faculty.”

The students have plenty of ideas on how to better the department, and are excited to be able to share them and see these changes take place. Henderson explains her ideas: “One of my dreams for the department is for them to start hosting open mic nights … so artists can come out and get that good practice. If we are going to encourage students to be performers there needs to be an opportunity for students to put all their tools into practice before they graduate.” 

Another important way to get BIPOC students more involved in the department is by putting on productions to which they can relate. A principal complaint from PMA students of color has always been the lack of opportunities to tell diverse stories. Robinson explains how this struggle led to her wanting to be involved in Virtual Vibrance. “I wanted to create a space [with “In the Parlor”] where people could celebrate people of color,” she said. “A lot of our performances are centered on white stories and whtie voices, but it is important for us to see and to be seen.” 

Amaris hopes for more reflection within the department when they decide what shows to put on: “Something really critical to our curriculum is this question of why this performance, and why now. I think this is something that the faculty needs to hold true to themselves when reviewing material, and I don’t always think they do.”

Porterie claims that “the faculty… make a lot of safe, comfortable decisions. That means doing shows that are usually white and that leaves students of color uncomfortable even auditioning for shows because we don’t relate, care, or want to do it.” 

Porterie, when looking back at his time at Cornell feels that students can force the change they want to see in the department. “Students run the campus, we are the customers, so we need to always put pressure on the administration,” he said. “Until that pressure is put on the department nothing will change.”

Carley echoes the importance of the student’s role in changing the department, and feels optimistic that the change is arriving thanks to the students’ hard work, and that there’s no turning back. “If [change] is not coming, we are going to make it happen. Students are not sitting back anymore. We created Virtual Vibrance without the help of leadership or faculty. These things are going to keep happening until you fix it, so fix it.” 

Christina Ochoa is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at co234@cornell.edu.