At The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center this past Saturday, the relationship between race and theatre was the topic of discussion.
Audience members probed questions of stereotypes, societal pressures and diversity, while bringing suppressed feelings to the surface.
The third annual Black Theatre Symposium, hosted by the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, provided a healthy environment for attendees to embrace their race and culture while pursuing theatre, a profession notorious for a deliberate lack of diversity.
The event encouraged discussion with the aid of knowledgeable, empathetic mentors and peers.
As attendees filed into the Clarice in the morning., they were welcomed to the Gildenhorn Recital Hall with a presentation from Johnetta Boone, a stylist and designer in film, television, commercial and photography. She has over 20 years of experience, and was a student at the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts, as well as the Fashion Institute of Technology.
After the kick-off, the rest of the day consisted of three Break Out sessions, as well as a Chat ‘N Chew catered lunch featuring a panel discussing diversity in production. The symposium concluded with Ghetto Symphony, a performance that brought the life of black urban youth in Baltimore to the stage.
The air in the room was heavy with silence except for the occasional sound of soft footsteps, forceful outbreath and the faint scrawling of pens on paper. The palpability of thoughts, however, made a distinct presence in the room.
At noon, the Black Theatre Symposium featured a workshop titled “Racial Battle Fatigue,” a segment where individuals were encouraged to write freely without borders, censorship or restrictions, answering prompts such as:
I am a soldier in the racial battle because I …
I am so weary of having to …
I must fight on because I …
Workshop leader, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, encouraged writers to rise between each prompt, walk around, breathe and stretch to reset their brains before proceeding to the next question.
Some prompts resonated with participants more than others, evoking a response the writer didn’t expect. Such was the case was for 15-year-old Lauren Miller, a sophomore at Suitland High School, who said the prompt “I was left bruised and scarred by … ” spoke to her most.
“It was very touching. When I did the prompt, I first tried not to think about what I was going to write and just let my hand do the talking,” Miller said. “When I write, I always think ‘Oh, I don’t want to write this’ or ‘No, they’re not ready for that’ so it was surprising because I didn’t have to think about anything. When I just let my hand do the talking, it was like ‘that was not supposed to come out’ and it was really beautiful.”
Senior theater major at Howard University, Ryan Swain, acts, directs and produces. During the workshop, he read aloud poignant lines about race in the arts. “I want racial harmony so that there is no need to be a competition with other communities for artistic expression but to try making art for the betterment of the human condition and healing.”
Swain said the first play that he is currently writing is about black men being objectified by American society.
He said that black individuals are objectified in the arts scene. By objectified he means black individuals are “cash cows or the entertainment” and continued to describe that the United States proliferates the mindset of “not understanding what [they] have to say about the human condition as far as [their] breath is concerned.”
Participants read their work in front of one another, creating poems and sound collages with their work, giving all a sense of release, closure and expression.
Senior theater major Adanna Nnawuba was volunteering at the event. She said when she is on stage, the faces in the audience disappear and she feels she wholly embodies the character she is portraying.
“On one hand I want to entertain, then I also want to make a difference and teach people. Like when people see the performances they learn about a whole new aspect of a new culture or things going on in the world,” Nnawuba said.
In the middle of the day, more than 100 participants gathered with a panel of professors and professionals in the theater world to talk about the intersection of race with theater. Keith Hamilton Cobb stood at the side of the room, resplendent in a muted gray suit.
Cobb is a playwright and actor. He wrote a play titled American Moor, based off of Shakespeare’s Othello, which he is the only actor. He says he did not become an actor, he was born one. “It feels correct like I’m doing what I was put here to do,” Cobb said.
Cobb spoke about racial inequities he has come across in the theater business. “You’re still in America and the overarching ideas that govern the country govern the American theater as well.”
The event buzzed with a hopeful energy. Participants presumably left with more questions than answers.
Featured Photo Credit: The Writer’s Bloc staff reporter Raye Weigel (right) interviewing Ryan S. (Senior, Theater Arts major at Howard University) following the “Racial Battle Fatigue” creative expression workshop. (Joe Duffy/Bloc Reporter)
Raye Weigel is a sophomore multiplatform journalism and English major and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jordan Stovka is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.