What do blood transfusions and puppets have in common? Both are on Susanna Jaramillo's (E' 19) plate this semester.
When she’s not agonizing over her biochemical engineering senior design project on ABO blood platelets, you can find Susana Jaramillo, a former video producer for The Daily Pennsylvanian, backstage at Platt Performing Arts gearing up for her latest show. Currently, she is performing Little Shop of Horrors, this year's Spring Fling Quadramics play about a man-eating Venus flytrap (hence the puppet). Humble, focused, and passionate, Susanna is a backstage powerhouse skilled at directing, stage managing, props, and lighting design. Her performing arts career at Penn includes 32 shows. Street spoke with Susanna about her work as a director and advocate for diverse representation in the performing arts along with her term as the first female president of Glee Club.
Last fall Susanna directed Yellow Face by David Henry Wong for the Front Row Theater Company. Yellow Face is a semi–autobiographical play about Asian–American representation in the arts. The issue is close to Susanna’s heart. A child of immigrants, her mother is from Shanghai and her father is from Colombia. She recalls that the conversations between the main character and his father felt similar to the ones she had with her own Chinese mother.
Even though the play was written in the early 2000s, Susanna felt as though the themes remain incredibly relevant today. Susanna points to Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved Before as overdue strides in Asian American media representation but notes that “yellow face”—or white actors impersonating Asians—still remains a pervasive problem.
The lack of diverse representation in Penn's performing arts scene first struck Susanna her junior year, when she served as chair for the Theatre Arts Council, meaning she was the head representative on the Performing Arts Council, overseeing seven theatre arts groups on campus. She saw a sharp divide in the theatre community, between the majority and a smaller minority of culturally based theatre groups, who were actively working to increase diversity in performing arts. She adds that shows dealing with race would often get reframed as plays about class to avoid issues with casting or these kinds of shows would get sidelined altogether.
“People say we can’t cast that role because have no one of that race,” Susanna says, adding that that kind of attitude is very frustrating and limited. “We’re at a school of 10,000 people; there’s a chance you could find someone.”
Susanna is the first to admit that “increasing diversity in a group is hard.” Change is slow to happen. But she says that despite the difficulty, “you have to be willing to try. You have to make a concerted effort to reach out and find people who fall into those identity groups especially when they don’t know what’s out there."
For Susanna, directing Yellow Face, a play about Asian–American representation in the arts, proved her point about the importance of diverse casting and fair representation.
“I wanted to show it is possible to do a show with majority people of color on your staff,” Susanna says proudly. While casting Yellow Face, Susana made a deliberate effort to recruit a diverse cast. She and her team reached out to the Asian–American community at Penn including the Pan–Asian American Community House and Asian Pacific Student Coalition.
“We didn’t just want Asian Americans working as actors but also on the production staff,” Susanna says. “TAC-e [Penn's performing arts council] hasn’t always been the most traditionally diverse space in terms of race.”
Susanna seized onto the opportunity as a means to change the status quo while advocating a cause close to her heart. “It’s a balancing act, but it’s so crucial to give people a voice who don’t have one,” Susanna exclaims.
Susanna says one of her most gratifying experiences was seeing new faces in the audience of Yellow Face, people who had never been to a theatre show at Penn before, as well as seeing members of the Asian American community who came out to support their friends and peers.
She remembers thinking, "This is amazing. This is more than I ever could have asked for.”
Although too humble to mention it outright, Susanna is also the first female president of the Glee Club. For context, at 157 years old, the Glee Club is the oldest performing arts club at Penn. Although the performing cast is all–male, the music and technical staff are of all genders. Susanna joined the tech staff her freshman year, as one of four women in the club. She encountered “very overt sexism” in the club, which she found very strange and frustrating.
“I was unsure if that was just the way that it was or if people just ignored it,” Susanna admits. Nevertheless, she stayed on tech staff and worked to change the club culture from within.
“I don’t like talking about myself," Susanna laughs. "But I think I was the first female vice president too.” She’s pleased to note the club now has eight women on staff, which is double the amount there was her freshman year.
“It’s exciting to know that when I graduate there will still be these strong women who will fight to make sure they are consistently respected within the group,” Susanna says.
Senior spring hasn’t kept Susanna any less busy. In February she directed Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a two–man show about a transgender East German rockstar. Right now she’s gearing up for the final crunch before her show, the Quadramics play for Spring Fling. Little Shop of Horrors premieres this Thursday, April 11. Tickets are available here.