Interactive theatre educates about racism


Neil Powell, actor-educator with CLIMB theatre, interacts with the audience during the performance of “Feeling History: African Americans’ Reach for Equality” on Feb 18.

Neil Powell, actor-educator with CLIMB theatre, interacts with the audience during the performance of “Feeling History: African Americans’ Reach for Equality” on Feb 18.

In celebration of Black History Month, the TOCAR initiative welcomed CLIMB theatre back to campus last Tuesday for the performance of: “Feeling History: African Americans’ Reach for Equality.”

TOCAR stands for Training Our Campus Against Racism, and this is what director Phyllis May-Machunda is working toward. Last semester an anti-racism training was held and earlier this semester CLIMB theatre performed “A Deeper Look,” a play about diversity.

“We’ve been trying to do things to increase students’ and faculty’s exposure to thinking about these issues and gaining tools for talking about it,” May-Machunda said. “Because silence doesn’t help.”

Two young actor-educators, Neil Powell and Suzanne Cross, did not keep silent. They used monologues, scenes, slides, music and audience interaction to bring the history of slavery in America to life.

As attendees entered the room, they were asked to sit against the walls behind blue masking tape marking the carpeting in an oval shape. To begin the performance, attendees were asked to line up on the imaginary boundaries that eventually acted as a barrier between slaves and slave owners.

Those who had a September, July, March, April, January or October birthday were asked to sit inside the oval shape, the remaining attendees stayed standing. Separating people by their birth month mimicked the simple disregard for a human life based on the color of their skin.

Powell and Cross then asked those sitting twice to “carefully and respectfully” get up, get a chair and place it behind someone standing. Throughout the performance, those sitting down were treated as slaves, whereas those standing up took on the role as slave owners.

They pointed out what slave owners could do during the time of slavery and how slaves were treated. In sync they shouted, “Do with them as you will. You own them.”

Afterwards, they took turns telling the “slaves” what they would have been told during the time of slavery: “you are not full people,” “your bodies are inferior to ours,” “you are savages,” “you are immoral beasts” and “you’re not even real human beings, you’re actually a separate species.”

Afterwards, Cross asked how it felt for the “slave owners” and “slaves” to be in these positions. Interacting with the audience like this is used throughout their other performances as well.

Powell and Cross are a part of five groups of two who travel to schools in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin addressing social issues for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. They teach children through games and interaction about bullying prevention, environmental awareness, accepting differences and more.

The duet’s performance last Tuesday was their first time performing for a college audience and it will be their only one for their current tour session.

“We changed a little bit of the programming for college,” Cross said. “But to be able to actually have these conversations with basically our peers … it’s a new breath for both us.”

“It is a lot different performing this for a 12 year old than for an adult, ‘cause adults have a different perspective,” Powell said during the question-and-answer time after the performance. “They’re able to think about things more critically. To hear your conversations, that was beautiful and we really appreciate that.

One response to “Interactive theatre educates about racism

  1. Thank you so much for sharing our work. Neil and Suzanne were very delighted working with your students.

    Thank You,

    CLIMB Theatre Family

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