BHM Profile | VCU theatre professor provokes social change through original plays

Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, VCUarts theatre professor, founded a theatre company called the Conciliation Project in 2001 to facilitate conversations around race. Photo by Wessam Hazaymeh

Ebonique Little, Spectrum Editor

When Tawnya Pettiford-Wates played the Christmas angel in a church production at five years old, her family knew she was a natural performer.

Pettiford-Wates, a VCUarts theatre professor and actress known for roles like Dr. Louise Shelvy in the 1990 mystery-drama television series “Twin Peaks,” said she’s always been interested in performing.

“I’ve always liked the arts as a child,” Pettiford-Wates said. “I was very into pretending and dressing up.”

Pettiford-Wates, who holds a doctorate in dramatic arts and philosophy, said she wanted to sharpen her craft in the sixth grade after seeing “Purlie,” a Broadway musical about a preacher working to emancipate cotton pickers in Georgia during the Jim Crow era. Seeing the all-Black cast was a pivotal moment in her development as an actress, she said.

“In that moment, I just said that I want to do that,” Pettiford-Wates said. “That’s when I got smitten. And my mom and dad said, ‘If you want to do it, then you need to study.’”

Studying Black playwrights and performers with a focus on Black subject matter led to Pettiford-Wates founding the Conciliation Project in 2001. The nonprofit social justice organization is dedicated to the process of racial conciliation, according to its website.

Pettiford-Wates leads the production of original plays and workshops to promote open dialogue about race and oppression in America.

“You need to recognize there are things that I was not taught intentionally that I need to know about,” Pettiford-Wates said.

The idea for the Conciliation Project sprouted from a class project she assigned her theatre students in 2001 at Seattle Central College, where she was head of the drama department. 

The students analyzed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” an anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe published in 1852. Afterward, they created an original play based on the novel called “Uncle Tom: Deconstructed” that provided a platform for audience engagement after the show.

“When we did the play, it immediately ignited conversation around race,” Pettiford-Wates said. 

During the epilogue, the characters took off their costume makeup and began speaking to the audience as themselves. The dialogue that followed was transformative, Pettiford-Wates said.

After gaining community support, Pettiford-Wates said she couldn’t simply end the class project.

“You can’t just do this piece that caused all of this controversy and conversation, and then just shut it down,” Pettiford-Wates said.

The theatre company grew a following in Seattle, and students created a new show every year for the Conciliation Project. Pettiford-Wates started teaching at VCU in 2004, and about 10 students transferred from Seattle Central College the next year to follow their professor and continue the theatre’s mission.

“We thank Dr. T so much for her strides and her commitments to stay strong and speak out for us.” — Obadiah Parker, senior theatre student 

The Conciliation Project has about 50 to 60 current members, Pettiford-Wates said. 

The project partners with various organizations to create original plays aligning with the mission of social justice. Housing discrimination was the focus of one play called “Unequal Access: a Journey Towards Home,” which was created for Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a Richmond nonprofit that seeks to dismantle housing discrimination and divisive housing practices. 

The Conciliation Project will soon merge with the Theatre Lab, a Richmond theatre group that specializes in “unexpected and evocative” productions, to broaden its reach. The new venture will be called the Conciliation Lab.

“It was inspired by our double pandemic — of health and race,” Pettiford-Wates said. “We realized that together, we could be a lot stronger.”

Debora Crabbe, a VCUarts theatre alumna and former student of Pettiford-Wates, joined the Conciliation Project in 2011 when she landed a role in “Stolen Land: Border Crossings,” a play that calls attention to the anti-immigration fervor experienced by Latin Americans.

“The intersection of social justice and theatre — it’s one of those where you are able to speak the truth about what is going on and the injustices,” Crabbe said.

Crabbe will serve as a co-chair of the Conciliation Lab’s art and activism board. She will oversee the planning and execution of educational workshops, performances and series, such as facilitating conversation about popular films.

“It just makes it feel that much more personal to me when I am a part of the process,” Crabbe said. “I’m getting to bring people’s realities and their stories to life.”

Centering these stories around the experiences of people of color in America has always been the essence of the Conciliation Project, Pettiford-Wates said. She said she doesn’t remember seeing positive Black representation on television when she was a young girl.  

The TV industry has shifted to appreciate more diverse figures, but it has yet to fully embrace substantial inclusion efforts, Pettiford-Wates said. 

Pettiford-Wates poses for a portrait in the basement of the Theatre Lab, the organization the Conciliation Project recently partnered with to create more plays related to social justice. Photo by Wessam Hazaymeh

“I call that cosmetic. It’s kind of like taking the statues down on Monument Avenue,” Pettiford-Wates said. “You know, it looks different. But is it really different? Like, has anything systemically or institutionally changed?”

Many Black theatre students shared these concerns last summer, and some felt their talents were underappreciated by the university department.

“We felt like we were kind of given seconds or not as acknowledged as we want to be,” said Obadiah Parker, senior theatre student and member of the Black Theatre Association. “As far as the stories that were put on stage, as far as how some of the Black artists were treated — it was just an unfair environment.” 

Pettiford-Wates is an adviser of the Black Theatre Association. Its students, who affectionately refer to Pettiford-Wates as “Dr. T,” said they enjoy her lessons about Black playwrights and actors.

“As a theatre major I’m often introduced to European writers or European stories,” Parker said. “You know, you don’t hear about Black stories, and that’s what she tries to emphasize.”

Pettiford-Wates’ role has made the theatre department a more inclusive environment, Parker said.

“We thank Dr. T so much for her strides and her commitments to stay strong and speak out for us,” Parker said. 

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