Southwest Texas State had a handful of black students in 1974, including graduating actor and playwright, Eugene Lee. Lee was one of the few black actors to grace the university’s stage, one of the founding members of the Ebony Players, a student theater group, and one of the first actors to take initiative and change theater at Texas State for minority students.
This year marks the 15th annual Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, a project founded, organized and led by Lee since 2002. The initiative started when Richard Sodders, retired theatre professor and director, asked Lee to direct a play on campus for Black History Month. Lee was unable to cast the play because there were not enough black students to act in the lead rolls.
Inspired but frustrated, Lee decided there needed to be a change in the theater department.
“I pitched a fit, you know. Things hadn’t changed since I was here 30 or 40 years prior. When I was here there were two black people in the department,” Lee said.
Less than 30 percent of speaking parts in Hollywood are played by black and African American actors, the majority of which are not leading roles, according to a 2016 statistical study by USC Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism.
In an effort to increase the number of black actors, Lee developed the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference. Since it’s conception, the conference is available for all students to participate in some way. Students can audition to act, to direct and attend panel discussions.
“These Latino and these African American students get to see themselves on stage celebrated,” Lee said. “That’s something they don’t get all the time. The stories don’t get told in America, but that’s how it is and we’re working to change that.”
The conference has changed and grown throughout the years. When the conference was in its third year, Lee added Latino to the title, as it had previously been the Black Playwrights Conference. Lee said he added the change as Texas State became a Hispanic-serving institution. Later, Lee added panel discussions throughout the event to educate students through working actors and playwrights. In the last three years, he added a playwriting workshop.
This year, the conference will span from Sept. 4-10. The students participating will complete two plays, audition for all positions including director and learn how a play is written and performed. The event is open to the public every night starting at 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center until the final day, Sept. 10.
Deb Alley, theater professor and department chair, facilitates funding and operations for the conference with Lee and has done so for four years as well as attending the event each year. Alley said she hopes for more diversity among actors and actresses both at the university level and beyond.
“Particularly right now, in the political climate, diversity is important and allowing diverse voices to speak is important,” Alley said. “It’s really obvious that it’s (white people) that are the main characters, the writers, the directors and the voices that we hear.”
Alley said her department is focused on adding more diverse students, actors and professors to the predominantly white group.