“The Brown Theater Collective: Why Representation Matters”

By Aiden Baker on March 2, 2015

Like every other college student out there, I consider myself a kind of Netflix-connoisseur. Though I may be an under-qualified film critic, I am extremely familiar with the endless list of titles offered by the site.

Instant streaming is a beautiful gift of the 21st century, with gratification a single click away. And while it’s true that Netflix is a real gem, just scrolling through the site made me notice something odd. I became aware that a great majority of the films available centered on the same thing: a straight, white man.

Reflecting on a few of my favorite films- “American Beauty,” “Fight Club,” “A Clockwork Orange”- made me realize that almost every story presented to me is told from the same, single perspective.

And while I don’t have anything against straight, white men, I know for a fact that they are not the only ones with something to say. Everyone has a story, and everyone deserves a chance to tell it. But representation isn’t only a Hollywood problem. It’s here, too.

Our Champaign-Urbana campus is incredibly diverse, with four cultural centers, an LGBT resource center and 14% of students international. Despite the wide range of colors across our campus, those who don’t fall into the “straight, white male” category are still fighting to be heard.

That’s why Mateo Hurtado, a third year Theater Studies Major, started The Brown Theater Collective here at the University of Illinois. I sat down with Mateo to hear some more about the collective and learn what factors played into its foundation.

Pictured from left to right: Angélica Sanchez, Mateo Hurtado,Alex Ortiz, Monique Pittman at the 2015 Black & Latino Male Summit

ULoop: So what exactly is The Brown Theater Collective?

Mateo Hurtado: The BTC is a group that focuses on interdisciplinary art, to use the medium of performance for social and creative change. To not only innovate art, but change how it effects audiences and reflect the truth of our diverse society.

ULoop: So when did you first get the idea to start The Brown Theater Collective?

Mateo Hurtado: Around the spring of 2014 I was having various discussions with a classmate, a theater major here at the U of I, and we’re both Latino. We started talking about how there’s such a huge gap in cultural representation in the arts, and how it also functions in higher ed. We’re both college students and don’t have many outlets here to express work that deals with our identity and backgrounds. And that’s not very reflective of the true, diverse world we live in. So we were brainstorming different ways to engage students and get the community involved to create new work, interdisciplinary, to think outside of the box and express diversity. We played around with the idea, but the collective wasn’t started until later that fall.

ULoop: Was there a specific event that sparked the foundation?

Mateo Hurtado: Yes, it was an event in the fall of 2014 that really sparked the collective. I heard that an organization called Illini Student Musicals was producing “West Side Story.” As soon as I heard this I wanted to get involved. I was very concerned because of the demographics here at Champaign-Urbana, and I knew it would be difficult to get the right amount of actors to have an accurate representation of Puerto Rican culture. So that was my main concern before I even started working on the show.

ULoop: So after you got involved, what was your role in the production?

Mateo Hurtado: I was the dramaturge, and my job was to do a significant amount of research so that the actors are made aware of the sociological makeup of the show, specifically the culture class of “West Side Story.” It’s really a plot driven by race, so that’s why I was so concerned with the casting. But when the cast list was announced, I was very upset because the cast was predominately white. And the two lead Latina characters were played by two white females. To me, that really bastardizes Puerto Rican culture and makes the story dishonest.

ULoop: Did you continue with the production?

Mateo Hurtado: At that point, I was very outraged, and decided to leave the production. I still am outraged. When I left, I emailed the production team with an explanation, and why I would not tolerate the production, but the group carried on with the musical anyway. Still outraged, I spoke with my peers and my professor in the department of Latino Studies, Sandra Ruiz, who inspired me to start a new organization. Writing a letter expressed the outrage, but starting a collective would be a solution to end this gap in cultural representation. So that’s where we are now: the BTC is very much in existence, working to change the creative environment on this campus, and nationwide, to continue this movement.

ULoop: Why do you think it took so long for something like this to exist on campus?

Mateo Hurtado: From an internal level, how universities and institutions function demographically, I don’t think there’s enough attention given to those who are underserved. A lack of emphasis on diversity on many different levels—sexuality, gender, race, socio-economic status—it effects who gets involved, who gets represented. There’s not enough focus or funding for the under-represented, and that’s where the problem really lies.

ULoop: As an organization for the underrepresented, how do you suggest someone who falls into the typically represented, straight, white students get involved?

Mateo Hurtado: I have two answers for that. It’s important for the white people who join the BTC function as allies. Asking them to lead the story telling would be contradictory to our goal. Our whole mission is to tell the underrepresented perspective, and this is a space for those stories to be heard. The typically represented are welcome to join, and use the collective as a space to get informed. They can also use the privilege that they have by default to inform others about the BTC, to demand change, reform, in both theater and ethnic studies. We’re aiming for ethnic studies reform also, to include ethnic studies into core curriculum, because those ideas are often left out of the conversation.

ULoop: What does representation in art accomplish on a larger scale? In other words, how will adding more colors to the conversation create real change in the way our society functions?

Mateo Hurtado: It allows the masses, white people and people of color, to see themselves in different, complex ways. It allows them to know that their stories are worth telling. It encourages everyone to empower themselves through their own history and their own identity. Art works on a micro scale that can easily make an impact on a macro scale, in education, in media, in the ways we look at life. And American pop culture makes clear the great need for more representation.

ULoop: What do you see for the future of the BTC?

Mateo Hurtado: The issue of representation is not only on this campus, and we’re hoping the BTC is something that can spread much farther than just Champaign-Urbana. We’re in communication theater groups in Chicago, talking with them about events and our mission. We’re not only fighting for representation in the arts, but on an academic and social level as well. Hopefully the BTC can spread to other campuses, and change the ways we perceive society. Ultimately, the BTC aspires to give a voice to those silenced by our current society.

Just another English major in love with words.

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