As BIPOC theatre alumni attempt to change their department, Rahat Saini reflects on her racialized experiences at the Phoenix Theatre

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phoenix theatre
File photo by Belle White

Rahat Saini didn’t really feel like a “visible minority” until she got to UVic. But in the Phoenix Theatre department’s performance program, nearly every student and professor was white.

At first, this didn’t really bother Saini. She was a keen student in the acting program and, like many first years, was bright-eyed at the prospect of acting at UVic. In her third year, Saini was cast in her first main stage show.

One of the scheduled shows for the Phoenix Theatre’s 2018 season was set to be Beth Henley’s 1979 drama, Crimes of the Heart. Some students did not want to audition for it out of protest.

“[Some] students took issue with the selection of that play because the context of the play and the way that it was written … these characters are explicitly white,” Saini said.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong [with a play with white characters]” she adds. “There’s a lot of plays about white people, but if you are requiring me to be cast in shows … that I physically cannot be cast in, that is discrimination, plain and simple.”

She says many students planned not to audition for the show. The theatre department changed the audition process — there would be one general audition for all of the shows. Saini feels this may have been done to pressure actors who felt uncomfortable with the play into auditioning. In the performance program, students are required to be in three main stage shows to graduate.

Saini was cast in the adapted Shakespeare show Comedy of Errors as “Roxanna” — a made-up character that wasn’t in the original Shakespeare version. When she finally got her hands on the script just weeks before rehearsals began, the first page opened with 14 lines for Roxanna. But as Saini skimmed through the rest of the pages, Roxanna had no other lines.

In a text message exchange with the director, Saini asks about the script. The director said he “believes strongly in supporting distinct voices that have the courage to speak up,” and he wanted her “strong presence” to show the audience that “this ain’t your parents’ Shakespeare.”

The show was marketed as a pop-musical version of Shakespeare’s original classic, with Mardi Gras-themed elements. Many Mardi Gras traditions are Black American.

“This pop musical reboot of Shakespeare’s shortest and funniest comedy features a pair of twins – twice! – that get mixed up during Mardi Gras,” a promotional video’s caption describes. “Shakespeare’s verse is cleverly integrated into songs inspired by Beyoncé, Queen, Justin Timberlake and more.”

At the beginning of the play Saini had to rap some Black Eyed Peas lyrics and “make googly eyes” with one of the white male leads. At a later point in the show, Saini twerked to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. It made her uncomfortable, to say the least.

“The level of exotification, the level of disrespect that I felt as a woman of colour cannot be explained,” Saini said. “I was being exotified and belittled on stage.”

During the winter break and before rehearsals were set to start in January, Saini received an email advising her of her professor’s concerns about her tardiness. The next email she received was a Google Calendar invitation to a “probation meeting,” even though Saini’s GPA was well above 2.0.

Probation is a serious thing. In most faculties, a student with an average of 2.0 or lower will be placed on probation. After someone is placed on probation, the department can require them to withdraw from the department if their record doesn’t improve. After asking more questions about her alleged probation, Saini received a Google Calendar notification that the probation meeting was cancelled. Instead, she met with all of her professors individually about their courses. But that probation email still scared her, and she believes that it wasn’t an appropriate disciplinary action.

“I can only draw the connections that I feel are there,” she said.

“It’s, to me, not a coincidence that I was being given a made-up probation at the same time that I was being treated like shit in a rehearsal room, specifically for speaking out against racism,” Saini said. “And I wasn’t only calling out racism in the rehearsal room, I was calling it out in my classes. Safe to say, the department didn’t love me for it.”

In fourth year, things changed — Saini was finally cast in a challenging role in The Drowsy Chaperone (1998). Saini credits the guest director, someone from outside the theatre department, for seeing the potential in her and another racialized male lead. It was the most successful show in the history of the Phoenix Theatre and was held over.

In the next season’s main stage show, she was cast as an elderly Indian lady. She wanted to perform the role authentically, and worked hard to perfect her accent. The show, Seven Stories, was also held over.

“I garnered so much respect and love for that performance, and I’m so grateful for that opportunity.”

Now, Saini is working with a group of BIPOC alumni to voice her concerns to the department.

“There’s something bigger than us going on right now … bigger than me, bigger than the Phoenix, bigger than UVic … there is a huge conversation happening about racism and how it affects everything.”

Last month, Anthony Vickery, the theatre department’s Chair, released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter movement and committing to addressing racism in the department. In response to the allegations Saini raises in this article, Vickery said the department is committed to doing the work to stand against racism. 

“I acknowledge that former practices at the department have not upheld the values of respect and inclusions that the department and UVic is committed to,” Vickery said. “I — and the department — take these incidences and the harm they may have caused very seriously … racism is pervasive across society and we know for far too many, it is a systemic, embedded reality of everyday life, casting a pall of undue risk, suffering and harm.”

A BIPOC alumni group has met with the department to administer a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee to support BIPOC students, work on bringing in more BIPOC professionals as guest artists, and hiring more BIPOC as faculty. Vickery acknowledged these suggestions in his statement, saying that he looks forward to working with the alumni group.

“I know that this is only the beginning of a long process — a process that needs to be open and transparent and available to any of our students, alumni, faculty and/or staff,” Vickery said.

The alumni group has also published a letter and a set of demands, signed by more than 100 alumni and students from the Phoenix and other UVic departments, such as writing. One of the demands is that the department commits to staging more contemporary plays by IBPOC artists. Another asks the department to use a trauma-informed response in their classes as they explore themes such as addiction, racial violence, and sexual assault. As of July 29, over 100 additional signatures have been added after the letter was shared on social media.

Saini has collaborated with the alumni group. She views the present moment as an opportunity to create change in the department, adding that the conversations thus far have been positive. 

“Right now, I’m hopeful,” Saini said. “And more so than anything, I don’t want this pattern to continue.”

A previous version of this story indicated that Saini auditioned for her first main-stage show in her third year. She was actually cast in her third year. Further, the previous version listed that the Drowsy Chaperone was the only show to be held over. This was inaccurate and has since been corrected. We sincerely apologize for these errors.