Posted on June 1, 2021

The Revolution Comes to Juilliard

Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, May 23, 2021


In September 2020, the Juilliard School’s Drama Division announced a series of “community meetings” to address “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (EDIB) issues.” The school’s growing cadre of diversity bureaucrats would discuss Juilliard’s’ “anti-racism work.” The head of the Center for Racial Healing would give a presentation. Workshops would address such topics as “race in rehearsal” and “voice and speech and race.” NYU theater professor Michael McElroy, one of the school’s two external diversity consultants, would offer a three-day seminar in black musical culture.

These Drama Division meetings were part of Juilliard’s broader effort to bring race into all its activities, including music and dance. Damian Woetzel, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, became Juilliard’s president in July 2018 and proceeded to put increasing bureaucratic clout behind the concept that Juilliard has a racism problem. The school added diversity curricula and audition requirements. It beefed up its system for reporting bias incidents. It mandated diversity workshops for faculty and students.

Those efforts picked up steam after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Within a week, Woetzel and the EDIB taskforce had sent out three schoolwide emails on the “work” Juilliard still needed to do to become an “anti-racist community.” The school sponsored a blacks-only “healing” space. It recommended that students and faculty read the books of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Michelle Alexander to understand systemic racism.

On June 11, 2020, Juilliard’s provost, Ara Guzelimian, circulated a student petition. Lending an administration email account to a student communiqué violated school protocol, but the Juilliard Student Congress’s “Call to Action” was important enough to justify the exception, wrote Guzelimian in his cover letter.

The Call to Action charged Juilliard with “systemic injustice.” It demanded an end to the school’s “almost completely Eurocentric” faculty, curriculum, and performances and a “complete in-person season featuring the works of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] artists.” It called on Juilliard to create #BreonnaTaylor and #GeorgeFloyd scholarships in music, drama, and dance.

In early August 2020, the school’s black drama students issued their own Letter of Demands. The Drama Division student body is over 50 percent “BIPOC” with nearly all of those BIPOC students being black. That 50 percent black share of the student body is unlikely to have arisen spontaneously. Blacks are 12 percent of the national population, and there is no indication that they disproportionately study drama in high school and college. Yet the black drama students’ letter portrayed the Drama Division as nearly lethally bigoted. Its “racist environment is hazardous to BIPOC students’ bodies,” the letter charged. “Some students are silenced, broken, and limited by racism within the Drama Division . . . [They] have to endure harm and violence [and] sacrifice their physical and mental health every day in this institution.”

It was against this backdrop of increasing racial hysteria that Michael McElroy’s three-day “Roots to Rep” drama workshop took place. The workshop would combine history, research, and music to explore the journey of black people in this country, McElroy explained, with a specific emphasis on the way “the Negro spiritual . . . is the foundation of so many musical genres today.” McElroy asked students to prepare for the workshop by writing a paragraph about a key event in the history of black enslavement. The president of Juilliard’s Black Student Union, Marion Grey, saw this requirement as identity-threatening, but she kept her objections to herself, she told American Theater, in order to test whether the school would “protect” her in the face of such a racial assault.

On the workshop’s first day, McElroy offered a trigger warning that the forthcoming audio exercise contained the “N word.” Students could leave the Zoom session anytime they wanted, McElroy said. The lesson began with an auditory recreation of the African slave trade. A march through the jungle was followed by a slave auction, with the auctioneer extolling a “fine Black pearl” who would raise her owner “a fine litter of pickaninnies.” During this soundscape, the black students were texting each other about how “utterly broken” they were by the exercise, according to Grey, while white students and faculty, as well as a few black students, participated in the workshop without protest. Afterward, the white students recounted how moving the experience had been.


McElroy had offered this workshop numerous times before without provoking a similar meltdown. The slave-auction dialogue was taken from the widely aired miniseries Roots. The historical record contains no indication that Roots generated trauma when it was released in 1977. But Juilliard immediately terminated McElroy’s workshop and went into crisis mode. The president and provost met with Grey and her black peers. The administration launched new investigations of racial issues. Grey was not impressed. Despite getting an audience with the school’s top leadership, she did not feel “truly supported,” she told American Theater. She was the victim of a “culture of silencing.” Apparently Grey and her fellow students could not provide actual examples of such silencing, but that inability only proves how serious the silencing is. “Asking us the question, ‘When have you felt silenced?’ does not mean you will get an answer, especially when you’re not in the practice of making space for the student’s voice,” she said.

After spurning months of administrative outreach, Grey ratcheted up the pressure. On April 21, 2021, she released a teary video decrying the racism of what she called “Slavery Saturday.” “It’s maddening to have your humanity so disrespected, to have something done to you that is so wrong. It is so wrong,” she told the camera. A petition accompanying the video demanded the decolonization of the Drama Division and the hiring of an outside consultant to analyze the “inequitable, anti-black, and racist structures and systems that are built into the architecture of the Juilliard culture.” Grey claimed to be frightened that Juilliard would retaliate against her. “It’s terrifying to put myself on the line but I know my worth, I know that a wrong has been done to me.’’

The chance that Juilliard would offer any opposition to Grey’s video, much less retaliate against her for posting it, was zero. Two days after the video was released, Woetzel sent out a schoolwide email. {snip}

Woetzel was implicitly accusing McElroy, who is black himself, of putting Juilliard’s black students at risk through an “ill-conceived” historical recreation. The school did not respond to an inquiry asking whether Woetzel had sought McElroy’s perspective before calling his presentation “ill-conceived.” The school also refused to spell out what exactly was “problematic” about the exercise or what criteria Juilliard would use in the future to ensure that pedagogy “protects members of [the] community.” (McElroy declined to be interviewed for this article.)


The idea that the recreation of the auction violated Juilliard’s duty to “protect” its students would rule out a large portion of dramatic art. {snip}


Racial identity is also the key to evading colorblind behavioral standards. The drama students demand that every black student on probation for missing or being late to class be taken off probation and his record wiped clean, since Juilliard’s attendance policies have a disparate impact on black students. Any white students on probation for missing class will stay under discipline. Juilliard’s self-described “rigorous” class schedule is “deeply rooted in capitalist and white supremacist hegemony.” It, too, should change to “prioritize the physical and mental health needs of the student body.”


Juilliard’s ferment is nothing compared with the theater world as a whole, however (or compared with the classical music world, as described in City Journal’s upcoming summer issue.) During last summer’s George Floyd riots, a manifesto appeared online: “We See You White American Theater” (We See You W.A.T.). Rambling and repetitious, the document justified its redundancies as a “reflection of the significance [of those repeated demands] to the constituents” and as “also due to the interdependent functioning of the theatrical ecosystem.” Its inconsistent “tones and formatting styles” were designed to “retain our orality,” a technique “designed to hold the multiplicity and urgency we lay claim to given the persistent devaluation of our voices.” We See You W.A.T. insisted that “radical change on both cultural and economic fronts” was required to eradicate white supremacy.


{snip} Regional theaters have been falling all over themselves trying to comply with the usual quota demands: casts, directors, and artistic staff must be over 50 percent minority, according to the online manifesto. There have been purges. In Philadelphia, the nonprofit PlayPenn, which supports the development of new work, fired its associate artistic director after receiving allegations that it “was not meeting community members’ expectations for racial and cultural competence,” reported the New York Times in September 2020. In Georgia, the Serenbe Playhouse laid off its entire staff following allegations of racism.

We See You W.A.T. demanded that half of Broadway shows should be plays “written by, for and about BIPOC.” Every new play on Broadway next season will be by a black author. We See You W.A.T. demanded that half of Broadway theaters should be renamed after artists of color and that theaters forswear advertising in any press outlet where the reporters and critics are less than 50 percent POC. Those two demands have been slower to yield results.

One president of a regional theater describes the present moment. This president is self-consciously “bean-counting, trying to hit racial quotas with plays and actors,” even though the community the theater serves is overwhelmingly white. The theater’s young employees “get all het up” over any diversity shortcoming. “Why did you use a white this or a white that?” they complain. The president asked the theater’s financial chief if he could name one “cisgender” white male director the company had hired over the last three years. There were none. On Broadway there have been no straight white guys running things for years, the president observes. Gay white guys will be the next target.

This theater veteran knows 40 to 50 theater professionals who have left the profession or are about to do so, “so toxic” has the environment become. Any alternative perspective or criticism becomes: “You do not respect us.” If a voice coach observes that a student’s voice is not coming from his core, the student will respond: “That is because I don’t feel comfortable in class with you.”

An arts consultant reports the “unspoken fear” of theater leaders: they will put on quota-filling plays, and no one will come. “I have talked to long time audience members who have no interest in seeing much of this new work,” whose main purpose is to indict white America, the consultant says.