In the brightly-lit theatre space of the Center for the Arts Theatre, where tall handrails and low seats jut up in a semicircle around the ground-level stage, like an ancient Greek theatre, two actors advance to the center of the stage. Their fellow cast members remain seated in chairs arranged in rows to the sides.
The two actors’ voices occupy the entire room, filling the empty chairs and high ceilings of the rehearsal space, buzzing with the excitement and anticipation of opening night’s approach. As the first character learns that the second is biracial, the first character asks which ‘side’ the second character ‘actually’ identifies with. The second character, with a look of disbelief, states that she wasn’t aware that she had to choose a side, as if the two sides of her identity were locked in some great battle to decide which would reign supreme. She states that she didn’t know it wasn’t enough to just be the person that she is, both identities.
These types of remarks, called microaggressions, which question a person’s identity in probing ways or challenge their belonging to a community, cut deep into the subconscious. In “Micro Mania”, an original production by Professor and Director Joshua Fleming based on many of his actors’ experiences, the actors fight back against microaggressions by sharing rich and complex minority narratives that seek to change the conversation around the subject.
The idea for “Micro Mania” began after Dr. Cynthia Olivo, Vice President of Student Services, and Fleming started talking following a presentation on microaggressions by Dr. Daniel Solorzano, a scholar on Critical Race Theory and Education. The talk inspired the two to think of new ways to bring attention to the problem of microaggressions on campus. Olivo had recently seen, and participated in a panel for Fleming’s on-campus production “The Rape Show”, which tackled the subject of sexual assault in a way that Olivo believes is distinctly powerful. Through the power of live plays, people are able to learn about these serious topics and engage with them in ways that they may not be able to with lectures, articles, or books.
“It really brings it to life in a different way,” explained Olivo. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college and my identity as a Chicana is very important to me. I know what it’s like to experience microaggressions, and given the current national climate, I can only imagine what it’s like for our students.”
Olivo also emphasized that addressing microaggressions can increase the sense of belonging for first generation college students from minority groups, for whom this sense of belonging can be very important to their success in higher education.
The Atlantic explains that microaggressions are an external reflection of implicit biases that lurk within people. These implicit biases have real and serious consequences in American society, leading to discrimination in hiring, housing, and the criminal justice system, which cause real, negative effects on entire communities. Although particular microaggressions may seem small and inconsequential, their continued and unchallenged existence make up the basis for large-scale institutional racism on a societal level.
In the college context, this plays out in the feeling that minority students aren’t welcome or deserving of their place in the educational community. This is because microaggressions point out cultural difference in ways that highlight the target’s non-conformity, which can cause anxiety and crises of belonging on the part of minorities. This can lead minority students to feel discouraged from continuing to pursue their education.
“Micro Mania” seeks to inform students and faculty about microaggressions on campus and start an open dialogue to make the campus more welcoming to all students. It does this through its more modern style of quick, shifting scenes infused with biting humor and attention-grabbing monologues. Pairs of characters come in and out of the focus in some scenes, presenting mini-dialogues that drive home the psychological impact that microaggressions have on their victims. The characters are also resistant, revealing a way forward in the struggle to change our collective climate.
“I hope audience members walk away thinking about how they can be a bit more mindful in their interactions,” stated Fleming. “I also hope they feel encouraged to speak up when they encounter [microaggressions] themselves. That’s the hardest thing, I think, is feeling empowered enough to call someone out for something they’ve said.”
Fleming noted that it can be especially hard if the person who said the microaggression was the professor, or some other authority figure on campus. Brittany Pereyda, a third-year student and actor in “Micro Mania,” agreed that being critical of the person who is going to be grading you can be an intimidating prospect. Both Pereyda and Fleming seemed to believe that everyone could benefit from seeing this production, and that the important thing was starting to have this challenging conversation.
To make the process easier for people who may realize they’ve committed microaggressions themselves, or those who may be skeptical about the concept, the cast have tried to make this show as engaging and fun as possible, while still conveying the seriousness of the topic. The comedy present throughout many of the scenes radiates the idea that we all make mistakes, but that we can all work to do better.
“Part of it is just making the audience feel more comfortable,” said Pereyda. “When you have actors on stage that are just telling you thing after thing that is really depressing or upsetting, people tend to just shut down. They just think, ‘I don’t want to deal with this anymore,’ or ‘This is too much to handle.’ So, humor can help keep people engaged and it’s also how we as human beings deal with difficult subjects”
The hope here is that the performance of the cast is strong and funny enough to win over skeptics into staying through the entire show, and maybe even, along the way, considering the lessons presented within.
For the actors in “Micro Mania”, the process of making this play has taught them a lot about microaggressions as well. The cast come from a variety of different backgrounds, and their personal stories of discrimination and microaggressions were instrumental in shaping the narrative of the play.
“It’s been eye-opening actually,” remarks Adrian Preciado, a first-year Mexican-American student and actor. “Because of our diversity, I’ve been able to learn about the stories of what people from very different backgrounds from me have been going through. I’ve seen how what they see is different from the kinds of microaggressions that I might experience, and I’ve learned to think more about the things I say before I say them to someone.”
Actors Grace Burr, a second year Japanese-American student, and Katherine Ozawa, a first-year student, agreed that the show had taught them to see things in a new way.
“I definitely have noticed microaggressions directed at me, and they always made me feel uncomfortable, but also unsure about whether it was justified that I felt uncomfortable. Through [“Micro Mania”] though, I’ve learned that I have also said a lot of microaggressions to other people without even noticing it. So now I’m a little bit more aware of that and I try my best to not say things that are microaggressions.”
Ozawa added that the performance had made her realize just how deep and long-lasting the effects of microaggressions could be, and she hoped that “Micro Mania” would be successful in convincing audience members to change the way they thought about this problem.
The power of theatre, and of “Micro Mania” in particular, is that it has the capacity to deliver a powerful message while remaining fun, exciting, and engaging. It is an accessible medium of education that can make an audience member consider different ways of thinking and acting towards others without even noticing that that is what they’re doing.
“Micro Mania” is having its last performance, a free showing, on Thursday, April 12th at 12 PM/Noon at the Center for the Arts Theatre.