WRITTEN BY: JENNI RICE
Theatre and performance are beautiful art forms, whether you’re observing it or taking part in it. However, marginalized groups are constantly underrepresented or misrepresented in theatre and the entire entertainment industry.
MFA students at UT Brenda Orellana and Aleah Vassell saw this extreme lacking in the theatre community, and they knew they had to do something about it — and thus, Hear Me Roar Theatre Company was born.
Vassell opened up about the reasons behind starting the company.
“I looked at the seasons and I just realized there were a lot of shows that I didn’t see myself in. Yes, they were putting me in those shows, but I wasn’t representing Black people, I wasn’t representing queer women. I was just a character that was plugged in that happened to be Black and queer,” Vassell said.
“So, we came up with this show that had representation of Black people and queer people and just like, something different that we’ve seen from the Clarence Brown Theater, and we did that our first year; it was ‘The Submission’ by Jeff Talbot, and from that Hear Me Roar was born.”
Orellana expressed her disdain that when there is representation of marginalized groups, it typically tends to be inaccurate, offensive or stereotypical.
“There are stories, but a lot of the times they’re like negatively portrayed, you know, either maids or a sexualization of Latina women, or hypersexualization,” Orellana said.
Orellana continued with her thoughts on inaccurate representation.
“Sometimes a couple of people would tell me ‘can you just be a little bit more spicy?’ Things like that. And it was like, well what does that mean? You know, ‘cause I can pretend like I just ate a chili pepper, but what does that do with the story?” Orellana said.
“And that comes from the lack of education of other cultures, and also because in media and in theatre, we get this misrepresentation or lack of representation, so if you’re only constantly being fed negative stereotypes through film, TV and theatre, that’s (how) you’re going to think that culture or this specific demographic of diverse people are.”
This misrepresentation motivated Orellana’s desire for something new, inclusive and accurate.
Orellana expressed that in her experience with theatre throughout her life, “If you weren’t pretending to be white, then you weren’t great, and that was a big problem with me that I wanted to go against.”
Orellana and Vassell began building up their theatre company a few years ago, determined to do something that they had never seen before.
“There are about 20-25 theatre companies, organizations, productions in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area, and I know there is Yellow Rose Production that is led by two women, but we are the only ones with women of color at the top,” Vassell said.
Orellana and Vassell expressed that it was very essential for them to have a theater company that is not only for marginalized groups, but is also run by members of marginalized groups.
“What we’re doing is we’re experimenting on, and failing, at times, but having the courage enough to go ahead and create a team that is diverse, and a board that is diverse, and young, too,” Orellana said.
“So we have diverse artists from ages mid-to-late 20s in our board, so very, very young artists who have gone through an MFA program and know that experience and collaboratively working together to find where we want to put our strengths or what we want to work on that we were never given the chance to do so if we were to try to go to any other theater.”
Recently, Hear Me Roar Theatre organized UT’s BIPOC showcase.
“From August and on, we have put a highlight on women of color playwrights, the BIPOC undergraduates at UT, and this November we’ve been showcasing and highlighting BIPOC voices,” Vassell said.
“I think that holding space for original works by BIPOC artists is very important, and so this fall we’ve been doing a lot.”
“We are allowing these people to have this opportunity through education and theatre, to have a nourished, well collaborative experience in their artistry with diverse stories, things that make you think at the end of the story, of the play, that we can have an educational conversation about as a community at the end of it in our talkbacks,” Orellana said.
Orellana and Vassell also talked about how finding support among the community when they expressed the idea of their theatre company proved to be difficult.
According to Vassell, the support did not seem to be there at first.
“It felt like we weren’t fully supported because the people that we told hadn’t heard of something like this before, so instead of pushing us to go forward, I feel like we got a lot of pushback and resistance, at least from the beginning,” Vassell said.
“I think when you are a person who rocks the boat, people paint a picture of you that you have no control over,” Orellana said.
“Some people are not used to (it); I mean, it’s a lot to have someone come in and be like, ‘I don’t agree with how you’ve been running for a long time and now I’m taking the only step I feel like I can take in order to ensure that there’s at least some type of outlet for people of color or marginalized groups to come into a safe space, and therefore, your space is not safe.’”
Orellana and Vassell pushed through, however, despite criticisms.
“Whenever there’s a new idea added to an idea that’s been around for 50 years, there’s always going to be some kind of resistance. And that idea could either be embraced, or you can become the ‘bad guy’ for just thinking differently,” Vassell said.
“It’s not just with theatre, it’s not just with diversity; it happens absolutely everywhere and it’s just something to learn. Ideas are important and thinking differently is important, just because someone tries to put you down, there’s always going to be someone else that agrees with you and wants to lift you up.”
Orellana and Vassell have inspired many with their courage and ambition in creating Hear Me Roar Theatre Company, and will continue to do so for a very long time.
They decided to face the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of theirs and so many other peoples’ identities head on, and strive everyday to make sure that everyone can look at what they do and feel seen.
Orellana and Vassell encouraged students to get involved with their shows and be a part of their journey in creating voices for all. For more information on how to get involved with Hear Me Roar Theatre Company, go to their Facebook or Instagram pages.