Kaja Dunn wanted to be an actor since she was about 10.
But her Durham middle school didn’t offer a theater program. “I’m part of the generation where all the arts were cut back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” said the UNC Charlotte assistant professor of acting.
“The summer before high school, I opened a phone book … and found a group called Young People’s Performing Company.” Her mother couldn’t afford tuition, so she worked out a deal to make costumes for the theater in exchange for Dunn’s tuition.
“That was my first taste of the access issue,” Dunn said.
She has worked her whole life to make it easier for people of color to break into acting, and in the process she has become an internationally known expert, lecturer and activist for equity in theater.
On May 22, in a ceremony held via Zoom, Dunn was awarded a Kennedy Center Medallion from the National Committee of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival for her work in addressing racial issues in theater education.
Gentle approach to changes
She found she had an aptitude for teaching while working for Playwrights Project in San Diego. The group works with schools, veterans, prison populations and people experiencing homelessness and helps them tell their stories in the form of playwriting.
“I was good with groups that other actors and directors had trouble with,” Dunn said. In her late 20s, she earned a master of fine arts degree so she could teach at the college level.
Her ability to reach people previously considered “problems” may come from her gentle approach.
“When I went to conservatory, there was a really big push for this ‘break-you-down-to-build-you-up’ technique,” Dunn said. “The idea has some validity — it’s so we teach actors to trust their teachers — but what happened at my undergrad and at a lot of other schools is that people were just broken down. And then they’d leave the field for years.”
Through three conservatories, Dunn never had a teacher of color and had only two female teachers. “I never saw myself,” she said. “I had to learn another culture before my own.
“There’s this myth of universality in the theater that’s actually very narrow,” Dunn said. “It’s Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet. And, these are all great playwrights, but we’re not talking about Lydia Diamond or Dominique Moore or Alice Childress or Pearl Cleage — writers I never got to study.
“The people who were teaching me felt like the stories by O’Neill and Stoppard and the others were universal stories because they were universal to them,” she said. “But we aren’t looking at Alice Childress and going: ‘This, too, is a universal story.’ If you learn to code switch and read my culture the way I’ve learned to read yours, then we have a real basis for understanding.”
White people are allowed to say, “I don’t get it” when it comes to work by Black playwrights and other artists, Dunn said, but people of color don’t have that luxury. “I can’t say that I don’t get Shakespeare,” she said.
The big issue with equity in theater is funding, Dunn said. “Less than 2% of philanthropic funding goes to theaters run by theater makers of color,” she said. “Federal funding, NEA funding — most of it goes to PWIs, predominantly white institutions.”
Racism in theater
Racism shows up in theater in a number of ways — forcing a student to lose his or her ethnic or regional accent, for instance. In California, Dunn auditioned Black and Latinx kids who had gone to theater school and “had their dialects taken away,” she said.
Typecasting is another way people of color are marginalized. Audiences see it in cinema: the Italian mobster. Black pimp. Latinx drug dealer. Middle Eastern terrorist.
“I had a student who is Middle Eastern who didn’t want to speak Arabic in class because she thought she’d have to play a terrorist or an oppressed Muslim woman,” Dunn said. “So, we found a collection of Iranian love stories for her. Speaking Arabic is a huge asset, but when people think about stories for people of color, they often only want to tell the stories of our trauma. We don’t get to tell the stories of our joy.”
Yet Dunn sees reasons for optimism. The discussion on racial equity in theater is happening globally, she said.
“At UNCC, there’s a support system of about 40 African American female faculty, and that has been a godsend,” Dunn said. “Before COVID, we met once a month. We had dinners together, writing groups. It’s been an amazing support system.”
And Dunn finally got to direct students in a Pearl Cleage play at UNCC, in 2019. “I carried around this play called ‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’ since I was 20,” Dunn said. “Bringing it to the stage was incredible.”
Race, intimacy on stage
There’s a gender component to Dunn’s work, too.
“I teach courses on race and intimacy and consent, and we cover the tropes we’ve been taught about Asian women, Latinx women, Black women,” she said.
Intimacy in theater isn’t dealt with delicately or in a healthy way, Dunn said.
”My work involves creating a protective environment, teaching acting students that their bodies are autonomous,” she said. “I tell students: You have a right to say (to a director), ‘You don’t understand my culture. You’re asking me to play a trope I’m not comfortable playing.’ (Actors) become much braver about what they’re willing to do when they know there’s a safety net.”
Dunn’s work goes well beyond campus. She’s head of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for a group called Theatrical Intimacy Education. She’s also a consultant on race for Actor’s Equity Association and a consultant and presenter for other organizations, from Princeton University to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.
While Dunn is making an impact in many places, she sees it up-close with her acting students.
“At UNCC, we’ve started offering professional headshots to each graduating (theater) student,” she said. “It’s one of the best investments we can make. Each student gets a half-hour session and one good headshot. We have students who have national commercials now, who are doing TV — and that doesn’t come just from my teaching. A headshot seems simple, but it’s necessary. And it requires money.”
“Sometimes, what we think of as lack of talent or effort,” she said, “is actually a lack of access.”
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