Minority Voices Theater: Creating Community

Written by Ella Norton

Cover photo source

The year is 2017. Friends, Carol Dennis and Stanley Coleman, have been discussing starting a project to show underrepresented communities on stage for a while now. After the 2016 election, they decided to jump right into it for fear of minority groups being increasingly targeted. Suddenly, Minority Voices Theater was born.

Minority Voices Theater became an outreach program of the Very Little Theater in 2018. The Very Little Theater houses Minority Voices Theater and supports fundraising, while also existing as another tool to reach the community.

Co-founder, Coleman believes that the theater shines a light on stories that aren’t always told in the mainstream media.

“It's an opportunity to tell the stories of people who often don't get a lot of chance to see their stories told on the stage,” Coleman said. “It's a lot of opportunity to increase the pool of actors in our community by, of course, inviting minority actors to perform.”

Minority Voices Theater primarily does stage readings, where actors read scripts to make them more comfortable on stage, as part of increasing the pool of actors. They have done stage readings that cover the stories of many communities, including a Spanish immersion play called “La Gringa” and a play over the transgender community titled “Transfigurations,” which was a powerful moment for Dennis. She had done the play 20 years ago but people in the community weren’t able to participate or even see the show because of the danger of being out. This time, each part was performed by people who identified as gender nonbinary, trans or gender queer.

“The most powerful part of it was the audience, which this time around, was filled with family members and folks who identify as trans,” Dennis said. “There were tears, I mean literal tears at the end, and not because it's a sad play, because it isn't, it's got a wonderful uplifting ending, but because people hadn't seen their own stories on stage. They hadn't been able to celebrate themselves.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, Minority Voices Theater has continued to produce staged readings. Even during this challenging time, Coleman doesn’t believe theaters are off the hook.

“We are reaching more people beyond even just our little community here,” Coleman said. “[Historically] minority people have not been regular theatergoers so by getting these plays done on Zoom, we are actually reaching more minority people in the audience than we would in face-to-face productions.”

Coleman said that since the pandemic he’s seen more collaborations between theaters, which he hopes will continue in the future. He said the pandemic has also encouraged theaters to become more creative and imaginative in what they can produce.

Both Dennis and Coleman have a background in theater. Dennis spent eight years in New York City and ten years in LA. Coleman worked at a Black theater called the Dashiki Project Theater in New Orleans. However, actors at Minority Voices Theater don’t often come with this level of experience, such as actor Dawaun Lawler. Lawler became involved in theater after being a stagehand for a couple of shows before he started acting and met Coleman.

“Honestly, a lot of the stuff that I've been incorporated with, or done, or helped with, Stan had a big help with, by saying this guy is available,” Lawler said. I”m appreciative for that. Most of the stuff that I've done has been at Very Little Theater.”

Lawler thinks that the Minority Voices Theater isn’t different in its sense of love and passion for theater but offers a fresh perspective for the community.

“It's a good conduit, it's been a great conduit for myself to meet people in the community, whether they be minorities or not,” Lawler said. “[Theater brings lots of different people together.] I think that's been the most beautiful thing about [Minority Voices Theater] and theater in general, just being able to see and have this community that is so genuine and supporting. It's all for a common goal at the end of the day.”

For Lawler, the most important thing has been the community and the support he has received. He’s also loved being able to connect with the characters. Another powerful moment for him is when he sees theater change people’s perspectives.

“I think that's the biggest thing about theater, it's not necessarily when you get the people you know are going to come, and you want to come, it's when you get the people you didn't expect to come,” Lawler said. “When they leave and their perspective, it might just be an inkling different than what it was when they first came in, that little bit of change, I love that.”

In the end, Lawler thinks theater is just an expression of humanity, and he is optimistic that through theater and representation, people will start listening to minority voices.

“It's like finally, people are understanding, people are hearing,” Lawler said.

Coleman is currently working on a play for the University of Oregon called “Personal History” and the Minority Voices Theater is preparing for Supporting Women Artists Now (SWAN) Day. Going forward Coleman hopes the theater will continue to reach more audiences and share stories.

“We have to address the issues of the time,” Coleman said. “A lot of people think theater is just entertainment, but I believe that theater should teach, theater should inspire, and theater should stimulate. We have to let more people tell their stories.”