This past Friday, conversations about diversity were flowing throughout Ness Auditorium when members of the Wittenberg community came to listen and share their thoughts on what it’s like to be African American on campus.
The discussion was hosted by Wittenberg’s Concerned Black Students and Shades of Pearl as a response to the play that the theatre department performed called “Dry Land.” More specifically, they wanted to focus on the raciest joke that was told during the play and the effect it had among campus members. There were six students acting as a panel to help guide conversation.
Prior to the discussion, panel members had gathered responses from African American students about their experience at Wittenberg. One student said they feel called out and obligated to respond whenever a racial issue is brought up in their classes. Another student says that she feels like she must whiten herself up to fit in with the rest of the students on campus.
After the audience put themselves in the places of these students, the question was asked: “Is there diversity in the theatre department? Not just with students, but with the art they perform.” Silence filled the room until one panel member addressed the elephant in the room and gave her response to the offensive joke that was made in the play “Dry Land.”
“When I heard that joke, it completely took me out of the world of the play,” Janita Portis-Aikens, ‘18, said. “I began wondering if this is what my classmates really think of me. To me, that joke meant what comes out of my womb isn’t worth living and if it does, then it’s just going to become a criminal.”
“This is a form of epistemic violence and it can’t be tolerated here,” Sha’Dawn Battle, an English professor, said.
Battle and other members of the audience acknowledged the fact that no one from the theatre department has ever apologized for the incident; they just keep receiving justification of it. Faculty from the theatre department took the mic and let the audience know how they felt about the situation and why the play, and that particular joke, was approved.
Darin Keesing, assistance professor for theatre and dance, said that when the play was going through the approval process and they were reading it, the joke didn’t hit them on paper. They didn’t anticipate the audience’s reaction. The entire play is intense, since it’s a drama about abortion, so he didn’t think it that the joke was too far in that situation.
The audience couldn’t contain their emotions any longer as Battle and others began to demand an apology. Patrick Reynolds took the mic and gave the audience what they wanted. He spoke about how this piece of art never intended to offend or wound anyone, they admitted to their mistake and promised to use this as a learning point for the future. Half of the audience thanked him, while others claimed that was not an apology, but more justification.
The audience let their frustrations be known; the more things change, the more they stay the same. The problem it isn’t just about the joke that was made. The problem is with a lack of effort when dealing with diversity.
“Take a look around the room, only African Americans and people from the theatre department are here, there isn’t any white students,” shouted a male audience member. “Whenever we have diversity events, Wittenberg never advertises them and the students who actually need to be here and learn something don’t come.”