By Miriam Brown
“How can the performing arts at Colorado College be more inclusive?” For Ryan Bañagale, CC director of performing arts and an associate professor of music, it’s a question that can be answered by looking at the past.
After enlisting Chidera Ikpeamarom ’22 as his research assistant, Bañagale and Ikpeamarom began searching through the CC Special Collections and Archives for any insights into the history of CC performing arts. What sort of events or productions took place? Who participated? Who did not? Why not?
Out of thousands of events over the course of more than a century, a few stood out. According to Ikpeamarom, she found evidence of student minstrel shows and blackface that started in the 1800s and lasted through the 1950s. Students participated in a “CC Tigers Minstrel Club,” and pictures of the students in blackface were displayed in yearbooks.
“I was like, ‘that’s crazy,’ but then again, that was the time period,” Ikpeamarom said. “It sucks that it is a part of our history, … [but] let’s not hide it. Let’s put it out there and be like, ‘This is what we did,’ so we can learn from it.”
In the 1941 yearbooks, there is a picture of this CC club during a minstrel show. In the same yearbook, there is a picture of alumna Gladys E. Childress ’42, a Black woman who was studying music. A talented piano player, she held frequent recitals and eventually became a music professor in Los Angeles after graduating.
“This was just a part of CC’s culture — minstrel shows and variety shows,” said Ikpeamarom. “And then thinking about Gladys, being one of maybe two black kids and the only people of color graduating from the school in 1942 … that just got me thinking.”
Ikpeamarom said she noticed a shift in the culture of the performing arts starting in the ’60s, coinciding with documented civil rights protests on campus. She found a program for a Japanese dance performance, performed by student Kazuko Kosugi. At the same variety show, students, led by Abiodun Afonja, performed an “African Congo Chant.” In the ’70s, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano Aztlan (MEChA) — whose message was reclaimed by SOMOS in ’99 — hosted “Chicano Awareness” programming. In the ’80s, the Black Student Union sponsored the first Black awareness week and brought world-renowned black opera singer Hilda Harris to campus. In the ’90s, Dean Mike Edmonds, along with the drama chairman and an English professor, put on the play “Do Lord Remember Me,” based on the tales of former slaves.
“We were looking at what stands out, what’s not just the same Western European classical concert,” Ikpeamarom said. “I like following the history of CC … but then there’s also those moments along the way which are important but less glamorous.”
Ikpeamarom and Bañagale hope to supplement their archival research by interviewing alumni about their recollections of the performing arts department during the time they were at CC.
Moving forward, they hope to use their findings to follow recommendations outlined in the Final Report of the Antiracism External Review — that “faculty must engage in collaborative partnerships with administrators and staff responsible for co-curricular activities of the college.”
“The outcomes of this research project will provide a stronger understanding of where such partnerships already exist, where they can be strengthened, and perhaps most importantly, where they are most needed,” Bañagale said.
Bañagale’s and Ikpeamarom’s research will be presented at the Summer Collaborative Research (SCoRe) Symposium on Friday, Sept. 27 of Friends and Family Weekend.