Interactive theater encourages checking 'diversity filters'

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
"That's a really nice dress!" Ben said, walking a full circle around his co-worker, Lisa. If his eyes had been lasers, they would have burned her in several places. Ben later said he was just trying to make Lisa feel more comfortable.

The witnesses, seated at round tables in the Arnold Hall Ballroom July 28, didn't buy Ben's story.

Portraying Ben and Lisa were Bill Mendieta and Marilyn Tokuda, two of four actors working with Los Angeles-based director Linda Oku to help people understand diversity in the workplace.

About 200 people attended the presentation, titled "Checking our Diversity Filters," which was sponsored by the Academy's Diversity Office. Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Adis Vila welcomed the group in her introduction.

"Even as the end force and our budgets are decreasing, and even as we're being asked to do more with less, we have to rely on one another," Vila said. "This is equally true among information technology types as it is among behavioral sciences faculty.

The presentation focused primarily on awareness of diversity. Oku compared diversity awareness to visibility of an iceberg, with a small amount visible on the surface and much more lying underneath.

"Gender, ethnicity and race are instantly recognizable," she said. How someone dresses can give observers clues to parts of the iceberg that lie beneath the water line. Interacting with people and increasing awareness lowers the water level further.

"As long as you are living and breathing, there is no end to the increased awareness of diversity and inclusiveness," she added.

To interact meaningfully, people must also be aware of their own filters, Oku said. Those filters might affect the way a young man like Ben relates to women in his office.

A second scene, titled "Our Sons Won't Have a Chance," illustrated those filters for members of the audience. Tokuda, John Apicella and Dwain Perry, playing Marlene, Jeff and Dave, had a short discussion about affirmative action and discrimination in the office. Audience members' first impressions of Jeff included "racist" and "closed-minded," while people felt Dave was "handsome" and "patient" and described Marlene as "insecure" and "girly."

"We all saw the same scene and listened to the same words, and look at the diversity of answers," Oku said. "Look how quickly we came up with descriptions based on first impressions."

Vila invited Oku and the actors to the Air Force Academy, where they met with about 15 employees here. Oku asked the employees questions to help prepare the scenarios and conducted a dress rehearsal in front of a small audience of senior leaders the morning of July 28. The aim of the $15,000 program, Vila said, is to develop competence of diversity and inclusion at the Academy.

Apicella is a founding member of the Billingsley Paul Lazarus Antaeus at LA Theater Works and has appeared in episodes of "The X-Files," "Brothers and Sisters" and "The West Wing." He said diversity is a process and a lifelong commitment.

"It's not just something where you reach a certain point, and then ding, you're done," he said.

Tokuda, who starred alongside Nick Nolte in "Farewell to the King," described how she became interested in interactive theater and increasing people's awareness of diversity and inclusion issues. In June 1999, when the major TV networks announced their fall seasons, "there were no people of color at all in the program lineups," she said.

"It went to the (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and they came up with a course of action to make sure it never happens again," she said. "We can see the change now." Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim, Christine Adams and Mekhi Phifer are just a few of the actors highlighted in the 2011 fall TV lineup.

"My most rewarding work has been in diversity," she said. "What Linda has done is great."

The interactive theater is designed for permanent party staff and faculty at the Academy, Vila said. If it serves the Diversity Office's needs, the Academy will introduce the presentation to the rest of the staff. Cadets will undergo different training as part of the Center for Character and Leadership Development's respect and responsibility course.