Towards the end of Ippolito Caradonna’s performance, he pointed his microphone towards the crowd.
“¡Ra! ¡Raza! ¡Que viva la raza!” Caradonna chanted. The audience joined him. For a few moments, the room rumbled with the declaration.
“Viva la raza” is a Spanish phrase popularized by the Chicano movement of the 1960s. It’s often used as a strong statement of identity – a declaration of the pride one takes in their culture. As he sang, Caradonna’s declaration held true: he stood in front of members of the Rainbow Theater that, together, represented thirty years of multicultural theater at UC Santa Cruz.
Ippolito Caradonna, an alumni of Rainbow Theater, delivered a powerful performance with a combination of spoken word poetry as well as a bilingual song on the piano.
Caradonna is a Rainbow alum himself. His performance that night consisted of traditional Spanish songs mixed with his original poetry – poetry that, he shared, “wouldn’t exist if not for Rainbow.”
On Oct. 14, the Rainbow Theater community gathered at the Stevenson Event Center to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Rainbow Theater is a student organization that puts on productions each spring, all directed, performed, and often written by students of color.
Since 1993, they’ve sought to increase the visibility of the diverse array of cultures that coexist at UCSC through theater. Their 30 year history, rich with stories of community, discovery, and radical creativity, stands as a testament to the permanence of that vision.
Emcee’s Nazeerah Rashad (left), and Zibusiso Gumbo (right) kept the crowd engaged and moderated the panel. Gumbo even performed Rainbow Connection on the piano.
Don Williams opened the night. He serves as the artistic director of Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center (CADrc), a theater professor at UC Santa Cruz and founder of Rainbow Theater and the African American Theatre Arts Troupe (AATAT). After being greeted by chants of “Rainbow, Rainbow,“ Williams emphasized the importance of Rainbow Theater’s mission.
“This is not a game when you say, ‘Rainbow, Rainbow,’” Williams said. “It’s a living testament. Rainbow Theater is a living organism. It’s meant to change people’s lives, to give hope.”
After 30 years, Rainbow Theater, along with AATAT, has carved out a foundational niche in UC Santa Cruz’s performing arts scene. However, their history hasn’t been without challenges.
Nancy Williams, Don Williams’ wife, has also been a core part of Rainbow Theater since its founding. She recalled a moment in spring 2005 when UCSC informed Don that they were considering terminating his position due to budget cuts. After an eruption of student protest, much of it organized by members of Rainbow Theater, Williams kept his job.
“It was a low point in the sense that [Don] didn’t know if he was going to have a job in four weeks,” Mrs. Williams said. “But then we saw the strength of students and of student voices. It was amazing.”
Aman Gohal was a member of Rainbow Theater from 2001 to 2004. She remembers Williams’ brush with termination well.
“I had this quiet confidence, like, ‘Don’s not going anywhere, Rainbow’s not going anywhere,’” Gohal said. “This is a powerful program.”
From left to right, Nikita Harris (class of 02’), Aman Gohal (class of 04’), and Joshua Bee Alafia (class of 95’) spoke about their experience at Rainbow Theater and how it influenced their careers after they graduated college.
During her time at Rainbow Theater, Gohal wrote and produced a play entitled The First Seed that follows several members of a Punjabi family as they immigrate to the United States and develop unique relationships with American culture.
When Rainbow Theater put on a production of The First Seed in 2023, Gohal road-tripped to see it with several of the play’s original cast members.
Shortly after Don Williams’ comments, Gohal joined a panel with fellow alum Joshua Bee Alafia and Nikita Harris to discuss their experiences in Rainbow Theater. During the discussion, Gohal highlighted how Rainbow has always helped students of color talk about the societal inequities they face on a daily basis and find community through that pain.
“Nowadays, it’s common to talk about [these hardships], which is absolutely wonderful,” Gohal said. “But 20 years ago, this is a space where we built skills, where we healed and grew together.”
At the end of the night, Williams took to the stage one last time. Most people who know Rainbow Theater see Williams as the program’s beating heart – but they all agreed that the space is much bigger than any one person. Rather, it’s thirty years’ worth of students, alumni, and supporters that makes Rainbow Theater the community that it is.
Even so, Williams plans to be a part of Rainbow as long as he can.
“As long as I’ve got breath in my body, I’m going to push hard to make sure [every] generation has the opportunity to tell their story,” Williams said.
Don Williams, a senior teaching professor at UCSC who founded Rainbow Theater in 1993, spoke about the history of the theater and sung the praises of many students, both current and former.