On her first day of college theater class, a professor handed Desirée Dabney a monologue from a play about Harriet Tubman. Students who were not people of color were given pieces from Shakespeare. “It blew my mind,” she recalls.
As a young actor growing up in Richmond, Dabney had played a broad spectrum of characters: “I’m thinking, I can pull speeches from MacBeth or Romeo and Juliet from memory, why are they giving me this?” The moment set her firmly on a path toward reforming theater education. “After that day, I was fighting for things to change. I was thinking, ‘this will not happen to anyone else,’” Dabney says.
In her performances on local stages or her videos on TikTok, Dabney projects a sassy irreverence but she is dead serious when it comes to her work as an educator. “I’ve been a performer all my life but I’m a theater educator first,” she asserts. “I have always wanted to change the face of theater education.”
In addition to being the first performing arts teacher at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School in south Richmond, Dabney works on two projects for the Fine Arts division of the Virginia Department of Education (DOE) and serves on the Virginia Theatre Association Board of Directors. In all of her various pursuits, she has consistently gone beyond boosterism for the arts and focused on making fundamental, structural changes. Her work is having an impact on statewide, school-wide and individual levels.
“She’s literally amazing,” enthuses LaTonya Waller, principal at Boushall, where Dabney has taught since 2019. “She has been instrumental in coordinating our programs on a cross-curricular basis across the arts, not just theater but visual arts, dance and music.” Waller particularly appreciates how Dabney uplifts individual students, bringing them into presentations for the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools or promoting them for opportunities as district-wide scholars. “She also has a particular fascination for students because she’s a working actor,” Waller says. “I can’t say enough about how awesome she is.”
Dabney comes from a family of overachievers: her father was inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame and her sister was a competitive cheerleader with Cheer Extreme AllStars. Her grandmother founded Visions Unlimited, an Atlanta-based organization that provides services to “at-promise” youth, including those who are “ex-customers of the justice system.” So service and activism have always been wrapped up in her career goals.
Even so, a commitment to educational reform hasn’t sidelined Dabney’s performing career. “I did not go through years of training not to be performing every day of my life,” she says. Her high-profile credits include appearing in “Swagger,” the Apple TV series inspired Kevin Durant’s basketball career, and working with Broadway bigshots on an audio version of the hit musical “Dreamgirls” for the Clubhouse platform. But she also expresses her passion for the arts through targeted initiatives that can lift up the next generation of potential performers.
“My latest goal is to add more theater teachers to Title I schools,” she says. Title I is a federal program that grants funds to schools whose students demonstrate the highest level of poverty. “Title I schools are filled with beautiful black and brown children that may not get the same services as other schools; why not?” Dabney asks.
She also hopes to broaden the theater curriculum beyond its traditional Eurocentricity.
“For actors, everything is centered in Stanislavsky and Meisner, which can be great,” she explains. “But there’s also the Black Acting Methods book with other options teachers need to know about.” Her work with DOE focuses on building alternative resources for teachers. “Teachers need to know about these different options and learn about them first before they can effectively bring them into the classroom as an option,” she says.
Even when so much of her effort goes into structural change, she always has the individual student in mind. “My main goal is that I don’t want another child to have a bad experience with something as great as theater,” she says. “You should not be singled out for your skin color, for your size, for nothing. A theater classroom should be the safest place.”