SMU and Clark Atlanta University Theatre Students Collaborate To Produce Six Original Plays About Race and Social Issues
Students work with professional actors and directors to create plays inspired by John Lewis “good trouble” quote
In a creative new partnership, theatre students from SMU and Clark Atlanta University (CAU), a historically Black university in Atlanta, are working together to produce six original short plays about race and social issues.
The collaboration via Zoom was born of pandemic privation but is proving to be a rich experience, say educators at both institutions.
“To have the opportunity to work with Clark Atlanta, one of the oldest HBCUs in America, is more than I had hoped for this year when we can’t do productions for live audiences in our theatres,” says SMU Associate Professor and Theatre Division Chair Gretchen Smith. “It enables us to reach out across geography to make a connection in a really meaningful way.”
Written by juniors and seniors at both institutions, the 10-minute works were inspired by a notable 2018 tweet by civil rights icon John Lewis: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” (See sidebar for synopses.)
The 10-minute plays will be performed live on April 9 via Zoom by a mix of student and professional actors in both cities under the leadership of professional directors in alternate cities from the playwrights. Register for the show here.
The three plays by SMU students were performed via Zoom last fall in collaboration with Theatre East in New York. Reworking them with CAU continues to refine the works, points out SMU Associate Theatre Professor Benard Cummings, who arranged both partnerships.
“It’s fantastic for our young playwrights because this is real-life experience,” he says.
“This is great for a playwright to work with a new director and a new cast because this is how development works in the professional world,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to be in the room with professionals and spend two weeks working on the play — revising, rewriting, hearing what the director is saying. It’s an experience of what it’s like to be a professional playwright before they graduate. That is invaluable in many ways.”
Cummings, who has extensive industry connections through his own work, has invited professional colleagues to watch the performance.
“It will be livestreamed to 50 different agencies at one time,” he says. “Our students will be seen by people in New York, in L.A.”
Cummings connected to CAU via his friend Nikki Toombs, director of education at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta. He got to know her through his work as coordinator of the national August Wilson Monologue Competition.
In addition to selecting CAU as the partnering school, Toombs is mentoring students, securing talent, and facilitating workshops with students at both universities.
“This collaborative project allows young creatives to convene with like-minded artists who desire to use their artistry for advocacy,” Toombs observes. “This topic is timely, and this sense of community is necessary to demonstrate the power of words to evoke change. The hope is that this is the first of many opportunities to engage with SMU. They have really been supportive, active collaborators.”
CAU has a long, important legacy as an institute of higher learning for African Americans. It represents the consolidation of Atlanta University, which was founded in 1865 and was the nation’s first institution to award graduate degrees to Black students, and Clark College, which started in 1869 as the first four-year liberal arts college to serve primarily African Americans.
CAU Professor and Theatre Studies Coordinator Eric J. Little predicts the students will not only learn and grow from this experience but also expand their artistic networks.
He is directing “A Sister Is God’s Way of Making Sure We Never Walk Alone” by Stakiah Lynn Washington (SMU B.F.A. Theatre ’21).
“The students are very talented and have been a joy to work with,” Little says. “I have never met or taught any of these students until this project, and I have enjoyed seeing their talent as well as sharing some thoughts with them to help nurture it. That is a great benefit for the professionals, educators, and of course the students.”