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Play Ignites Discussion of Race at Berkeley High

24 October 2008 No Comment

By Will Jason

By the time “Yellowjackets” closed Oct. 19 at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, the play helped raised more than $6,000 for the cash-strapped high school newspaper, the Berkeley High Jacket. But while the play—which follows a racial controversy involving the Jacket 14 years ago—helped to solve the newspaper’s financial crisis, it also brought to light a more persistent challenge that continues to face the paper today.

Set at Berkeley High School in 1994, the play follows the boycott of the Jacket by a group of minority students and teachers after the paper runs a story with a controversial reference to the race of the students involved in a fight. The play depicts the newspaper as a mostly-white club out of touch with the views of many minority students.

When the play ended on closing night, the theater invited the current student editors of today’s Jacket to the stage.

Berkeley high student Danita Sylvester, 16 (left), sitting with students Olivia Page, 15 (center) and Evan Achen, 16 (right). Sylvester and Achen said there is less racial tension at Berkeley High than depicted in “Yellowjackets,” but the theme of the play still resonated.

Berkeley high student Danita Sylvester, 16 (left), sitting with students Olivia Page, 15 (center) and Evan Achen, 16 (right). Sylvester and Achen said there is less racial tension at Berkeley High than depicted in “Yellowjackets,” but the theme of the play still resonated.

“We were all white, which was really interesting and a bit embarrassing,” said Hayley Beckett, 17, managing editor for the Jacket and a senior at Berkeley High.

White students make up a little over a third of the student body at Berkeley High, but for the last 15 years they have dominated the staffs—especially the editorial board—of the Jacket, according to interviews with students and current and former teachers.

Students both on and off the newspaper staff who saw the play said its themes still resonated today.

“It was still pretty accurate,” junior Danita Sylvester, 16, who is not on the Jacket staff, said of the play.

Sylvester, who is black, said she sees less racial tension at Berkeley High today than what is shown in the play. But as a Jacket reader, she said some of the paper’s articles are more appealing, culturally, to white students.

“I think it could have more opinions from the mainstream,” she said.

Jacket staff members said the newspaper has pushed to recruit a more diverse staff, but described a cycle whereby the paper covers stories from the perspective of the staff, which makes it more appealing to readers with similar backgrounds.

“We’re really working hard to change the make-up of our writers,” said Editor-In-Chief Megan Winkelman, 17, who is white. “Part of it is students feel unwelcome when coming in, you have students who are mostly one race.”

Racial imbalance is not unique to the Jacket, or high school journalism. Nationally, minorities make up only about 14 percent of journalists at daily newspapers, according to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. That is less than half the percentage represented by minorities in the population as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At the high school level, the lack of diversity on student newspaper staffs could be a function of racial disparities in other aspects of education, according to Rick Ayers, a former Berkeley High teacher who was the paper’s faculty advisor from 1996 to 2003.

The Jacket “tends to be the province of elite students, the [advanced placement] track students, and there’s a lot of white students,” said Ayers, who is white.

Yellowjackets playwright Itamar Moses, 31, is a Berkeley native and was himself a Jacket editor during the 1990’s. He said the play is meant to encourage more discussion about social segregation at Berkeley High.

“It may be certain subcultures at the school are perceived to be welcoming to a certain subset of people and it’s a very hard cycle to break,” Moses said.

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