Characters of the "Brown Face" play protest in a scene in Zoellner Art Center's Diamond Theater. "Brown Face" centers around a group of college students as they try to find their identities in a competitive world. (Courtesy of Jada Gonzalez, '24)

‘Brown Face’ calls attention to cultural appropriation


In an advertisement for the Lehigh theater department’s production of “Brown Face,” play director Kashi Johnson asks, “How far would you go to have your voice heard?”

Written by Carissa Atallah, “Brown Face” is a play about the challenges two best friends face as they struggle to find their own voices, recognize privilege and navigate identities. 

In the play, a young girl, Gracia, asks her white U.S.-born friend Mariza, to perform her poetry in a cafe due to Gracia’s DREAMer status, which restricts her from performing because she does not want people to find out she is undocumented. According to the DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors, residency is granted to undocumented people who arrive in the U.S. as a minor.

This decision leads to Mariza becoming recognized as a Latinx activist and competing in collegiate slam poetry.

The play debuted on April 14 in Zoellner Arts Center’s Diamond Theater. Johnson said Lehigh staged the second-ever performance of Atallah’s show and the first-ever Latinx show put on by the department. 

During production, Johnson enlisted Daphnie Sicre, ‘98, to be in charge of researching and educating the cast on the various topics covered in the play. 

Sicre, a theater professor at Loyola Marymount University, led a series of workshops before the first week of rehearsals that covered topics including the Latinx experience, colorism and brown face — the practice of wearing makeup to imitate the appearance of a nonwhite person.

“As a director, I was always looking for ways to give my cast the most information so that they could deliver the strongest performance possible,” Sicre said. 

Ivery Marquez ’23, playing as lead Garcia Flores, sits on a bed in front of a screen that states “Brown people are NOT a national crisis.” “Brown Face” played from April 14, 2023 to April 22, 2023 in the Diamond Theater. (Courtesy of Jada Gonzalez, ’24)

One of these workshops included a Zoom visit from Atallah, who recently completed her MFA in playwriting. Johnson said this allowed the cast to pick Atallah’s brain about a show that has few stagings to reference.

“(Atallah) just gave us advice and said, ‘Lean into the humor of the show,’” Ivery Marquez, ‘23, who plays Gracia, said. “Have fun with it. There are funny moments that you know bring the show a lot more depth than just being a serious hard topic.’”

With this advice in mind, Marquez said she worked hard to bring light to her character and tap into the wide range of emotions Gracia experiences throughout the show. Marquez said she identifies with Gracia’s story.

 When she first came to Lehigh, Marquez said, she experienced a culture shock. 

“I remember how hard it was for me to make friends, how hard it was for me to feel sure of myself,” Marquez said. “The imposter syndrome was so severe.”

After reading Atallah’s script, Marquez said she knew she wanted to be involved in the production in any capacity. She said her participation heals and gives a voice to her first-year self. 

She said she hopes people can resonate with her character.

Marquez’s co-star Brooke Littman, ‘25, plays Mariza, a complicated character who appropriates Latinx culture. Littman said she was nervous at first to take on the role because “Brown Face” was only her second play and her first as a lead role.

“I spoke with (Johnson), and she helped me find that confidence in myself,” Littman said. “She’s told me that in order to do this role, I’m going to have to be fearless on that stage and confident in what I’m doing.”

The play engages the audience through guest participation opportunities.

Characters of the “Brown Face” play raise their fists up. “Brown Face” combines play acting and poetry slam as college students navigate through a competitive space of spoken work poetry. (Courtesy of Jada Gonzalez, ’24)

Throughout the show, the audience is called upon to snap and clap when poems or lines recited by the cast resonate with them. Set in 2019, the play deals with immigration, first-generation struggles and the Trump presidency. 

Marquez said she has heard people questioning the necessity of performing “Brown Face.”

“Having a show like this is so important to continue those conversations because it’s not at the forefront in the same way that it was (in 2019),” Marquez said. “But all those things that were happening in that time still happened today.”

Littman said she agrees the play is a powerful mechanism for discussion and social change. She said she is grateful to use the platform she has been given to help the Hispanic and Latinx community.

Gianna LaMena, ‘24, attended the opening night of the production. 

“This show is so important and relevant to our current climate, but it was also really entertaining,” LaMena said.

At the end of the show, the cast asks the audience to decide whether or not to forgive Gracia and Mariza for their actions. 

Johnson said it is an exciting and timely inclusion, which the spoken-word nature of the show makes possible. She said it has sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and cancel culture.

“The fact that you’re talking about it afterwards, whether or not you liked it,” Johnson said. “It’s just important because that’s where it lives: in the car on the ride home, in the conversations after.”

Johnson said in her 24 years at Lehigh, she and the department have brought voices that are not always the prominent or majority voices to the front of the stage. 

As an Afro-Latina person and Lehigh alumna, Johnson said she is proud to see Zoellner identifying voices that need to be heard this production season. 

“It’s important for Lehigh to be exposed to a story like ‘Brown Face,’” Johnson said. “There’s a lot that we think we know about a certain given community that we aren’t aware of the different complexities, and I think it’s important to reflect on that.”

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