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It’s Lit! Summers ’19 Explores Racial Bias in Theatre Lighting


Adrian Summers ’19 noticed something intriguing during the fall main stage production of Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play.

While he was working on the lighting design for the performance, Summers became fascinated with the manipulation of light and color on set, particularly how it interacted with the different hues of the performers’ skin. “I was really interested in the way the amber and green gels interacted with the elaborate and colorful makeup used during the final act,” Summers said. “Specifically how it read differently on the actor with darker skin.” 

About Adrian Summers ’19

Majors: Africana studies and theatre

Hometown: Bronx, N.Y.

High School: Bronx High School for Medical Science

read about other summer research students
 

It was then that he decided to pursue his passion for light design with an Emerson Foundation grant. His project, “It’s Lit! Investigating Inherited Racial Biases in Cinematic and Stage Lighting,” explores the history of racial bias in cinematic and stage lighting, as well as the use of light and color for contemporary performers.

Under the guidance of Resident Designer and Production Manager Jeff Larson, Summers is looking to solve a unique challenge.

“In watching films like Twilight that create beautiful lighting for the diamond skin of the pale vampires, I wondered if the same was possible for actors portraying characters with very dark skin,” he said. “More recently, films such as Moonlight, Black Panther and the television series Insecure have inspired me by shining a revealing, appealing and colorful light on people of color. This got me thinking further about the power of light in film—particularly in relation to skin tone.”

Summers is studying this history dating all the way back to the 1900s. Integrating past practices with more experimental techniques, he is working with the lighting equipment in the Romano and Barrett Theaters, as well as cameras from the Research and Design Studio, to explore new approaches.

“I hope to learn the tools, techniques, and aesthetics of the lighting designer and cinematographer—both how to use them and how to break them to create more dynamic, bold and inclusive lighting choices,” he said.

Summers will continue working with this project in lighting design for his thesis, which will primarily feature students of color. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a fellowship in African Diasporic theatre.

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