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Race on Stage

A new play appearing at multiple colleges tackles campus race issues at the heart of recent protests.

March 3, 2016
 
University of Maryland students in play about race on campus (Photo credit: Stan Barouh)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- “I’m still processing,” said one student after a Sunday matinee of a new play about race staged last weekend at the University of Maryland's campus here.

“I’m not going to lie,” said another. “I did get pretty emotional.”

Maryland is one of the first, but far from the only, college to produce a version of Baltimore, a play commissioned as part of the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative, which aims to provide roles and opportunities for women in theater. Michigan State University staged the play last year, and it wrapped up a run at Boston University last weekend. It’s set to appear at the University of Iowa, the University of Nebraska, Ohio State University and more.

Although the play is called Baltimore -- a reference by its writer, Kirsten Greenidge, to a poem about race in that city that inspired the play -- it is set at a small liberal arts college in New England. It follows Shelby, an African-American sports medicine major, flustered student newspaper reporter and reluctant resident assistant who believes strongly, at least at first, that the country is “postracial” and that her parents and the activists in the news are trying to “pretend the last 50 years didn’t happen.”

After a racist caricature appears on a whiteboard outside the room of a black student, Shelby goes into hiding to avoid confronting the issue, which whirls further and further out of control as students of different races and backgrounds respond to the drawing and clash with one another over their various reactions.

“This play, it has its own sort of magic power and meaning, because right after [Greenidge] finished the first draft, the riots happened in Baltimore,” said Leslie Felbain, who directed the play at Maryland and is an associate professor there in the Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies.

“We’re working on this piece about Baltimore and racism and those riots just happened,” she said.

As Greenidge was writing, students staged protests on a number of different campuses around the country, demanding their universities do more to accommodate and protect minorities. Notably, in October last year, a fecal swastika also appeared in a dorm at the University of Missouri, which led, in part, to more protests and the eventual ouster of the university’s president and chancellor, as well as other turmoil.

While the narrative of Baltimore somewhat mirrors the Missouri swastika incident and other racially tinged moments of campus vandalism, the play draws only broadly on those incidents, focusing primarily on the issues raised along the way.

“I really like that this play didn’t make everything seem black and white,” said Avery Collins, a theater student at Maryland who played the role of a black student who wants nothing less than to be drawn into an uncomfortable and often heated debate about race. “It gives so many perspectives without giving an answer.”

“Why do you think about this stuff?” his character, Bryant, asks another black character, who tries to prod other students into confronting race head-on. “White people, they don’t talk about race. They don’t want to feel awful all the time.”

Also represented is a white student who insists he’s blind to race, a Filipino student who pushes Shelby to confront her past and the (also white) perpetrator who says her drawing was meant as a joke.

“I personally connected with both the Latina character and the Filipino character,” Rachel Kim, a junior at Maryland, said after the play. “I am Asian,” she said. “I’m Korean-American … [and] a lot of times people talk about black and white, but they don’t talk about the other ethnicities and other races that are included.”

“They haven’t had the same history as African-Americans in America, but there is a history that has affected us that isn’t really brought to light,” Kim said. The play touches on some of that history and, she said, it also gives a voice to people who feel confused or conflicted by these issues.

“It hit that confusion and the muckiness around all of it. It’s not just something that affects just those people [directly involved in the incident]. It’s something that affects most everybody, and everyone’s going to have a reaction to it.”

Working with actors of different ethnicities on roles that directly confront history and race was not always easy for Felbain, who is white. “I knew what conversations I could have with the students and what conversations were not my purview to have with them,” she said. “If there was a conversation that was specific to the character that related to what it meant to be a person of color in this country, I would ask [others] to have those conversations with the people individually.”

“She is very eager to learn and be educated,” Collins said of working with Felbain, and he hopes other faculty and administrators come away from the play with the same attitude.

Many "aren’t willing to learn or be educated," he said. Hopefully the play will show officials "how what they might be doing can be seen as offensive to students," and open them to the possibility of changing, Collins said.

The University of Maryland also offered free tickets to resident assistants, hoping they would in turn begin a dialogue with their residents. One RA who attended the play on Sunday, Javier Scott, said a similar incident actually transpired in his dorm. “There was a racial remark or symbol that was drawn on a surface within a residence hall, and it had affected the whole community,” he said, though he wouldn’t go into further detail.

The play’s message resonated with him, however. “The way that the play ended is very indicative of the way the conversation is,” he said. “There is no end, and I don’t think there will be an end, and I don’t think there should be an end. This is something we need to continuously talk about and continuously understand.”

The play, he said, is about “an ongoing conversation that’s always expanding with so many different perspectives, and the only thing you can really do sometimes is sit down and talk about it.”

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