An Open Letter To Our Students

June 16, 2020

This is a hard time, a painful time, and a time for truth-telling and revelation. You have had to live through the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, Black American citizens who should still be with their family, friends, and us. These injustices are recent, but they are not new. Many of you have been moved to participate in public or virtual demonstrations. You have done this even as the COVID-19 pandemic has presented obstacles to in-person organizing and public gathering.  We, the faculty and staff, stand proud of you for these actions and recognize the real risks you have taken on.

On June 4, the Clarence Brown Theatre and the Department of Theatre received a letter from our BIPOC students and alumni. That letter detailed a failure to recruit and retain BIPOC faculty and staff, an exploitation of BIPOC students and alumni in promotional materials, and a lack of training to protect BIPOC students and workers.

We thank our BIPOC students and alumni for this letter. We acknowledge the extra labor performed and the extra trauma experienced by our BIPOC students and alumni. Between the receipt of the letter and now, the faculty and staff have been engaged in much soul-searching. Many of us chose the theatre as a profession because it is where we have been deeply moved or challenged. We have reflected on where we have fallen short, sometimes repeatedly. We have not always made our BIPOC students feel welcome or safe in our academic programs or theatres. And this is unacceptable.

We hear you and we see you. And we sincerely apologize.

We reaffirm what we declared in our public statement on June 1, 2020:  Black Lives Matter. In this month of June—a month that celebrates and agitates for emancipation and liberation—we begin by committing ourselves to better listening and witnessing. We commit ourselves to do better.

We also understand that our words and intentions must be accompanied by meaningful action to shape our shared future. We are working with the Office of Diversity and Engagement and Teaching and Learning Innovation to set up a task force to change system-level practices in faculty and staff recruitment and retention, undergraduate and graduate pedagogy, antiracist training, and audience relations. This task force will meet during Academic Year 2020-21.

During the current summer recess, many faculty and staff are participating in antiracist training. Some faculty have revised course syllabi to include more representation from BIPOC playwrights and artists. Future production programming is also under review with similar goals in mind. We believe that the adoption of more just, equitable, and antiracist practices will improve the learning, training, and artistic achievement of our current and future students. We are committed to the hard work of transformative change.

To be transparent and increase communication, you can expect an announcement of the chair and members of this task force on September 1, 2020. We need your voices in this process.  If you are a current undergraduate or graduate student who is interested in serving on this task force, you should email Associate Head Prof. Casey Sams (jsams1@utk.edu) by August 1, 2020. All students can expect triannual updates on the efforts, findings, and recommendations of this task force on November 1, 2020, March 1, 2021, and May 1, 2021.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of the building of the Clarence Brown Theatre. Our stages are currently dark.  It is our aspiration that during this period of temporary ghost light that our task force and our collective efforts will lead us to a more inclusive and equitable re-building of the Clarence Brown for another 50 years of theatrical education and production in East Tennessee. It is our hope that you will join with us in lighting the way to a brighter future.

The Faculty and Staff of the Clarence Brown Theatre and the Department of Theatre