This year marks the 30th anniversary of UC Santa Cruz’s Rainbow Theater. For the past 30 years, Rainbow Theater has showcased plays written, directed, and acted in by students of color, providing a safe space for self-expression and creativity. 

“There was a distinct need for cultural representation in the arts,” said Rainbow Theatre President Becca Hall. “Specifically in theater arts.”

1993: Don Williams founded Rainbow Theater two years after launching the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT). Williams is also a lecturer in the theater department at UCSC.

All illustrations by Sean Nguyen.

“I had a multitude of students coming to me saying, ‘Can you help us, Mr. Williams? We wanna act too. We wanna tell our stories,’” Williams said. 

1997: The Office of Admissions at UCSC offered funding to Rainbow Theater to expand its outreach program. This allowed the program to travel to different high schools in low-income communities across the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

2002: Don Williams added “The Fifth Element” to the Rainbow Theater Program, which allowed graduating seniors at UCSC to write, direct, or act in their own productions instead of performing plays written by established playwrights. 

“The two-act plays were student-written, and those were their senior thesis papers,” Williams said. “They took their work and we were able to produce it, which was a beautiful thing.” 

2003-2004 and 2005-2006: Nearly 50 million dollars were cut from UCSC’s budget, and many organizations of color, including Rainbow Theater, found themselves financially limited.  

 “We were surviving because of my salary savings, and we had several alumni who donated to us as well. We also applied for the Committee on Ethnic Programming (CEP),” said Williams.

2006: The Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center (CADrc) was created as a response to the budget cuts. CADrc encompasses both Rainbow Theater and AATAT, and offers funding for organizations of color at UCSC.

“I was searching for a place where I felt like I belonged on this campus. I’m a first-gen college student and a student of color, woman of color,” Hall said. “I was having a hard time finding it. And then I found Rainbow.”

2010: Rainbow Theater faced financial hardships yet again due to the UC-wide, state-mandated budget cuts of $500 million.

2013: Rainbow Theater celebrated its 20th anniversary.

2020: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 performance of Poet’s Corner, a student spoken-word exhibition, was hosted virtually.

“I have been in Rainbow for all four years of my time at UCSC,” Hall said. “And to see it grow from the 30 people that showed up on Zoom my freshman year to the 75 now, it’s incredible. And I’m thinking about the hundreds of people that came before me. […] It’s cool to be a part of this network of people that care about representing culture through the arts. And it just makes me feel like a small part of a bigger whole, which I really like.”

2022: Former Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner signed a Mayor’s Proclamation that declares May 6-15 as “Rainbow Theater Days” to celebrate its achievements and legacy. 

“I was truly honored, and my students alike, [because] we are always thankful and grateful when folks enjoy the work that we do,” said Williams. 

2023: Rainbow Theater celebrated its 30th anniversary with four performances: The First Seed by Aman Gohal, A Song for Coretta by Pearl Cleage, Fuchsia by Janis Astor del Valle, and Poet’s Corner.  

“It’s been a long complicated history with how we get funding and where we’re located,” Hall said. “We’ve had to move around a little bit because it’s hard to find designated spaces to operate out of, but we’re based in Stevenson, which is really cool.”