College of Charleston student Kenya Gadsden recently won the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) Young Scholar Award for her paper “Color-Blind Casting: The Perpetuation of Black Invisibility in American Theatre.”

Gadsden, a theater major who recently stage managed CofC’s production of Marisol, was the only undergraduate to win the award.

“This is a major accomplishment, and we are all so proud of Kenya and her work,” says Janine McCabe, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance in the School of the Arts. “There is only one undergraduate winner of this award each year and the competition is tough.”

Gadsden’s paper was originally an assignment for an aesthetics class that she took last spring through the Department of Philosophy. The paper was inspired by a textbook chapter that featured a concept dealing with the exclusion of African-Americans, women, disabled people and other marginalized groups from the arts. Gadsden’s paper specifically focuses on the African-American experience.

“Color-blind casting is the practice of casting actors without considering the actors’ race or ethnicity,” Gadsden explains. “Actors are selected for a production solely on their talent. In theory this is a great solution, but in practice it is problematic. The practice of color-blind casting perpetuates black invisibility by asking directors to ignore an actor’s race and how that affects the character’s relationship with the audience and other characters.”

Gadsden focused specifically on African-American culture in this context and borrowed inspiration from Paul Taylor’s book Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, which outlines different ways African-Americans are excluded from the arts.

“Something about it clicked,” says Gadsden. “I just focused on the African-American experience because as a black woman that’s all I can really speak to and I can only empathize with other marginalized groups.”

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Gadsden did not consider herself a creative person until she found her passion for stage managing in high school.

“Oh, this feels right, this feels like my niche,” she recalls.

Susan Kattwinkel, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance who mentored Kenya through the process of expanding her class assignment into a paper, says Gadsden’s success bodes well for the department’s newest concentration area.

“Kenya is one of the first majors in the department’s new theatre studies concentration and she’s also an excellent stage manager,” says Kattwinkel. “We’re very proud of her!”

Several other CofC students attended this year’s SETC conference, where they took part in classes, competitions, presentations, a job fair, met representatives from potential graduate programs and more. In addition to Gadsden, student Natasha Cox won first place for Undergraduate Costume Design, and student Margaret Lavigne received an Honorable Mention for Costume Crafts.

Elizabeth M. Quarles is a sophomore from Atlanta, Georgia, studying creative writing and studio art at College of Charleston. (Feature photo of Kenya Gadsden by Heather Moran)