“Playwrighting and Performance in the Time of the Black Lives Matter Movement” Creates Community Among Students

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Tanya Rosen-Jones, Courtesy of the Office of Communications

Students in “Playwrighting and Performance in the Time of Black Lives Matter” share their work in class.

A new Theater class, “Playwrighting and Performance in the Time of the Black Lives Matter Movement,” calls on students to respond to important social issues they care about through their writing. 

The Black Lives Matter movement resurged this summer in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, George Floyd — and countless others. Last Monday, students from the course took to the Cat in the Cream stage and performed some of their work for an at-home audience. Taught by Professor of Africana Studies and Chair of Theater Caroline Jackson Smith, the class facilitates a space for students to engage with topics of identity and work creatively in response to the current moment. 

“My number-one goal with creating any sort of thing is a reflection of how I feel about personal issues or social issues,” College second-year Luz Miyar-Mullan said. “My piece that I read was about gentrification — because I’m from San Francisco.”

The class structure gives its students a scaffolding to both safely and productively explore these difficult themes, powerful messages, and harmful experiences that they’ve absorbed. 

“I had been going through a really, really hard writer’s block over the summer — like the worst writer’s block I’d ever experienced in my life,” College first-year Tseli Mathebula said. “Part of it was not knowing how to respond to the things that I was seeing and all of the media that I was consuming. Having a place to be able to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to organize my thoughts in a way that works for me — that was something that I really needed at the time.”

As a member of an incoming first-year class that has had to reckon with both enormous social and personal change, Mathebula found the course’s emphasis on engaging critically with current events especially helpful. 

“My favorite piece that I’ve written is part of a larger play,” Mathebula said. “It’s about how racism affects mental health and then how mental health in this Black community affects their relationships with each other.” 

The community they have found within the classroom has also been an important part of their first semester at college.

“One of the things that has been really amazing for me to see is the way that the class has grown to be so much more comfortable with each other in order to share personal things and be able to thank each other for sharing.” Mathebula continued.“Having this as a community space might have been the first place I’ve been comfortable being my whole self. And that is a gift that I’m really, really thankful to have.”

Jackson-Smith has been happy to see the writing and peer-connections that have grown out of her class. 

“I’ve been so moved by their work,” Jackson Smith said. “There are a number of first years, who I’m really happy they took the class.” Jackson-Smith continued. “A lot of them are interested in Theater and Africana Studies and writing. … One of my main goals is always to build community. As a Black professor who wants to impact all students, it’s hugely important to create safe spaces where people of all backgrounds can feel comfortable and become connected.” 

As the students have grown more comfortable with one another, they’ve also been able to address each other and the themes of their work more intimately. For some students in the class, this course has been their first foray into playwriting. 

“I had never written a play before,” College first-year Peter Fray-Witzer said. “I’ve never even heard my writing read out loud by someone else before. That experience was part dream, part nightmare, not gonna lie. It was incredibly nerve-wracking, but … it was really nice to hear my writing out loud and to see how it was on stage.”

For others, it was the first time they felt comfortable working in this medium. 

“When I tell you I hated playwriting, I hated playwriting,” College first-year Graciela Fernandez said. “I was fine with giving people notes and critiques, but having to write it out was just exhausting.”

This semester has changed that for Fernandez. She now has a complete script. 

“I was just inspired by something and I wrote it and it just happened,” Fernandez said. “Getting to see it performed was really fun. … To get to see it on stage made me excited about actually possibly doing a production of [my play] in my time here at Oberlin.”

By offering an outlet for students to process their experiences, the class has provided a crucial space for them to respond to historically based, ongoing issues. More than that, “Playwrighting and Performance in the Time of the Black Lives Matter Movement” has become a real community, letting students support each other while promoting their artistic growth.