VCU theatre club provides artistic safe space for Black students 

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

Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor

Kofi Mframa, Contributing Writer 

“Blue Light Past, on Thy Brother’s Path” tells the tragic, yet common story of police brutality against a young, Black man. The play was one of three shown during a competition held by the Black Theatre Association at VCU, an organization for Black students entering the theatre industry.

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

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

The group provides theatre students with a space for play readings, group discussions and exposure-gaining activities, such as low-cost headshot photoshoots.

According to senior theatre major Obadiah Parker, the organization provides a safe space for Black creatives to have open and intellectual dialogue on the issue of race and its pervasiveness in the theatre industry.

“Racism in theatre is built around racism in America,” the senior said. “So when that happens, it goes into every other facet of life, i.e. theatre, movies and dance.”

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

Students competed for the chance to have their play filmed by F.A.D.E.D. Productions, a Richmond-based production and entertainment company. The live-streamed Saturday event 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 play will go against “Trilogy: A Three Part Music Video Movie” by Jamar Powers, and a winner will be determined.

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

“With theatre we are all, in some sense, telling a story,” said Johnson, senior theatre performance major and VCU Black Caucus member. “A night of one-acts is sort of built on that ‒‒ being able to tell your story.” 

As part of its mission to increase Black visibility in theatre, the group has raised concerns about what they call a lack of diversity in the department. 

Pearson said the organization met with the theatre department over the summer to address concerns about Black representation at the school. Since the meeting, members say many professors asked for guidance increasing diversity in the department. 

In August, the theatre department released a statement condemning racism and stating theatre in the U.S. is “inextricably linked” with white supremacy. It stated the department is committed to developing anti-racist curricula and creating a culture “where BIPOC students feel seen and all our students feel valued.”

The Black Theatre Association stemmed from VCU’s Black Caucus, which originally served as the “backbone of VCU’s minority organizations,” according to its Twitter page. Members of the caucus decided to increase communication and official group meetings through an organization specific to Black theatre students. 

Social media is the group’s main vehicle of promotion amid the pandemic. On Instagram, the group shares info about virtual movie nights and auditions for future productions.

The student organization has been expanding membership through virtual readings of works by of Black playwrights, such as Pearl Cleage and Jeremy O. Harris.

“Everyone can name Shakespeare, everyone can name all of these great, white playwrights,” said vice president and senior theatre performance major 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 police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other unarmed Black individuals –– gave members a sense of perseverance moving into the fall semester. 

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

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