VCU drama club provides safe arts space for black students

From left, VCU Black Theater Association members Darren M. Johnson, Kellie Bolden, Khadijah Franks, Asjah Janece Heiligh, Trinitee Pearson, Obadiah Parker sit together on stage. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Imane Mekonen, Spectrum editor

Kofi Mframa, Contributing author

“Blue Light Past, on Thy Brother’s Path” tells the tragic but common story of police brutality against a young black man. The play was one of three presented in a competition organized by the Black Theater Association at VCU, an organization for black students entering the theater industry.

Organized in the fall of 2019 by theatrical performance major Trinitee Pearson and VCU alumnus Camarey Chambliss, the group provides resources and opportunities for Black students looking to gain exposure in the industry.

“We have created a sense of community, friendship and family within our department,” Pearson said.

The group provides theater students with a space for theatrical readings, group discussions and exhibition activities, such as low-cost photo shoots.

According to Senior Theater Major Obadiah Parker, the organization provides a safe space for black creators to have an open and intellectual dialogue on the issue of race and its pervasiveness in the theater industry.

“Racism in theater is built around racism in America,” the senior said. “So when that happens, it comes across in all the other facets of life, which is theater, movies and dance.”

On Saturday, the organization collaborated with VCU’s Playwright Club for “A Night of Culture,” a competition that featured three one-act plays written by black, Indigenous and other artists of color.

The students competed for the chance to have their play filmed by FADED Productions, a Richmond-based production and entertainment company. The event broadcast live on Saturday is available to watch on the Black Theater Association at VCU’s Facebook page.

“Blue Light Past, on thy Brother’s Path”, directed by Christopher Martin and written by Darren M. Johnson, won the first round of the competition. On Wednesday, the coin will go against Jamar Powers’ “Trilogy: A Three Part Music Video Movie,” and a winner will be determined.

Darren M. Johnson of the Black Theater Association wrote “Blue Light Past, on thy Brother’s Path” and performed it during “A Night of Culture”. Photo by Alessandro Latour

“With theater, we are all, in some sense, telling a story,” said Johnson, senior theatrical performance specialist and member of the VCU Black Caucus. “A one-act night is kind of built on that — being able to tell your story.”

As part of its mission to increase the visibility of black people in theater, the group has become concerned about what they call a lack of diversity in the department.

Pearson said the organization met with the drama department over the summer to address concerns about black portrayal in the school. Since the meeting, members say many professors have asked for advice on increasing diversity in the department.

In August, the Theater Department issued a statement condemning racism and declaring that theater in the United States is “Iclosely linked” to white supremacy. He said the department is committed to developing anti-racism programs and creating a culture “where BIPOC students feel seen and all of our students feel valued.”

The Black Theater Association grew out of VCU’s Black Caucus, which originally served as “the backbone of VCU’s minority organizations,” according to its Twitter page. The caucus members decided to increase communication and formal meetings of the group through an organization specific to black theater students.

Social Media is the group’s main promotional vehicle amid the pandemic. On Instagram, the band shares info on virtual movie nights and auditions for future productions.

The student organization has expanded its membership through virtual readings of works by black playwrights, such as Pearl Cleage and Jeremy O. Harris.

“Anyone can name Shakespeare, anyone can name all these great white playwrights,” said Vice President and Principal Theatrical Performance Specialist Khadijah Franks. “But how many black playwrights can you name? How many black shows can you think of off the top of your head?

The group said several summer events —– the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other unarmed black people —– gave members a sense of perseverance for the half year. ‘fall.

“We felt like we couldn’t slow down and not be there and not provide a place for black students in this theater department,” Franks said.