OUR Featured Researcher: Miyah Byers '20
Miyah Byers (she/her) is an Oberlin College Research Fellow (OCRF) doing mentored research with Professor Justin Emeka. She is a cinema studies major and has been conducting research since her sophomore summer. Her project is titled "Moving Beyond Colorblind Casting: A Racially Specific Approach to Directing Classical Theater".
Please describe your research project:
The legacy of American theater has been shaped by the belief that white people and white culture are superior to that of all other human beings. As a result, classical theater largely consists of plays by white authors who tell stories about and for white people. In response, there have been many attempts to invite Black bodies into these white texts, such as
colorblind casting, or the practice “in which actors are cast without regard to race; the best actor for the best role.” However, scholars like Ayanna Thompson have proven that this method can be contradictory and even harmful as it does not address or mitigate whiteness as the cultural default in America, does not prevent dangerous racial dynamics
from unfolding on stage amongst interracial casts, and does not help Black actors integrate into white texts by empahtizing with their characters. The purpose of my research is to investigate how directors today are developing unique methodologies that move beyond colorblind casting and use race, specifically Blackness, in theater productions as a point of inspiration.
Why is your research important?
The conversation surrounding race in American theater and how to increase Black and brown participation in theaters (both in the audience and onstage) is ongoing. Even today, a majority of American theaters are dominated by a white demographic. Changing this reality starts with education, and this educating has to happen in not only in the classrooms and institutions that are producing our next generation of actors and
directors, but in active, working theaters. This is where my research comes in, as it discusses (in-depth) the approach of a director (Emeka) who is actively addressing race and letting Blackness inspire productions and character development rather than choosing to be colorblind to it.
In what ways have you showcased your research?
I’ve showcased my research at the OUR Summer Symposium that took place this past August. I haven’t had the opportunity to showcase it anywhere else, but I would love the opportunity to present again and take my work to a conference.
How did you get involved in research? What drove you to want to seek out research
experiences in college?
As an artist, storyteller and someone just genuinely interested in learning more about the world around me, spending time doing research and cultivating the skills that come with that work seemed like an exciting project. Plus, the intimate, friendly, and determined research community that Afia Ofori-Mensa and Diana Tebo worked so hard to build over the years was something I was super excited to get involved with.
What is your favorite aspect of the research process?
My favorite aspect about research is discovering those hidden stories that very few know about and finding new ways to talk about the world we live in. For example, my favorite thing about my project thus far has just been discovering the incredible history of Black actors in classical theater (like the history of the African Grove Theater). Engaging in this work means that I get to be filled up with knowledge that I can then take back to others so that more and more people can learn about Black history and culture and how we have changed, influenced, and reshaped classical theater and the world.
How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic
I now have a better understanding of the history and legacy that I come from as a Black artist who is interested in cinematic and theatrical work. Knowing more about the history, the theatrical tradition I come from, and how I fit into this larger picture is absolutely going to make me a better artist, activist and educator. My goal is to integrate this knowledge into my own work one day.