Theatre Design & Technology - Spring 2021 - 56

CHANGEOVER

COMMUNITY POINTS OF VIEW

We ARE the Banner
By Margaret Mitchell

A

s I write this piece, we have passed the
one-year anniversary of the onset of the
COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom is used as
a verb in casual conversation. The pandemic
also likely touched many of us with illnesses and
deaths of loved ones. The murder of George
Floyd is the evidence of a deeper pandemic
without an apparent vaccine. Like so many of
you, while we were wildly making masks a year
ago, we listened to the news, followed the story
of George Floyd, and waited for our institution
to quickly respond. A heartfelt, well-intentioned
letter from our university president's team denouncing racism appeared in all our inboxes, but
the theatre students were waiting for a prominently displayed yellow and black Black Lives
Matter banner that never came. Instead, we got
a grey and red " Pray to End Racism " banner.
Through the new isolation of Zoom boxes,
and through communications with two student
representatives to the theatre faculty, it became
quickly apparent that our BIPOC (Black, Indegenous and People of Color) theatre majors and
their BIPOC allies were distraught over George
Floyd and distraught over the university's response to a national crisis. They felt unsupported and unprotected. There were all kinds
of complicated, valid reasons for the university administration's decision, but to some of our
theatre students, the absence of a BLM banner
was interpreted as a signal of alliance with the
other side. I was distraught myself because I
didn't know what to do.
I contacted some of the Sisters of Charity
of the Incarnate Word; our university is one of
their ministries. These Sisters have a long history of fearless social activism. Their courageous
convictions and slightly rebellious, forwardthinking nature taught me that I can " pray to
end racism " quietly or I can pray to end racism
with a very loud roar. They taught me to respond to injustice, forge and polish artistic truth
in a world of muck and lies, and to remember
bail money when attending protests.
Buoyed by their support, I felt compelled
to reach out to some of our BIPOC faculty and
staff and find out how they felt. They were an-

gry. They were exhausted. And worse, some of
them were just resigned. There were many people dead at the hands of police before George
Floyd, and there would be many after him. " And
where have you been all this time? " they asked
incredulously, " This has been going on for decades, generations! " I realized I was very late to
this table. Previously, I thought it was enough to
be raised in a non-racist household by a mother who was an advocate for Civil Rights in the
1960s. I was wrong. It was not enough. I apologized. Their responses incited me to act.
We decided to start with listening. Over
the summer, we held a Zoom meeting almost
every week for current theatre majors and alums. It was decided collectively that a current
BIPOC student should set the agendas for discussion. We did not record the meetings in order to make a more liberated, honest, and safe
space. We, the faculty and student allies, spent
the summer listening to stories of growing up
with racism. The alums who were working in
major regional theatres or teaching in the public
schools offered multiple stories of systemic racism. One alum reported that a 2017 Texas University Interscholastic League judge inferred in
a critique that BIPOC people should not act in
Shakespeare's plays.
In these meetings the students continually asked for a theatre class about confronting
bigotry and prejudice. They knew nothing about
activism, or how to become an artist-activist.
Given the mission of our institution, and our focus on service learning, we were long overdue
to teach Theatre for Social Change.
The projects, assignments, and subject
matter came entirely from the students. They
were interested in Augusto Boal's work and
asked for some exposure to Theatre of the Oppressed practices. They sought to understand
on a sociological level why people hate people.
I took their whirlwind of ideas and shaped them
into a structural framework for a completely
project-based course. I was a guide, but not the
sole proprietor of the dissemination of knowledge or some carefully constructed pedagogy.
And, no amount of academic research could

56 | THEATRE DESIGN & TECHNOLOGY | SPRING 2021

equal the lived experiences of my students.
The class was like a wildfire that I imagined
I would tame into a Pentecost. (I was mostly
unsuccessful at the taming part.) The class
was palpably alive, present, and motivated every minute. Perhaps it was just because they
were the inaugural class, they had ownership
of everything we explored and everything they
created. Perhaps they were just really excited
to address issues that had been burning inside
of them. One of my personal goals was to instill
in them a sense of activism and service beyond
the course. I wanted the students to connect
with their predecessors. I wanted them to see
how this work could turn into meaningful community change. The alums proved to be inspiring models.
The students connected the content with
other courses: Social Justice Leadership in Religious Studies, Trauma Writing in English, the
Women and Gender Studies curriculum. They
investigated injustice and justice in multiple
contexts in our society. They generated projects
and plays on racism, sexism, binary and nonbinary gender biases, human trafficking, intersectionality, sexual assault, and enslaved ancestors.
At least two students have decided that activism and non-profit work will be a focus after
they graduate. One is writing a play based on
the historical records of her enslaved ancestor.
In this devastating year of a new illness and
an old one, I have simply learned to listen and
respond. Sometimes students know exactly
what they want to learn. Responding to them
did not result in a product that was perfect or
easy. Our class was emotionally messy; it had an
untested curriculum, and the material was difficult to confront and unpack. However, the resulting reciprocities between the students and
their old teacher is only one small step toward
advocating for justice through art in response to
our dysfunctional world. What we didn't know in
the beginning was that we did not need someone else to put up a banner. We were and are
the banner.
Margaret Mitchell is a professor of theatre at
the University of the Incarnate Word. She is a
co-author with Dr. Oscar Brockett and Linda
Hardberger of the book Making the Scene:
A History of Stage Design and Technolgy in
Europe and the United States, and a 32-year
member of USITT.



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