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Alumni Spotlight

Nicole Smart

SPS ’09

“Simply put, what you see on stage is not necessarily representative of the demographics of our nation.”
Nicole Smart

Hamilton was undeniably a boon for performers of color, but the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) recognizes that the industry has a long way to go when it comes to minorities. To that end, the labor union, which represents professional theater actors and stage managers, named Nicole Smart as its first-ever director of diversity. “Simply put,” she says, “What you see on stage is not necessarily representative of the demographics of our nation.”

    Slamming that reality home is a three-year AEA study of shows that opened between 2013 and 2015. It revealed that African American performers claimed just 11 percent of the principal roles in Broadway and touring plays, and a mere 9 percent in musicals. The stats for women are better—they win 35 percent of the principal roles in plays and 42 percent of those in musicals—but women are paid less.

   While the union cannot mandate casting decisions, “we can advocate for gender equality and inclusive hiring,” Smart says. She has set out to engage everyone from casting directors and playwrights to producers and audience members. “This is about celebrating, appreciating, and embracing people for who they are,” Smart says. “I’m here to take on the charge and do something that’s going to be impactful.”
—Barbara Stepko
(Photo by Andre D. Wagner)

Anabella Aspiras

WAG ’14

Anabella Aspiras

“The reality is, your zip code is a stronger determinant of the kind of care you get than your genetic code,” Aspiras says.

In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called upon Vice President Joe Biden to oversee an effort to end cancer, known as the Cancer Moonshot. Anabella Aspiras was recruited as director of patient engagement for the initiative—and it was her mission to enlighten policymakers on the systemic challenges that cancer patients in lower socioeconomic brackets face.
    Aspiras brings unique insight to the issue, having witnessed firsthand the devastation a diagnosis can bring: in addition to having been a registered nurse, she also ushered her mother through treatment for metastatic breast cancer in 2007. “The struggles patients and their families go through are many, particularly when facing hurdles without a strong support system or disposable income,” she says. “These things can come together to exacerbate what is already an awful situation.”

Today, Aspiras is the senior director of strategic partnerships and outreach for the oncology vertical of the Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund. The organization aims to deliver affordable and high-quality services—through hospitals, clinics, community outreach, and diagnostic labs—to resource-limited cities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, through impact investing. “The reality is, your zip code is a stronger determinant of the kind of care you get than your genetic code,” Aspiras says. “That has to change.”
—Barbara Stepko (Photo by Christopher Domurat)

Tania León


It was one of the most turbulent episodes in US history. In 1957, nine African American students were integrated into a formerly all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, accompanied by armed federal troops in battle gear. To mark the 60th anniversary of that event, four arias from The Little Rock Nine—a work-in-progress opera by composer Tania León and librettist Thulani Davis—were performed at a ceremony at the University of Central Arkansas College of Fine Arts and Communication, which commissioned the project. Among those in attendance: scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who served as the work’s historical consultant, and Little Rock Nine member Minnijean Brown-Trickey, now 76. “She told me she couldn’t always hear the music,” León says of her conversation with Brown-Trickey after the show, “because when the woman started singing, she started crying.”
    With a score incorporating various genres of American music—gospel, jazz, and ragtime among them—León hopes to convey a message of empathy and compassion that is particularly relevant given recent incidents of racial unrest. “This is a document for future generations to see how we lived,” says León, who aims to complete the opera by the end of this year. “Composers have always taken that responsibility, long before movies arrived on the scene. Mozart and Beethoven weren’t just narrating the tragedy of a specific person—they were saying something.”
—Barbara Stepko (Photo by Andrea Morales)

Tania León

Photo of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, ignores the screams and stares of fellow students and their parents on her first day of school, September 6, 1957. (Photo: Bettmann/Gettyimages)

Tabitha Soren

WSUC ’89

Many Gen Xers recall Tabitha Soren as a reporter for MTV News, where she interviewed headline-makers including President Bill Clinton and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. These days, as a photographer, Soren says, “I’m still searching for truth—it’s just an emotional one.”

The most recent product of that exploration is a book about baseball. In 2002, Soren started shooting the Oakland A’s minor league draft picks; she wound up following them for 15 years. Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream (Aperture) is a compilation of those provocative images accompanied by personal narratives from the players and contributions from writers including Dave Eggers. Some of these minor leaguers—former Yankee Nick Swisher, for example—met with success in the majors. Others dealt with injuries and making a life apart from the game they loved.

“For me, it’s about that 19th-century idea that with hard work, success is within anyone’s reach,” Soren says. “At the same time, someone has to win, make the team, and that means someone else doesn’t. I wanted to stick around until they had figured out that it wasn’t going to happen for them, in spite of the sacrifices they had made.”
—Barbara Stepko

“I’m still searching for truth—it’s just an emotional one.”

Tabitha Soren