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  • Shelbi R. Ankiewicz

Theatre department racial reckoning continues

CCU’s theatre department takes center stage on Friday during two meetings designed to address students’ concerns about problems in the department after Professor Steven Earnest was removed from teaching his classes for the remainder of the semester.

A theatre department boycott that started Sept. 20 in Edwards Humanities and Fine Arts Building courtyard was organized by multiple theatre students, including Senior Kelis Herriott. She encouraged that everyone attending the boycott wear black because it is a neutral color in theatre, and protestors commonly use black to symbolize solidarity. Herriott also said students participating in the boycott are not attending theatre classes but are still attending their core classes and rehearsals.

“I don’t think anything will, let’s say, ‘go back to normal,’ because the sense of normality in this department, it is to allow racial insensitivity,” Herriott said.

Herriott said theatre students do not want professors directly involved with the boycott, but that does not mean they cannot support the students. As of Tuesday, at least half of the theatre professors have reached out to students since the boycott began, while others just sat in the courtyard without saying anything, she said.

“I have never seen them [professors] congregate in the courtyard, and they’re always in their offices,” Herriott said. “So these two days y’all decide to come out here and just peek and look over, and it seems a little judgmental… it seems very much like an intimidation tactic.”

Some theatre faculty members including Eric Hall, the chair of the theatre department, have canceled classes for the week, but no faculty have spoken publicly about the issue. On Tuesday, multiple theatre faculty members, including Hall, declined The Chanticleer’s interview requests.

Throughout the week, University administrators have talked to students gathered in the Edwards courtyard for the boycott. No public statement has been issued since University spokesperson Martha Hunn responded Monday to local media requests.

“The leadership of the University and of the Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts are aware of the complaints that some of our theatre students have communicated. We are working to establish the most appropriate path for resolving their concerns,” Hunn said in an email to The Chanticleer.

The Dean of the Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Claudia Bornholdt, said she wants to work together with the students to find a solution and get them back into the classroom.

“I’m not hiding in my office,” Bornholdt said. “I am supporting the department. I am supporting the students, all I can.”

The boycott began Monday after Earnest replied to an email chain sent by Hall to the theatre department’s approximately 150 students and 20 faculty members. The chain’s first email apologized for a list of students’ names left on a theatre classroom whiteboard in the Edwards College. Only students who are people of color were named on the list.

Students were upset when they came to the classroom and saw their names on the board. The incident was reported, and the email sent by Hall included the theatre department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee’s apology.

The email acknowledged the list had been “dehumanizing” and “hurtful.”

Theatre Artist-in-Residence Susan Finque replied to the email chain and said the list was intended to help a student find other students who were people of color. In her reply to the email chain, Finque apologized when she realized her mistake.

Then Earnest replied to the email chain, “Sorry but I dont [sic] think its [sic] a big deal. Im [sic] just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily. And they are going into Theatre?”

Earnest’s comments triggered a firestorm of replies from theatre students.

In a follow-up email, Earnest thanked the students for their “hate mail” and said he was in “just defending our guest artist.”

On Monday, an Official Class Cancellation Form posted on the door of Edwards room 250 greeted students in Earnest’s theatre history and literature class, THEA 361-01. As of Thursday evening, WebAdvisor listed other faculty teaching classes originally assigned to Earnest, including THEA 361. He will continue to earn his salary, which public records list above $93,000 in 2020.

“Given the legal nature of this I have been advised not to make a statement about this,” Earnest said through an email to The Chanticleer. “The text has been made available by those pushing the issue. It’s possible to see everything that was said. I was only encouraging the students to move on from the issue about the list of students. My intent was badly misconstrued but truthfully I should have not made the comment.”

The students’ boycott has attracted local and international media coverage this week.

Herriott said that although Earnest’s comments sparked the student’s boycott, their concerns do not end with him. She said the boycott is against the theatre department as a whole and the racial injustice that is rooted within the program.

In 2020, the theatre department organized a DEI committee following alumni concerns about problems in the department. That committee authored a report that acknowledged multiple concerns from students and alumni about ongoing racism within the department. It also said that the CCU Theatre department was sorry and that they failed their students.

Theatre students and faculty are expected to meet for discussion on Friday, Sept. 24, during the department’s common hour. The meeting will be in Wheelwright Auditorium at 1 p.m. Later in the day on Friday, CCU’s Student Government Association and several campus groups will hold a Town Hall Meeting that is open to all students and faculty. The 4:30 discussion will take place in Johnson Auditorium, which is in Wall room 116.

As the story unfolds, The Chanticleer will release more information.

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