The Juilliard School in New York City has long been considered the gold standard for high-level education in the performing arts.
When playwright Lee Edward Colston II was accepted into the school’s prestigious drama division in 2012, he told CBS News’ Michelle Miller his joy quickly turned to concern over the school’s issues with race and diversity.
“I can sum it up in, like, you know… ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he said.
Nearly a quarter of the school’s drama division students are Black, but Colston says the staff is lacking in diversity.
“If you have, you know, a predominately White faculty, that means there are cultural blind spots, right?” Colston said.
He recalled an incident where he said he heard a White faculty member use the N-word to try to provoke a reaction from the group.
“I don’t think there is a space where White people can guarantee that they can use a racial slur and not guarantee harmful impact,” Colston said.
In a statement, Juilliard said, “We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment in our community, and the drama division has rehearsal guidelines that prohibit the use of the N-word with the exception of an actor speaking a line.”
Current Juilliard student Marion Grey said when she heard about the incident, it “broke her heart.” She recalled a moment she experienced during a workshop she called “Slavery Saturday.”
Grey said her class was asked to pretend they were slaves as a guest speaker played audio of whips, rain, and racial slurs.
“It’s not okay. When you’re listening to whipping soundscapes and White men selling you on an auction block, those are things that still live in my mind,” Grey said.
The workshop was taught by an African-American but Grey said it doesn’t matter because “it was allowed to happen and then it was not handled or addressed in an adequate manner.”
In a statement to CBS News, Juilliard called the workshop a “mistake” and said they “regret that the workshop caused pain for students.” Though Grey maintains the school’s response was inadequate, Juilliard says they provided “support to our students, faculty, and staff.”
Colston believes Juilliard’s issues are partially rooted in the school’s curriculum, which he says is driven by what one teacher called “the classics.”
“There is a multitude of ways, you know, to explore classics, right? And who gets to decide what a classic is? You know, like, what’s a classic for you and what’s a classic for me may not be the same thing,” he said.
He’s not the only Juilliard alum to voice this concern. In 2017, Oscar award-winning actressdescribed feeling left out while attending Juilliard in the early ’90s. In an interview, she said that it felt like it was “constantly squeezing and trying to fit a square into a round hole.”
Colston said he was nervous about speaking out about the school he loves—but found it necessary.
“Some of my faculty are some of the most just generous, beautiful human beings, you know, that I’ve ever met. However, I also love my alma mater enough to tell it the truth. About when it’s making mistakes,” he said.