Theater students and faculty at the University of New Hampshire wanted to add their voices to a difficult national discussion.
They’d signed on to craft a new stage production aimed at encouraging people to speak out. But their early Zoom get-togethers were awkward, filled with nervous pauses and tentative suggestions.
There was no getting around the obvious.
“The reality is that our department and this cast (are) overwhelmingly White,” said Raina Ames, head of UNH’s Department of Theatre and Dance, in directing notes she shared with the Sunday News. Writing the play “became our largest stumbling block.”
“While students wanted to contribute to this conversation, they did not want to offend anyone. This seemed to stymie us. We brainstormed a lot of possibilities, but in our first few meetings, we would put ideas out there only to decide against most of them.”
There were just five weeks to go before the show was supposed to be unveiled.
“We were approaching the start of school … with no firm script ideas and no ability to get past our own discomfort,” said Ames, who drew on UNH resources and colleagues to help ease some of those reservations and tensions.
“It had started to feel like we would never get anything written, but it turns out the students had a lot to say.”
The result is “We the People,” a series of 35 vignettes that stem from two weeks of writing exercises and improvisation this past summer. The production, which comes with a “trigger/content warning” for its subject matter, will be presented to a limited in-house audience in Johnson Theatre in the Paul Creative Arts Center Oct. 7-11 and also available through streaming services.
The show addresses anti-Black violence and puts emphasis on ways to learn — and unlearn – both conscious and unconscious slights and biases.
“When the BLM movement was finally thrown into the public eye at such an intense level, I wasn’t sure how I could make any sort of impact,” said UNH senior Nicole Sprague. “But when Raina explained the premise of the whole show and what it was going to stand for, I felt like I had to take this opportunity to speak up, primarily because I haven’t done enough in the past.
“Showing your support for a movement and elevating the voices involved is what makes an impact, and I couldn’t let another opportunity to speak up for what is right to slip by.”
“We the People” delves into some volatile and polarizing issues. The overriding message is a plea for more talk and engagement.
“The killing of George Floyd (who died while in police custody in Minneapolis) sparked a national movement that demanded we pay attention,” Ames said. “Students contacted faculty asking to organize some type of meeting to confront issues of racism, sexism and other shortcomings we have seen in our own department. As the director of the first show, I decided we should also create a piece that would address some of these issues. If students were looking for a conversation, perhaps we could use theater to address these issues and hopefully inspire a wider discussion in our community.”
That resonates with Bryson Badeau, a junior at UNH and the president of the Mask & Dagger Dramatic Society.
“As a student of color — and one of the only people of color on campus, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken a huge part of my attention for the majority of 2020,” Badeau said in an email.
“Raina had expressed interest in doing a show that tackles the BLM movement and racism that exists in theater, but the students involved in the production, myself included, felt that it would be better for us to do a show that talks about white privilege, which more of our audience will be able to relate to than a show about racism, which many White people do not see/experience.
“Through this show, we want to show White people the effect that they have on the Black/(people of color) community, and I myself wanted to share my experiences of racism on campus and in the world to show that it DOES exist and it IS still a problem at large.”
Breaking down walls
But when the creative process behind “We the People” initially stalled, Ames reached out for help in breaking down walls among the cast.
“I asked Professor (David) Kaye to come work with the group as he has done a lot of social justice-devised theater. He helped spark writing ideas that inched us closer. I met with people from The Beauregard Center and the Carsey School of Public Policy (on campus) who helped me frame the way we as a mostly White cast could talk about these issues,” Ames said.
“Andres Mejia, leader of Treat Fellows (which helps give students platforms for expressing social and political differences), came to a rehearsal to help talk the cast through our discomfort. Then I set up a night of rehearsal that was all improvisation, based on their previous writing exercises. This seemed to break open the dam and allow us to build trust with one another.”
Like his classmates, Badeau shares his own perspectives in the show.
“I have a monologue about my experiences as a transgender person of color, which have not been good,” he said. “I talk about how I have been the target of racism, transphobia and bullying for the majority of my life, and how I am seen as a ‘threat to society’ because of the color of my skin. This was inspired by Raina asking me if I felt comfortable sharing a little bit of my story with the world for the sake of showing that racism does still exist to this day, even if the vast majority does not see it. ”
As part of the collaborative cast, Sprague helped write, research and offer input to the creative flow. Her show monologues, including “Legally Blonde,” came from a free-flow exercise on those Zoom calls.
“The premise behind this story began when all of us thought there needed to be a scene about the impact of racism within the theater community. As a generally accepting group, we like to think we are very inclusive, however racism plays a huge part in the theater world, and one of the biggest problems we see occurring is the fact that we witness these racist tendencies from a young age,” Sprague said.
“When I was in high school, my predominately White town decided to put on a production of ‘West Side Story.’ I refused to audition for the show because I am an extremely fair-skinned woman who had no right to be singing as a completely different ethnicity. Most of my friends at the time were involved in that production, so I heard them talk about it constantly and how the director was requiring them to wear foundation shades for their makeup that was two shades too dark so that they would look more like the ethnicity they were supposed to be playing,” she said.
Yet no one spoke up.
“Probably because they didn’t notice anything wrong with this situation,” Sprague said. “That is living in ignorance and being blinded by your privilege, just like I was and still am at times. The sad part is that this was not the first time this happened, and it certainly would not be the last, and when talking to my peers about this story, we realized that almost all of us had almost the exact same story from our high school and middle school careers.”
To comply with COVID-19 safety precautions, “We the People” needed to be reshaped in its presentation. Ames said she has designated 15 spots on stage for cast members for the performances.
“Actors are assigned to a spot as their ‘home base.’ As long as they can stay at least six feet away from anyone, they have freedom to move a little, but they generally stay close to their assigned spot,” Ames said.
There are 35 vignettes in the play; a few are group scenes, but most involve one or two people. “We are also using projections and sound cues to enhance the aesthetics of the show, but it’s hard to be creative within these limitations. Students also are wearing masks, so they will have microphones.”
The program contains this warning: “This play uses discussions of anti-Black violence and enactments of racial and intersectional microaggressions toward the end of white ally education. It may be triggering for people of color, and especially Black people.”