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Dismantling the effects of colonialism in theatre

Public seminars at Northwestern to explore minimizing racism, imperialism and more in historical performances for a new generation of audiences

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Is it possible to decolonize works by Mozart, Shakespeare and other renowned artists? Leading theatre professionals and scholars gather at Northwestern University to tackle that question and investigate how theatre can become more inclusive, equitable and culturally sensitive. Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “On Decolonizing Theatre” is a multi-disciplinary series of public panel discussions that explore the theory and practice of decolonization through cultural production.

Throughout this academic year, the Sawyer Seminar will feature public performances and conversations on how today’s artists have been grappling with issues relating to colonialism, imperialism, racism, patriarchy and misogyny in theatrical works from the late 17th through the early 19th century, including plays, operas and ballets.

“We could ignore 18th-century repertoires because they come from the people who laid the groundwork for a globalized masculinist, racist and heterosexual power base,” said Tracy C. Davis, Ethel M. Barber Professor of Performing arts. “But as artists across this continent are showing, it is powerful to rethink these works, to retell them, and to bring Indigenous, Black, Latine and non-majoritarian perspectives to bear on sometimes beloved, sometimes rediscovered repertoires.”

The public is invited to join conversations between cutting-edge artists and internationally renowned scholars from the humanities and social sciences as they question the ongoing legacies of colonialism and how to counter them through cultural production and criticism.

On Thursday, Sept. 21 from 6 p.m. to 7:15 p.m., the media and public are invited to attend the fall program launch in the Master Classroom of Regenstein Hall, 60 Arts Circle Drive, on the Evanston campus. The event offers a preview of the seminar’s year-long programming, featuring brief remarks from the project leaders and a performance of an operatic aria.

The Sawyer Seminar is a joint effort by the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Bienen School of Music, and the School of Communication.

Learn more about “On Decolonizing Theatre” on the program’s website or email


Event schedule

Launch Event
Thursday, Sept. 21, 6 p.m.-7:15 p.m.
Regenstein Hall, Master Class Room

Hear brief remarks from project leaders and a performance of an operatic aria followed by an audience talkback

Decolonizing Mozart’s Operas
Thursday, Oct. 5, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
Kresge Hall 1515, Evanston Campus

Mozart’s best-known operas are firmly entrenched in the performance canon, yet modern sensibilities chafe at the elements of racism, misogyny and anti-Islamicism. Many critics, performers and scholars have long been aware of these problematic aspects of these works, which sit uneasily alongside their exceptional aesthetic qualities. Can Mozart be decolonized? This event, featuring video clips and commentaries by guest artists from the Pacific Opera Project and Canadian Opera Company, will examine several recent stagings of “The Magic Flute” and “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” which explore these issues and their practical impact on production today.

The Rosina Project
Thursday, Nov. 2, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
Location TBD

Join us on Nov. 2 as we consider how The Rosina Project, a collaboration between the Chicago Fringe Opera and the street dance company BraveSoul Movement, transforms Rossini’s 1816 opera “The Barber of Seville” into an immersive 21st-century house party with an original, feminist story of empowerment. 

This event will feature brief video clips and discussion with several artists involved in the creation and staging of The Rosina Project: the choreographer Kelsa Robinson; Daniel “BRAVEMONK” Haywood (who interpreted the role of Basilio); the hip-hop artist Pinqy Ring; and the director of Chicago Fringe Opera, George Cederquist.

Arts Leadership and Innovation Summit
Saturday, Nov. 18
Northwestern Chicago campus
Abbott Hall

The “On Decolonizing Theatre” Sawyer Seminar is thrilled to highlight the upcoming Arts Leadership and Innovation Summit, a conference and course offered through a collaboration between DePaul University, Northwestern University and the League of Chicago Theatres. An interactive professional summit will take place on Nov. 18 at Northwestern’s downtown campus to share research and resources, advance IDEA work and explore innovative models and solutions for the theatre industry. Hosted by the next generation of leaders, summit attendees will include Chicago theatre professionals (representative of organizations small to large), partner organizations (i.e., unions), and students from Chicago-area university theatre programs. For more information about the summit, email Professor Barbara Butts at

The Revenge
Tuesday, Jan. 16 and Monday, Jan. 22, 2024
Virtual Seminar (link TBA)

Immensely popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Edward Young’s “The Revenge” (1721) ghosts a tale that Shakespeare’s audiences will recognize — a general and his new bride manipulated to tragic ends — but in the context of Spain’s conquests in North Africa. In this tale the revenger is the Moor — Zanga, an enslaved prince — who wreaks righteous vengeance on his oppressor. The fiery Zanga, a favorite role of both Ira Aldridge and Edmund Kean, finally gets his return to the spotlight.

In partnership with Red Bull Theatre (New York City), two online events are planned. On Jan. 16, there will be a panel discussion on Zoom with scholars Lisa Freeman (University of Illinois-Chicago); Amy Huang (Bates College); Bridget Orr (Vanderbilt University); and Cornesha Tweede (Arizona State University). On Jan. 22, a reading will be hosted online. Both events will be made available for asynchronous viewing for about a week.

Cato, A Tragedy
Monday, Jan. 29, 2024
Location TBD
Panel discussion with: Misty Anderson (University of Tennessee); Sara Monoson (Northwestern University); Melvin Rogers (Brown University); and Al Tillery (Northwestern University).

Joseph Addison’s “Cato” (1713) depicts the final days of Cato the Younger (95 – 46 BCE), rendering him an icon of democracy, liberty and virtue, as he resists the tyranny of Julius Caesar. The play raises fundamental questions about citizenship, freedom and race that continue to resonate in the present.

This event focuses on a production of “Cato” recently staged at the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Theatre. Clips from the production will be viewed and a discussion about how the creative team activates Addison’s text for a 21st-century audience.

Spring, 2024
Location TBD
BOUND is produced by Against the Grain Theatre and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It uses musical avatars to represent the real-life stories of immigrants experiencing xenophobic persecution.