Theater Studies Mainstage Addresses Racism Against Black America

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A traditional Theater Studies mainstage course (THEATRST 350) would provide students the chance to participate in the department’s major production for the semester, with a faculty member not only teaching the course, but also directing. Classwork would focus on analyzing, researching, and producing a play, with students auditioning for roles and rehearsing lines well into the fall. Costumes and sets would be built and props gathered—all culminating in a multi-week public performance on a stage at the Bryan Center. 

JHB at DPAC
JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell directing Durham 150

But this semester, students will experience a slightly different path. For starters, the course will be hybrid, taught both online and in person, with a final performance presented for three nights to a remote audience. Department Chair Torry Bend will teach the course, with JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, a leader of Black theater in the Triangle, taking the helm as guest director. The class structure will become an elongated form of table work, where students read through the play and spend more time analyzing and discussing such things as themes, characters, and historical contexts—and students will still be required to participate in the play. 


Monet Noelle Marshall (left) and A.C. Donahue appear in the 2019 production "White," directed by Holloway-Burrell for the Bulldog Ensemble Theater. 

Guest experts and historians will periodically join the class to help students consider their own experiences of microaggressions, perceptions, and stereotypes. The work done during the first half of the class will allow students to draw on personal experiences, as well as the experiences of their classmates, to perform the final production. “With a virtual performance and less focus on larger production elements, students will be given more time to research and investigate the play and its themes,” explains Bend. “It’s a perfect theatrical experience for anyone new to theater.” 

Holloway-Burrell has selected the book-length poem “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine for the fall show. The work contains traditional lyric poems interwoven with different forms of text and media into a collective portrait of race relations in the United States. “Covid gave us a unique opportunity to set planning aside and focus on what our students and our community needs to talk about now,” says Bend. 

While the class syllabus is set, the behind-the-curtain decisions that come with mounting any play could prove interesting as the entire Duke campus follows COVID-19 protocols. Bend sees the course material and the mainstage production as continuing examples of how theater is essential and able to adapt as it addresses important issues. “One of the defining qualities of both theater and protest is the act of gathering,” she says. “They both look different these days—six-foot distancing, masks, and anxiety over shared air and enclosed spaces. By taking this play on in the virtual space, we get the opportunity to adapt with this moment.” The virtual performance is scheduled for November 5-7 at 7:30pm, with log-in information coming closer to opening night. 

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