When Joi Wright, senior in performing arts, heard her name called during the awards segment of the Kennedy Center American College Regional Theater Festival, initially she was shocked.
Wright participated in the diversity in the arts leadership programming at the festival and had to present a project in which she created a theater company with diversity and inclusion incorporated within it. Her work won her the award, and now Wright and her adviser will be heading to the National Theater Festival in Washington D.C. in April to receive it.
The project entailed of Wright opening up a theater company catered to children from her hometown of Oak Cliff, Texas, called, ‘The Wright Way Children’s Theater,’ which she called a safe haven for children.
"That’s what I wanted it to start as then; I want to actually grow it into an academy of the arts for all age groups from [kindergarten] up to [grade] 12," Wright said.
Wright said the diversity and inclusion aspect of the initiative is handled through outreach within the community.
“I love doing community outreach,” Wright said. “I just love being in the community, that’s how I was raised, that’s how you get involved through everything and that’s how you make a difference.”
For Wright, this project was one of the other ideas that she developed after arriving at the theater department in October 2016.
Finding her place on campus
Wright began her time at Iowa State as an animal science and pre-veterinarian medical major.
She said when she first arrived on campus it was a culture shock from the Dallas metropolitan she was familiar with.
“You always get that whole depression stage you go through when you separate from your family,” Wright said. “When I was going to class, I wasn’t enjoying it, I really was like ‘what am I doing? I really didn’t like it.”
Wright said she remembered when she was in an introductory class for animal science majors and after coming to the realization that the field was not meant for her, left class.
Immediately she called her mother to inform her that she was going to change her major, but at the time was unsure of what to change it to.
Flyers for 10 minute play auditions caught Wright’s eyes at her apartment complex.
“I was like, ‘I can do that,” Wright said. “I had always went to performing art schools except for high school, so I always had a passion for theater and dance, but I never really thought it was something I would do for a career choice.”
After participating in the 10 minute auditions, Wright changed her major to performing arts.
“It was so freeing,” Wright said about her change from animal science to performing arts. “Animal science was very very hard and it is one of those majors that is so depressing [for me].”
Wright said her academic advisers for both of her majors made it very easy for her to transition into the theater program.
Jane Cox, professor emerita in the music and theatre program, was Wright’s first advisor.
Wright said Cox was more like a really good friend than an adviser for her when she was trying to understand things such as her graduation trajectory as a performing arts major.
“It became real personal, I use to tell her stuff about [my] family and [ask] how to get scholarships,” Wright said. “I didn’t look at her as an adviser, more so as a mentor.”
Taking the stage
After performing her 10 minute audition in the spring of 2016, Wright moved up to main stage and performed in Cabaret in the fall of 2016.
Cabaret, a 1966 musical set in 1931, focuses on the nightlife scene in Berlin, Germany, and involves an American writer and the writer’s relationship with a cabaret performer.
Wright said she did not expect to receive a callback for a role in the show.
“That show is very in your face, I’m thick [sized] and the women in that show, since it is in a club, most of the females in that show have little to no clothes on,” Wright said.
Wright said she auditioned for the lead role, however she was cast as one of the supporting characters, Rosie.
“It was a fun show, I was new to the game, trying to figure out everything,” Wright said.
She said that that rehearsal for the musical was four hours everyday for two in a half months until opening night.
Wright did not participate in productions in 2017 due to going back home to Texas for an internship, but returned in 2018.
“I was in Pipe Dreams as a chorus member and went on ahead and did This is a Wonderful Life and right now I am in Sense and Sensibility as Mrs. Jennings.”
In the role of Mrs. Jennings, Wright said that this is the first role she will have that comes with speaking parts.
“I feel like there are steps to everything, I feel like I have to earn that spot,” Wright said. “A lot of people in my department, they work their asses off doing stuff and performing. In my heart, I really felt like I earned that.”
Diversity and the arts
Wright said that she believed as a person of color and a woman that nothing is given to a person and she has to work hard and prove herself for opportunities.
When it comes to taking classes within her program, Wright said she is typically the only person of color in her classes.
Wright said as a whole the performing arts department is very engaging with their students and is eager to learn about their students on a personal level.
“A lot of people don’t care to know or care to learn about different cultures,” Wright said. “But since we’re working with art and working with someone’s story, it’s almost hard not to engage and ask questions, 'what makes you uncomfortable? what makes you comfortable? what can we do as a department to make you feel comfortable?'”
Overall, Wright said the department has made it easy for her to adapt, be cohesive and work in a team environment within all aspects of the program.
During the fall 2018 semester, Wright enrolled in the senior year seminar and she and her classmates had to develop a project for their final year in the program.
“We were touching more so on what we wanted to do as artists in the future,” Wright said.
While the class entailed doing monologues, crafting portfolios and websites in attempts to get the students to brand themselves, Wright realized that she wanted to touch on diversity within the arts.
She credited her realization with when she went back home and worked as an assistant theater teacher at her high school. The school had predominantly Hispanic students and Wright said her students showed her the realness of life and she saw what was missing in her academic setting.
“We need to go places that people don’t go, we need to start, if we want diversity within the art department and if we want our shows to be diverse, we have to start going to these places,” Wright said.
The places Wright meant were places where diverse students could most likely be found.
Wright said she decided to create a program where multiethnic theater students would go out into the community and do outreach and mentoring programs with local schools.
“[It is] just to get the word out about our department, cause theater is sometimes a safe haven for children and I feel like it helped me a lot with my depression,” Wright said.
Wright said for some ethnic communities, such as the black community, people becoming involved in performing arts may seem far fetched.
“If I wasn’t strong in my faith, or strong in my purpose and the calling that God has in my life, I probably would be ‘oh they’re right, I should do something else that will make me money,” Wright said. “ It’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than a stage and its props.”
What’s important for Wright is that children see that they are positively represented and see the arts as a great area to find that type of representation.
Wright said she is currently in the works of solidifying her idea into an actual recognized organization on campus.
Christy Oxendine, multicultural liaison officer for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences said Wright had reached out to her via email in November 2018 about her plans and the two meet in person a few days later.
Oxendine, who took over the role in the college in September 2018, said Wright was one of the first student meetings she had.
“I thought it was awesome to see her passion and enthusiasm when we were talking,” Oxendine said.
Oxendine said she could see some similarities between what she is trying to build within her position and what Wright was trying to build in the theater program.
“As MLOs that is what we’re trying to do, build community within our multicultural students,” Oxendine said.
She also sees Wright is advocating for diversity and providing a welcoming space as an MLOs advocate and provides a welcoming space for the multicultural students on campus.
For participation within the group, Wright said there are about eight to 10 theater students who were showing up to meetings, wanting to become engaged.
Wright said there was praise for the organization from both Oxendine and faculty within the department.
As graduation nears, future dreams have been dawning ahead for Wright.
Looking back at her four years at Iowa State, Wright said the path she ended up pursuing is mind-blowing.
“It is something way bigger than me,” Wright said.
She said she hoped she could finalize her plans for the organization and have things solidified and hopefully up and running in mid-March around spring break.
“I want it to be more than 15 students going out into the community and it become a regular thing,” Wright said.
Wright said she hoped local students would come and watch the shows.
“I want it to be where no one expects it,” Wright said of the representation she hopes to build within the theater department. “It’s genuine, it’s real, that’s what I want it to be.”