Paula Morell and I will facilitate an autobiographical writing and performance workshop for FREE! Hope you can make it!
345 people attended the final showing of *For Colored Girls* at Mosaic Templars last night. I was so scared throughout much of the process that I want to revel in my feelings of success. These ladies worked so hard and put in so much work. I am so proud of them. And we were so well-received by our audiences. This experience has affirmed my belief in the value of community-engaged theatre. Community-engaged theatre can provide theatre experiences to people who may have never stepped foot in an auditorium much less on the stage itself. That experience can be powerful. It was for many of our actresses. And, of course, my shrewd side appreciates how fitting within a niche' provides a ready-made audience. So even though I truly want my post-show high to last, I want to document my initial lessons and questions so I don't forget them.
1) Before doing community-engaged work, try to understand all your partners' bureaucracies. With Mosaic and Laman, the bureaucracy primarily involved getting permission on all publicity materials. Pulaski Tech was a bigger beast. Of course, PTC supplied the money to produce the work, and we are abundantly thankful to them. I had no idea, however, that the bureaucracy there was so very involved--setting up vendors, waiting on P.O. approval and information about next steps, depending on other people to make orders. The take-home lesson here is that planning for a community-engaged project should probably take place about a year in advance.
2) Be confident in your knowledge of your population and process. I have worked at PTC for four years now, and I have a very good understanding of the population. Our students sometimes have a difficult time making commitments because of life circumstances. Our entire cast was NEVER on time. We rarely had the ENTIRE cast present. I didn't know what the show would actually look like until dress rehearsal. Part of me thinks that this issue could be addressed over time through the cultivation of a theatre culture--a culture that values hard work, punctuality, and pushing oneself to the absolute limit. When I consider my students' lives, however....we are not talking about typical college kids whose entire lives are theatre. We are talking about mothers and fathers who juggle full-time work, full-time school, and responsibilities to family. When I consider that fact, I know it is not only about cultivating a theatre culture. This is the reality for the people with whom I work, and they make great sacrifices to create art. My issue is not with my students as much as it is with the guilt/embarrassment I feel when I look at this situation through the eyes of others. This is really about understanding class, and I often found myself in this process feeling guilty that I wasn't harder on my students about being on time, showing up, etc. Yes, it frustrated me to no end when someone was late...especially when it was because their "friend" needed a ride. My inclination is to say "Too bad. You have a pre-standing commitment to us." Then I think about the fact that within a culture where not everyone has a car readily available, providing someone a ride (if you are lucky enough to have a car) is a pre-standing responsibility, too. I want to so a better job of negotiating the requirements of production and my population's specific needs. And I want to make no apologies to others for the reality that my students find themselves in. I do want to explain their reality from a knowledgeable standpoint, but I want to speak from that standpoint in order to educate the person with whom I am talking--not to feel ashamed for understanding where my students are coming from.
3) Stand by your art. Some people were offended by this work. *For Colored Girls* is full of curse words and decidedly feminist (a dirty word in some circles). As a Christian from an evangelical background, it was difficult for me to see that the work I chose to produce offended some people's sense of morality. I have seen the power of this work, though. I understand that Shange's message is one of struggle and hope. I heard cast members and audience members speak to that message. And, anyway, I believe Christ was a feminist, too. When we saw Shange at UALR, she was unapologetic to those whom she offended. "I just don't have time for that, " she said. I don't know if I want to be that unapologetic because I truly want people to UNDERSTAND the value of the work. I believe that understanding comes through conversation rather than writing someone off. There's a balance somewhere there.
1) How can we make community partnerships more substantial and meaningful?
2) How can we start the planning process earlier?
3) How can we bring the necessary people into the planning process earlier?
4) How can we achieve community buy-in like this in every project we do?
5) How can we make the best use of this momentum?
That's a start. I'm sure more questions will arise. Looking forward to the next project!
We're entering our final week of rehearsals, and I feel so many emotions--fear, joy, pride, excitement. This process has raised so many questions for me about community-engaged performance. When this is all over, I will write more about that. In the meantime, here are some pics from rehearsal. These are our "postures of distress."
One of our community engagement elements involves a partnership with Laman Library. Laman's Special Projects Coordinator, Paula Morrell, and I developed the partnership as a series of workshops--2 reading circles and 1 writing/visual art workshop. PTC English instructor Jerrica Ryan facilitated the reading circle in which participants discussed and analyzed the work. PTC Visual Art Instructor Kimberly Kwee and Paula Morrell co-facilitated the writing/visual art workshop. Using the play as inspiration, participants merged collages and writing to create artworks which will be displayed as a front of house exhibit during the performances at Mosaic Templars. Thank you Jerrica, Paula, Kim, and everyone at Laman for helping us bring more community members into our artistic process!
UALR provided our cast and crew with the opportunity to meet *For Colored Girls* playwright Ntzoke Shange on Thursday night. As part of their Black History Month celebrations, UALR invited Shange down for a reading and book signing. Shange read several selections from *For Colored Girls* and her other works. It was exciting for me to see our actors with her because some of our cast members connect so deeply with her work. One of our ladies slipped out with her on a smoke break to sneak a hug and a picture. Several of our ladies hugged her with the deep gratitude that only a source of profound inspiration deserves. It was indeed a special night that reinforced our desire to honor Shange's beautiful words.
It began with a conversation at Community Bakery. I met with local actress Verda Davenport-Booher to get her interested in one of my projects. Instead, I left interested in one of her projects. At the time, it was just a seed. She wanted to do something with Ntzoke Shange's *For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf* to coincide with Tyler Perry's film release. She wanted to introduce young women to the beauty of the original. I hadn't read the play, but it sounded like a worthwhile project to me. "I'm in," I told her.
I read it and felt like someone hit me in the gut. This is a tough play, and I didn't immediately see the beauty in it. I read it again and again. My mind began to open to the possibilities....and to the message of hope at the heart of this play. Verda and I met to read and discuss the play together. We still didn't know what shape this project would take.
Then Sheila Glasscock at Pulaski Tech asked me if I wanted to direct this spring. I thought of our student body--the majority of which is African-American female. I thought of the possibilities for discussion this play would provide. I talked to Verda, and we said "Yes."
We have rehearsed for almost a month now with a cast gathered from our student body as well as the Little Rock/North Little Rock community. We have a partnership with Laman Library in North Little Rock to facilitate a series of community workshops. At the first two, participants will read and discuss the play. At the final workshop, participants will create a collage and writing inspired by the play. We will exhibit their finished work in our performance space. And we have a partnership with Mosaic Templars to use their beautiful performance space for free. In addition to those community engagement endeavors:
-many of the PTC English instructors are including *For Colored Girls* in their curriculum
-the PTC Committee for Community Diversity will host an on-campus discussion panel the week after the play
-the PTC Network for Student Success will have a special night to attend the play and host a "Real Talk" in which they will watch and discuss scenes from the film
-young women from the LRSD Accelerated Learning Center will create living statues of the characters for the pre-show
-young spoken word poets will write poems based on the young women's living statues to be displayed next to the women
-I will lead on-campus workshops in which students create mini-choreopoems.
-We will present selections at PTC's Poetry Night.
So THIS is what consumes my thoughts at the moment. I can't wait to see how we bring this piece to life.
NOTE: Image created by Amy Bonds and is current proof of publicity design--NOT final.
About the Author: April Gentry-Sutterfield is a director, deviser, educator, and mom who uses theatre as a tool for social justice, education, and community engagement.