Being Antiracist in Our Musical Theatre Repertoire Choices

We can no longer ignore the cry for change and justice that has been ringing throughout this country, our neighborhoods, and institutions of education. What change can singers and voice teachers bring to this industry and to the world? The arts are a powerful way of examining society and advocating for change. As two white artists, we have been in conversation about how we want to continue to learn and grow personally by making our practices more inclusive. We share these thoughts with our fellow white artists with the hope that these ideas may create space for continued conversation and action so thatas singers and voice teachers of all identities, races, and music genreswe can use our skills and talents together to begin a process of change. 

Whiteness is the standard to which most musical theatre repertoire is held. Therefore, those that have been socialized as white tend to unconsciously uphold this standard within our teaching—this is called implicit bias*. (See Endnote 1 at the bottom) This approach is comfortable, familiar, and what is taught in most degree programs. This standard upholds and enforces white supremacy* (See Endnote 2 at the bottom) and can be deeply harmful to our students and our performances. 

Now let’s be clear: “No one is born racist or antiracist; these result from the choices we make. Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily.”* (See Endnote 3 at the bottom) And so, it is essential as practitioners and students alike that we choose to commit to antiracist* (See Endnote 4 at the bottom)practices in our lives and our work. So you, like us, may be wondering, “Where do I begin?” 

Here are some guidelines to consider for choosing repertoire for our voice students that can support antiracism in our studios and institutions. 

Inclusive Repertoire 

First, consider repertoire that students can be successful singing. Our implicit bias may lead us to believe that certain types of music require more skill than others or that, in order to be considered a skillful singer, one must be able to sing certain kinds of music. Also, our implicit bias may be informing the process we use to create balanced and healthy voice functions. 

Based upon the student’s experience, background, and former training, if any, choose repertoire that is appropriate for their skill level, inclusive of their identity and experience, and that will help them to expand their skill set. 

Listen 

The second thing that we must be willing to do is to listen. In any healthy relationship—whether with a family member, partner, spouse, work associate, or neighbor—we must be willing to listen and hear what others are saying. This is why white people should not sing repertoire that is giving voice to people of color. 

In a white-dominated industry and society, white people have had a good long opportunity to speak. As white people, our voices are not oppressed or eliminated if we choose to be silent while listening to the other half in our relationship. If we want to foster healthy interracial relationships, we need to make space for everyone to have an opportunity to speak, while we intently listen. This may include letting go of restrictions that limit BIPOC* (See Endnote 5 at the bottom)to certain music styles or stock characters, or even solely to repertoire written for characters representing BIPOC. 

Part of listening is creating safer spaces for BIPOC students to share and express themselves. To start this process, we must be committed to building foundations of trust and transparency with our students and collaborators. As Mina Kawahara, a student of color at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, shares with us, “Listening is so important, but so is allowing there to be space for BIPOC to figure out how to voice their needs and wants. Most likely, they haven’t been given a lot of opportunity to voice them, and allowing them to explore that is so wonderful and important!”* (See Endnote 6 at the bottom)

Let Go 

The third thing that we can do is let go. We can let go of practices in musical theatre that don’t allow space for untold stories and traditions. This may require looking beyond Western music and theatre and inviting our students’ identities into the work. 

There are decades of musical theatre referred to as Golden Age. What if we sang the Golden Age classics a little less and made more room for the not yet classics of underrepresented lyricists and composers. Would musical theatre really cease to thrive? 

Letting go also includes letting go of traditions in what has been called type casting. This includes expanding casting to marginalized races, body shapes, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and disabilities. As voice teachers, we don’t generally cast shows, but we do choose repertoire for our students to sing, and traditionally that has been based on their “castability.” 

Collaboration 

When choosing a student’s repertoire consider the student’s essence or energy as well as their identities. Essence is based in their personality and is a core factor in traditional castability. As we support antiracism, we can move beyond traditional castability that excludes our identities and instead embrace skin color, body shape, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and maybe even age—all of which influence one’s essence. As we observe our students and even the people around us, we will find those that move at a faster pace, are still and calculated, funny and witty, clumsy, innocent, charming, etc. We can use these characteristics to guide us to the repertoire and characters that fit our students. 

This does not mean that someone who manifests a funny quirky personality should only sing repertoire suited to character roles. Based on their experiences and identities, we can use repertoire that allows them to explore less prominent personality traits and also allows them to explore different voice functions and timbres. As we become more inclusive and collaborative in our repertoire choices, space is made for students to be co-creators in their own skill building, process, and artistry. 

Amplifying BIPOC Voices 

Finally, teachers have an opportunity to amplify BIPOC voices. If you are a private voice teacher, ask yourself, “How am I inviting my student’s voice, choice, and various identities into our collaborations?” If you work within institutions, ask yourself, “How can I amplify the voices of my BIPOC colleagues, ask for more BIPOC leadership, and include more BIPOC artists in my curriculum and repertoire?” It is, after all, the work of voice teachers to help develop the healthy function and expressivity of voices, so let’s include all of them! 

These kinds of “frequent, consistent, equitable choices” like considering inclusive repertoire, listening, letting go, collaboration, and amplifying BIPOC voices are the beginnings of change. These suggestions are by no means a complete offering, but represent where we are personally. We hope that this can be a loving invitation to all—to join in the process of change as we become better teachers, artists, and humans. 

Endnotes 

  1. Implicit bias (also referred to as unconscious bias) is the process of associating stereotypes or attitudes toward categories of people without conscious awareness—which can result in actions and decisions that are at odds with one’s conscious beliefs about fairness and equality. Kathleen Osta and Hugh Vasquez, “Implicit Bias and Structural Racialization,” National Equity Project, 2019. www.nationalequityproject.org/frameworks/implicit-bias-structural-racialization
  2. When the phrase “white supremacy” is used, often a visual of white hoods and the KKK comes to mind, which is the most extreme and overt use of the phrase. In this context, however, we are referring to white supremacy culture, which can be defined as “the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.” “White Supremacy Culture,” dRworksBook, www.dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html. 
  3. “Being Antiracist,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/being-antiracist. 
  4. Ibram X. Kendi explains, “To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right—inferior or superior—with any of the racial groups.” How to Be an Antiracist, One World, 2019. 
  5. Stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. There has been much discussion about the use of this term over the years. We acknowledge that as white authors, our use of this term may carry the weight of not being specific enough and may also be a dated term very soon. Currently, we are using this term because it is what we have seen used in racial justice organizing circles we have been a part of, and we are open to learning more inclusive language to be as respectful as possible in the future. 
  6. Mina Kawahara via email dated November 2, 2020.

Authors

Christy Turnbow is currently teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has taught at Montclair State University, Penn State University, and Brigham Young University. She earned an MFA in musical theater voice teaching from Penn State University and a BM from Brigham Young University in vocal performance and pedagogy. She has been seen in leading roles in regional music theatre productions and national tours. She can be contacted at cturnbow@bcb.berklee.edu.

Shanti Rose holds an MA in applied theatre practice and pedagogy from the City University of New York. She is a theatre director, facilitator, and educator specializing in interactive facilitation, ritual performance, and devised theatre. Rose has worked with communities across the U.S., Europe, and North Africa devising theatre and leading workshops around racial justice and social change. Her artistic practice is rooted in remembering and linking the past and present through oral storytelling, deconstructing white history, community organizing, and action planning.

Christy Turnbow

  Christy Turnbow is currently teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has taught at Montclair State University, Penn State University, and Brigham Young University. She earned an MFA in musical theater voice teaching from Penn State University and a BM from Brigham Young University in vocal performance and pedagogy. She has been seen in leading roles in regional music theatre productions and national tours.