Actress Ariana DeBose spoke Monday evening about what was most rewarding about appearing in the monumentally popular and ground-breaking musical Hamilton during her keynote presentation at University Housing Services’ Latino Cultural Dinner.

“Art is meant to be thought-provoking, at times provocative. It is supposed to make you think, which is also why Hamilton was so powerful because it did make people think. And it united so many people with different beliefs and different walks of life, because we were united in seeing ourselves on the stage, finally, but also united in the context of ‘raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away.’ So those faces, then those words—that was a really exciting moment for me.”

Associate Provost Dr. Ani Yazedjian conducted and facilitated an hourlong and wide-ranging interview with DeBose that touched on lighter topics, like her hat and her cats, and many serious issues, including her advocacy for the homeless and the bigotry and challenges she has faced as an Afro-Latina woman identifying as queer. DeBose appeared via livestream over three large screens in the Bone Student Center’s Brown Ballroom as about 240 people, including Illinois State President Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, enjoyed a meal of Puetro Rican cuisine.

DeBose launched to fame with her role as “Disco Donna” in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which garnered her a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and a Drama League Award for “Distinguished Performance.” DeBose has also starred in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix adaptation of the hit-Broadway musical The Prom

DeBose talked about the thrill of meeting and working with some of her heroes, like Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Prom co-star Meryl Streep, and Steven Spielberg, who cast her in the iconic role of Anita in his much-anticipated remaking of the Academy Award-winning musical West Side Story. 

“I didn’t even realize I wanted to work with Steven Spielberg. And then all of a sudden he’s like, ‘Hey, you want to be my Anita?’ I was like, ‘Sounds good to me.’ And it turns out, he’s one of the greatest collaborators I’ve ever had.”

Meeting these heavyweights hasn’t left DeBose starstruck, and she talked about how she questions directors who plan to use her in acting roles.

“I ask why certain characters must identify in certain ways. Because if you really look at the industry, there are systems that have said, ‘This must be done this way.’ And in reality it’s not true,” DeBose said. “… So if we keep asking why something is the way it is or why it has to be that way—with the caveat that we can also present the different option because people don’t like to be sort of called out without then you presenting them with something else that’s a possibility—perhaps change will come from this.”

The audience asked DeBose how a female working in a male-dominated field should find their voice. “You got to be bold and you do have to take chances,” DeBose said. “But again, be mindful of your tone and how you present your boldness, right? You want to be heard. It is not about being nonthreatening. This is about intellect. This is about making the role better. You have ideas; you deserve to be heard.”

The audience was also interested in how Debose’s queerness interacted with her Afro-Latina identity. She spoke about encountering hateful and demeaning comments at times even in as a diverse of place as New York City and how she has responded. “You smile, and you kill them with kindness. And I’ll tell you what, I’m happy, and the rhetoric that you’re receiving from those people is not coming from happy people.”

Community service has been important to DeBose. She has worked with women’s rights organizations and sits on the board of directors of Covenant House, an organization she said champions and provides shelter for homeless and LGBTQ youth, and victims of sex trafficking. She advised the students in attendance to be of service whatever career path they choose.

“It just lightens your life, it brings you joy. And that’s really important. We don’t have enough of that in this world. Action, empathy, we can use a little more of that.”

The first cultural dinner of the academic year was co-sponsored by the Association of Residence Halls; Cardinal Court Leadership Association; Tri-Towers Leadership Association; Hewett-Manchester Leadership Association; Watterson Leadership Association; Event Management, Dining and Hospitality; and Latin American and Latino/a Studies. Two cultural dinners are planned for next semester: The Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner is set for January 21, 2022, and the Asian Cultural Dinner featuring Pulitzer Prize-Winning journalist, acclaimed filmmaker, and immigration advocate Jose Antonio Vargas is planned for April 12, 2022. More details will be forthcoming on both events.