TEACHING THEATRE FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
At midterms in the spring semester of 2015, I sat down with student enrolled in my THEATRE FOR SOCIAL CHANGE class at MSU and asked, "What is on your minds?" The 14 young women and one transman uniformly identified gender and sexuality as the most pressing concerns, so we spent the remainder of the semester developing a performance piece to stage their concerns and help them find some answers to the age old questions about identity. The result, a 40-minute long, theatre piece that braided their original songs, poetry, monologues and scene work together, called THIS IS WHO WE ARE. Friends, family, and staff members who saw the performance in May 2015 described it as "one of the best plays they had ever seen." For a sense of the work, check out the video.
In October-November 2015, I was asked to be the faculty director of the 43rd annual BLACK POWER RALLY. In the belly of the Student Services building for two weeks, I helped MSU undergrads develop an hour-long, interdisciplinary performance event addressing the tension between “real” and “hashtag” activism in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. My responsibilities included directing four student scenes, and setting sound and lighting cues for over a dozen student acts featuring some 60 performers. Most importantly, I taught students the history of Civil Rights and Black Power organizing as we rehearsed the show, both the published records of the movement leaders and the embodied songs, chants and slogans that galvanized emerging activists to occupy public space and challenge Jim Crow laws. The culminating November 8th performance in the Wharton Center’s Cobb Hall drew an audience of over 800. Members of the Black Student Alliance executive board have repeatedly stated my support made this show one of their best because the staging and content resonated.
These productions offer more than entertainment. Because the casts and I were engaged in rigorous, interdisciplinary, humanities-based, intellectual work, the performances became opportunities to communicate what we had learned. But also, they became sites through which to pose critical questions about what it takes to create a fair, just and equitable society. This kind of commitment to engaged, creative, scholarship forms the core of my teaching wherever I am.
I do not draw lines between opportunities to teach or do civic engagement, though often the first term is used to describe work with undergrads while the second signals relationships with people in other communities. I consider work in both sites to be opportunities to exchange knowledge and engage in the public life of the community.
JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER: Stage Reading (Oct-Nov 2015)
The Universalist Unitarian Church of Greater Lansing asked if I would direct a stage reading of the play, JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER, in October 2015 at the church and at MSU. The story of a Black man wrongfully convicted of shooting a Benton Harbor police officer featured a cast of twelve community members, MSU students and faculty. During rehearsals I taught the cast of novice performers basic acting skills, including script analysis, sight-reading, blocking, and how to collaborate with others on stage. For the formerly incarcerated members of the cast, the production created a safe place in which to reflect upon their own pasts and share their personal knowledge of life on both sides of the prison door. Their contributions brought a level of authenticity and authority to the production. The two packed performances created opportunities for the university and surrounding communities to gather together to reflect upon the state of the Michigan prison system, to exchange knowledge, and engage in the kind of hard but necessary community dialogue about criminal justice reform the state needs to ensure safety and justice for all.
STORY CATCHERS DRAMA CLUBS IN MICHIGAN CORRECTIONAL FACILITIES (Summer 2016)
In summer 2016, I started offering a series of improvisational theatre workshops to inmates in Michigan correctional facilities -- for women confined at the Ingham County Jail in Mason and the Richard A. Handlon (Michigan Training Unit) men's prison in Ionia. Inspired by Bryan Stevenson's autobiography JUST MERCY, I called this my STORY CATCHERS initiative, though officers and prisoners refer to the programs simply as Drama Club inside. Stevenson met an elderly lady on the steps of an Alabama courthouse. She had lost her grandson to violence years before. During the trial, another elderly Black woman offered her a shoulder to lean on. In the years since, this grandmother started coming to the courthouse to offer similar support to families. She considered herself a stone catcher -- placed there to help catch or stop the harm people throw at each other so that no one else gets hurt.
I believe the arts can help put words to experiences that may feel incomprehensible and overwhelming, alleviating feelings of pain, anger, shame and dismay. The sharing of real and fictional stories can end isolation and encourage people to (re)connect with others. Collaborating with other inmates on an assignment, giving feedback and physicalizing the ideas embedded in a given text builds community, strengthens critical thinking and refines complex problem solving skills. Participants gain a greater sense of their own creative, intellectual capabilities. Practice collaborating with others in scene work will encourage empathy and respect for others. These workshops cannot make amends for past wrongs, ease poverty, cure mental illness or undo the most punitive aspects of the criminal legal system. But by the end of our sessions together, it is my sincere hope the participants will have developed a deeper understanding of both who they are, what is happening in the world around them, and what they themselves are most powerfully capable of. Call it one small step towards transformative justice.