This chapter segues from the media comparison of Chapter 2 by opening with the satirical film-turned-television series Dear White People, created by Justin Simien, which was in part inspired by a racial crisis at my institutional home (UC San Diego’s 2010 blackface fraternity party dubbed the “Compton Cookout”). Distributed by Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions as feature-length film in 2014 and by Netflix as a television series since 2017, I show that both of Dear White People’s mediated versions of mostly African American student experience on an elite American college campus further spectacularize the racial dysfunction in American higher education rather than opening their audiences to the institutional change required to redress it. I compare these mediated representations to the contemporaneous I, Too, Am Harvard, a 2014 stage play based on interviews with Ivy League students of color that was adapted into a student-led photo campaign that went viral. Arguing that the media erasure of the performance origins of what became a performative photo campaign is symptomatic of our culture’s tendency to overlook the resistant potential of live performance, I contrast this tendency by analyzing four case studies of recent stage plays by women of color that represent black and brown (African American and Latinx) academic experiences and productively engage their live audiences in an affective structure conducive with social change:

Eleanor Burgess’s The Niceties (2017)

Lydia Diamond’s Smart People (2016)

Rachel Lynett’s Well-Intentioned White People (2018)

Eleanor Burgess’s The Niceties takes place on an unnamed Ivy League campus and reimagines Oleanna as a pasodoble of racial fragility between a white female Ivy League professor and her black female undergraduate student; despite its brutal depiction of white fragility, Burgess’s play has been produced around the country to great acclaim. Theatricalizing Robin DiAngelo’s theory of “White Fragility” as a hegemonic response to accusations of structural racism that triggers “a range of defensive moves,” The Niceties presents a theatrical theory that the play’s white professor enacts “defensive moves” toward her black student’s critique of institutionalized racism that stem not only from the professor’s white privilege, but, even more saliently, from the structural demands made on her by the gatekeeping of a “scholarly community” and academia’s myth of meritocracy.

The McCarter Theatre originally commissioned playwright and professor Lydia Diamond’s Smart People, which went on to be produced at regional theatres across the United States as well as off-Broadway (with an all-star cast including Mahershala Ali as a black surgical resident, Joshua Jackson as a white neurobiology professor, and Anne Son as a Japanese-Chinese-American psychology professor). Diamond’s play takes place at and around Harvard, where its white neurobiologist’s tenure case is in jeopardy because he refuses to capitulate to the administrations’ objections against his research, which sets out to prove the biological basis for whites’ racism against African Americans. His best friend, played off-Broadway by Ali, is the target of ceaseless microaggressions as he navigates Harvard Medical School’s systemic racism in order to become a surgeon—and his own objections to his friends’ theorizations of his academic experience fall on deaf ears. Likewise, an up-and-coming playwright, Rachel Lynett’s Well-Intentioned White People had its August 2018 world premiere in the Berkshires at Barrington Stage Company, and its depiction of the hate crimes directed against an African American professor of literature at a liberal arts college in the South was partly inspired by Lynett’s own experience working in an academic dean’s office during graduate school.

I close the chapter by arguing not only for the social-change affect that is transmitted to audiences through these four plays (one that I produced as a staged reading for an audience of academics, one that I discussed with the playwright as she revised it for its world premiere, and one that I participated in as an audience member), but also for each academic drama as a theoretical meditation on the racial crisis facing academia writ large as the professoriate’s lack of diversity and the academy’s slow diversification of its student body collides with the changing racial demographics beyond the ivory tower. I conclude that this racial crisis is exacerbated rather than ameliorated by the diversity charades produced by higher education administrators.