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Exploring diversity through drama

Directed by Sarah Ream, a cast of students, faculty and staff gives a funny, poignant reading of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz to a capacity crowd in Exeter’s Lamont Gallery.

Melanie Nelson
October 30, 2017
Students and faculty reading Anna in the Tropics.

Sarah Ream (left) introduces the cast of Anna in the Tropics.

“How do we work not just on diversity, but also on inclusion?”

That question, posed by Principal Lisa MacFarlane at a cultural competency training for Exeter adults in late August, got the gears spinning in Sarah Ream’s mind. “I love going to the theater and reading plays,” explains Ream, who is currently serving as chair of the Department of Theater and Dance. “As a result, I have a backlog of plays I’d like to do with students, including a number of great plays by playwrights of color.”

MacFarlane’s question, and the Academy’s continuing dialogue around issues of diversity and inclusion at Exeter, also prompted Ream to reflect on her own experiences with theater as a young woman in San Francisco. “We had really outstanding regional theaters, like American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where I grew up,” she explains. “However, today, theater is expensive, and many of our students haven’t grown up seeing plays. Doing these readings is my way of getting more playwrights and plays into the minds and hearts of our kids.” The idea of doing readings, versus staged productions, was appealing, Ream explains, because “readings don’t require a huge time commitment.”

Once the concept percolated, Ream’s next step was to share it with others in the community. Her first stop was Exeter’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, where she met with Associate Dean Hadley Camilus, who offered valuable feedback about the kind of play with which Ream might inaugurate the series and the importance of casting readers from the same cultural groups as the subjects of the plays. From there, Ream met with various affinity groups on campus and with the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee. It was students from these organizations, explains Ream, who suggested holding the reading in the Lamont Gallery to give it a coffeehouse feel.

For the inaugural reading, Ream selected Anna in the Tropics, which garnered Cuban-American Nilo Cruz the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in a cigar factory in Tampa, Florida, in 1929, the play tells the story of a group of Cuban-American cigar rollers who hire a lector to read to them as they toil away in the tropical heat. The lector selects as his novel Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, from which the play draws its name.

Ream cast the reading entirely with Latinx and Spanish-speaking members of the Academy community, including Fermin Perez-Andreu and Jackie Flores of Modern Languages, Nahin Jorgge of Admissions, Javier Londono of Campus Safety, and students Raymond Alvarez-Adorno ’19, Rose Martin ’19, Paula Perez-Glassner ’20 and Emmanuel Vasquez ’20. While she personally approached these community members to ask them to participate, Ream says that if the readings “gain traction, then the hope is that students, faculty and staff will volunteer” for future productions.

Held on a Sunday afternoon, the reading drew a much larger than expected crowd of students, faculty, staff and greater Exeter community members. Gathered at seats around small café tables, on benches situated along the back and sides of the Lamont Gallery, and even in stadium seats on the floor, they watched as Ream introduced the readers, and then invited two students to commence the production with a protest song interspersed with spoken word poetry. Directed by Ream herself, the reading then got under way, drawing numerous laughs in the first act, before transitioning in the second act to a more somber tone. Parallels between the love lives of the characters in the novel and those in the play abound and lead eventually to the shocking climax.

With one very successful event now in the bag, Ream, who hopes to offer readings at the beginning and end of each term, is already considering her next playwrights and plays. “David Henry Hwang comes to mind as so many of his works explore what it’s like to have a foot in two different cultures,” says Ream. “Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, which is set on Martha’s Vineyard and considers race and class, would also be great, as would Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, which focuses on race, masculinity and homosexuality in professional sports. They are plays that stand on their own as wonderful works of drama, while reflecting the experiences of many groups of people. They also speak to the emotional quality of identity, which in turn fosters empathy. What better way to get at inclusion?”