"Art, Legacy & Community connects in such a timely way with the rising tide of social activism in the United States...art and activism are very alive and very well.”
We devised Art, Legacy & Community as an intervention to use artistic process and production as a forum for our students to examine race, racial representation, and racial justice on our campus, in our region and across our nation.
Our work began with the Saturday School Open Studio, an all-day event that used theater practice to explore the viability of establishing an independent African-centered school for Black youth in the Pioneer Valley. It was held at the Malcolm X Cultural Center in the Southwest area of campus. The program brought families with young people from area elementary, middle and high schools to work with undergraduate and graduate students, educators, and artists.
Acclaimed playwright, director and dramaturg Talvin Wilks, a key collaborator in this project, began his residency in January 2015 when he delivered the keynote address the Northeast MFA Dramaturgy Retreat organized by graduate students and hosted in our department. He also gave a guest lecture on his work with Undesirable Elements and Ping Chong & Company in Professor Priscilla Page’s Theater 130: Contemporary Playwrights of Color and he worked closely with Professor Judyie Al-Bilali on her Devising Theater class to guide the students in research on the racial history of our campus and the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. He then worked with Al-Bilali and the students as they wrote scenes based on their research. He will carry this work forward into the upcoming production of Collidescope: Adventures in Pre and Post Racial America, the culminating project of Art, Legacy & Community in Spring 2016.
In March, Wilks led a conversation titled Black Power and the Spirit of Student Activism with Professor Emeritus Ekwueme Michael Thelwell and UMASS Alum Stanley Kinard. This trio drew out connections between the successes of that revolutionary era and the growing student activism both on our campus and across the nation today.
In April, Al-Bilali and Page advised senior theater major Eddie Elliott on his independent project Giants, written by José Rivera. Elliott gathered a team of actors and directors to produce Tape and Gas, two of the one-acts included in Giants, in Studio 204. These plays provide snapshots of modern life with sharp commentary on the contemporary issues of race and politics. Elliot was also a featured performer who saw self-producing as the most proactive way to address the dearth of opportunities for actors of color to perform on the main stage in our department. Following the opening performance on April 9th, Professors Al-Bilali and Page led an interactive forum on race and representation where students of color in our department openly shared their experiences in our department and on our campus. Students and faculty were encouraged to continue to talk about these issues and to work assiduously on shifting our culture specifically around race and racism.
Also in April, Al-Bilali, Page and Professor Gilbert McCauley produced a stage reading of Our Dad Is In Atlantis, written by Javier Malpica and translated by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas. The performances took place in the Department of Theater and at the UMASS Center in Springfield. In this play, two young brothers struggle on their own after their father immigrates to the United States, leaving them behind in México. It is a haunting play that takes an unflinching look children caught in the indifferent logic of a globalized world where capital moves freely around the world but people do not. McCauley, who also directed the reading, worked closely with Juan Martinez-Muñoz, a Communications major in the Commonwealth Honors College, and Miguel Paredes, a Theater major in the Commonwealth Honors College, to breathe life into the characters of Big Brother and Little Brother, respectively.
Following the performances, Paredes and Page were guests on the WMUA program Tan Cerca, Tan Lejos: A Voice of México in the U.S. hosted by Leopoldo Gómez-Rámirez to discuss the play and the important issue of unaccompanied children migrating, oftentimes alone, from México, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The radio interview with Paredes and Page can be accessed online here.
This creative work and its attendant engagement with students, faculty and professionals all served as the foundation for the second year of work during which Professors Al-Bilali, McCauley and Page continued to interrogate the relationship between art and activism with the specific goal of transforming our society into one that truly reflects the diversity of the world and that values justice in all its forms. Reflecting on this work, Professor Judyie Al-Bilali states, “I’m excited and encouraged about how the work we are doing with Art, Legacy & Community connects in such a timely way with the rising tide of social activism in the United States...art and activism are very alive and very well.”
Photos: John Solem, Priscilla Page, C. Pellegrini/UMass