Professor Johnny Jones addresses race and privilege in next NEXUS reading

Ashley Mata, Staff Writer

Professor Johnny Jones hopes that the second staged NEXUS reading, which takes place Nov. 6, will provide an opportunity for Westmont students to engage in conversations about race and privilege. 

The only problem appears to be that Westmont, and the theatre arts department specifically, is predominantly white. According to Westmont’s Fall 2021 “Ethnic/International Student Enrollment Summary,” the student population is 54% white, 20% Hispanic/Latino, 7% Asian, and 2% Black. 

However, Jones takes inspiration from playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who Jones said writes about race in a way that gives white actors opportunities to participate. Jones emphasized that students do not have to identify as people of color to act in the readings, as NEXUS “was never meant to shut off anyone … [or] any particular group … It was meant to tell stories about America and American issues.”

Jones also acknowledged the need for greater representation of people of color in American theater and theater at Westmont. Jones explained how directors and playwrights must devote more attention and funding toward portraying stories of people of color. People of color are integral to American theater and deserve to have their stories depicted within and beyond Westmont. 

Jones is grateful for the students who have stepped up to fill the roles in “NEXUS” and hopes more students of color will join the readings as well. Jones recognized how important it is for people of color to tell their own stories. Having Black actors “gives us the opportunity and the incentive to focus more specifically on Black culture,” Jones said.

Jones recognized that “educated spaces are privileged spaces,” speaking to the gap between Westmont students who can afford a college education and those who must fight to rise above a system that privileges whiteness and wealth. However, Jones sees teaching at a private college in Montecito as an opportunity to address this disparity.  

NEXUS serves as “a forum to engage real conversations [on race and privilege], some of those conversations being hard and tough to deal with,” Jones said. Jones asks students to “check their privilege at the door” and hopes that, in doing so, they will walk away with a broader sensitivity to and understanding of race. 

Jones also hopes the performances will help audiences reflect on their own privilege and prejudices, and prompt them to think about how they can play positive roles in the stories of people of color. 

There is an open call for all who wish to participate in NEXUS. Jones summarized, “The more diverse we get culturally in this space, the more we can continue to be diverse in the space.”

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