By Maya Bakshani
El Raheem lets him go. "I can’t do it," he breathes. Everybody stares in anticipation. The pedophile begs for his life, and shakes in fear under the spotlight. Longshoe grabs the knife and launches himself toward Clarke. He drops the knife and heaves angry breaths in and out as the rest of the ward stands, staring, at a scene they all just lost themselves in.
"Short Eyes"-prison slang for child molester-is the name of Miguel Pineros’ play about men in a House of Detention, performed as UC Santa Cruz’s Rainbow Theater’s Fifth Wheel production of the quarter.
Fourth-year student Daniel Silber-Baker played the role of Longshoe, the only white man in the ward, who ends up killing the newly admitted child molester that was cause of conflict in the House of Detention. Silber-Baker suggested that prisons are based on our concepts of hell.
"What does it say that we chose to build a place that resembles heaven here on earth and disproportionately places people of color in the prisons?" Silber-Baker noted. The incarceration of low-income people of color at higher rates than the white majority is one of many often-misrepresented racial issues brought to the stage by UCSC’s Rainbow Theater.
Every fall quarter, Rainbow Theater puts on five different student-directed, produced, and sometimes written plays about diversity and society.
Beverly Yanuaria, one of the directors of "Short Eyes," spoke on why she put on a performance about such a complex subject.
"For the audience, I think it’s just to see something that they usually don’t see," she said. "Issues of mental, physical, emotional and sexual abuse are all hard to deal with and I think that the harshness of this play will force people out of their comfort zones so that they have to talk about it."
Alma Martinez, an assistant professor in UCSC’s Theater Arts department, was among the audience members attending the performance at Stevenson College the weekend of November 17.
"People need to be exposed to this work. The life men lead in prison is more violent and dangerous than on the outside," Martinez said. "People absolutely need to see it."
UCSC Dean of Humanities Georges Van Den Abbeele also stressed the social importance of works like "Short Eyes."
"That’s where the arts and humanities come in," he said. "They teach us how to live with that, with levels of uncertainty to the extent you can. Often great art and literature are expressions of the incredible dilemma in trying to deal with irresolvable issues."
"Short Eyes" presented such an irresolvable issue to Ananta Addala, an audience member who said that without seeing this play she would never have dealt with these intense subjects.
"I’m a scientist, I study bodies and brains. I don’t study emotions. It was really helpful and a healing process," said Addala, who said that she had friends who had been sexually abused and had a hard time watching one of the inmates talk about molesting young girls.
"Anytime you think about child molesters, no public eye will be sympathetic." Addala continued that she felt confused when she began to see Clarke, the child molester from the play, as human.
"[Clarke’s] monologue was intensely disturbing. When he’s so raw about it, it forces you to think. That was the inherent mind-fuck of the whole play."
Assistant Professor Martinez was glad that "Short Eyes" was performed in front of college students and noted that it informs them in ways that are unique to theater.
"Theater is absolutely education," she said. "The idea is to reflect life. If that’s the case, then we are basically learning…it becomes teaching and learning. The audience learns. They question when they leave."
"That’s Rainbow’s mandate: Do theater that questions and redresses issues in society that are sometimes unequal," Martinez said.
While enthusiastic about her work, Martinez noted that there is something missing in UCSC’s theater department.
"[We need] more diverse voices and diverse plays. I don’t think we’ve had a person of color direct since 2002…I wish it was more of a priority to bring diversity onto the main-stage. There is a definite lack of diversity," she said.
Diversity at UCSC
This year’s incoming undergraduate class consisted of 43 percent students of color, the highest UCSC has ever admitted. The average GPA of all admitted freshman was almost 3.7, thus taking a large step toward an educated and diverse student body at UCSC.
Elizabeth Irwin, Associate Vice Chancellor at UCSC, said that on-campus diversity was on of the main projects of the late Chancellor Denice Denton.
"We have both excellence and diversity, which very much reflect the goals of Chancellor Denton and certainly continue to be a high priority for UC Santa Cruz as we move forward," Irwin said.
Still, Mike Males, a former sociology professor who recently left UCSC, felt that campus academics do not represent diversity in the right way.
"I found social sciences faculty were stuck in ruts of thinking about race and generations that were more appropriate to 1970 than today. Race was ‘black and white.’ This campus is stagnant," he said.
Unsure of where to go within the educational institution, Males noted that the arts might be the medium through which new ideas could be heard.
"Intellectual discourse is not producing greater insight. As the only alternative, artistic expression must step into this void," he said.
History of Rainbow
Multiculturalism and ethnicity are, among other things, the focus of Rainbow Theater. This fall, Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans were represented through Rainbow.
Don Williams, head of Rainbow Theater, created UCSC’s African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT), which gave birth to Rainbow Theater in 1994. Williams oversees the production of the five plays, but for the most part students direct and put on the plays themselves.
Rainbow Theater has spent the last 12 years working toward enhancing a diverse cultural climate in Santa Cruz. Additionally, Williams explained that Rainbow Theater is a means of maintaining a diverse student body at UCSC.
"It makes a difference to know that you are connected, that there are people who care," said Williams, who has spent the last 16 years working with theater as a medium to educate students of color at UCSC. "The more diversity you get in, the more retention we get."
"Short Eyes" director Beverly Yanuaria, like many others, said that Rainbow is like family.
"We are able to create a surrogate family. I think a lot of Rainbow has to deal with that struggle. Because of that, nobody really takes this space for granted. We all really need it. Necessity is what drives people to bend over backwards for it," Yanuaria said.
It was this necessity that drove students to save Williams, Rainbow, and AATAT in 2003 and 2004 when Williams lost his job within Theater Arts. The "Williams Coalition," as it was called, was the group of students that rallied, solicited over 2,000 student signatures on petitions, and protested with signs and poetic speeches in attempt to keep the man and the program that, "keeps its students here!" says Rainbow President, Maria Olivio.
Rainbow Theater teaching assistant, Pamela Chavez, shared sentiments that the reason many students went to such an effort to keep Rainbow went a lot deeper than theater.
"I was already transferring out my first year. I had my papers ready for SF State," she said. "I was at Stevenson, which was mostly white, and I felt really out of place."
After seeing her first Rainbow show, however, Chavez’s view changed.
"[I said] you know, I’m gonna give this place a second chance. There seemed to be a culture and a community that I wasn’t seeing."
"Rainbow Theater is filling a big gap that we have in the Theater Arts department by presenting plays of diverse cultures and races but also giving our students of color the opportunity to be in plays that focus on their lived reality," Martinez said. "It’s an essential element. It’s the flagship for diversity and multicultural voices at UCSC and in the community."
Still a long road to equality . . .
Though Rainbow Theater’s aims to be an inclusive program, some say it can seem alienating to other campus members.
"Rainbow has a really big ego and doesn’t recognize its need for humbleness," said Jill Mizokami, director of the Poet’s Corner. "It can be an incredibly intimidating and alienating space for some people because people get caught up in feeling good about themselves."
A poet and hip-hop aficionado who wishes to remain unidentified had similar thoughts on Rainbow.
"Rainbow Theater," he laughed, "It’s so ‘I’m Chinese, here’s how I’ve been oppressed.’ What about me? I’m a white male from Orange County, I’m the cause of all their problems…I’m the enemy."
UCSC alumna and current high school teacher Amelia Timbers mentioned that while it can be an alienating space, Rainbow somehow manages to keeps students of color at UCSC.
"Rainbow Theater might be the most effective retention tool on campus," she said. "It’s actually doing more than that. Can you name another organization on campus that helps people self-actualize? I can’t."
Through her work, Timbers has at times observed poor attitudes toward learning among low-income students of color in her classroom. To combat that, self-actualization-or learning enough about yourself to realize your full potential-is absolutely necessary.
"I feel like I have to make an argument with them to let them see that they’re not inherently limited. They refuse to see big things as possible because of who they are," Timbers said. "It takes a lot to persuade them out of that."
Timbers continued that she has found Rainbow’s teaching tactics to be useful in her own classroom.
"For Rainbow, they’re introducing that experience of learning how to believe in yourself and take pride in who you are," she said.
Professor Martinez thinks of Rainbow and AATAT as more than just classes, but as actual institutions at UCSC.
"They’ve been around for 14 years and they’re the only institutions [at UCSC] that have represented diversity as far south as L.A," she said.
She also believes very strongly in Rainbow Theater and ATTAT’s ability to connect and retain students of color at UCSC.
"They’re our strongest recruiting arm at UCSC among low income communities of color," she said. "And they’re our strongest ambassadors for representing UCSC’s goal of diversity and excellence in education."
Pamela Chavez, Rainbow Theatre TA, is the perfect example of this phenomenon. She is still working with Rainbow, despite having graduated. She is also currently working as a feminist studies teacher’s assistant.
"Rainbow is education," Chavez said. "It’s personal growth and political community. It changes people."
Silber-Baker noted that it does even more than educate and inspire; Rainbow tells it like it is.
"I think people want to go see Rainbow because our lives are so much bullshit," he said, "and to go see two hours of people being honest blows our minds."