Inside USD

Powerful Class: Social Justice Meets Theatre

Friday, December 20, 2013

Every few minutes, the room went pitch black, followed by eerie silence and a mixture of feelings —uncertainty and excitement — for what would emerge.

Darkness soon gave way to a bright spotlight that illuminated USD’s Studio Theatre, where 15 enlightened expressions, “one-acts,” were performed by students in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Associate Professor Evelyn Diaz Cruz’s powerful course, Theatre and Community.

There was Jose Galvan’s gripping opener, “Littlest Lives”; Connor Sullivan’s act of homeless enlightenment in “The Play”; Sara Padilla’s beautifully crafted “Dreamers’ Dance” as famous poet Maya Angelou voiced “Still I Rise”; spoken-word veracity of Tarez Lemmons’ “Mirrors,” and guest poets Karla Cordero and Stacy Dyson; and the serious reflection put forth by Jalen Angel, Toney Sawyer and Lemmons in “Hopeful.” A fun, upbeat rap, “Ride Together,” brought smiles and the entire student cast out for a final bow and an impromptu group dance.

All in all, there was plenty for everyone to process and much to celebrate.

“This is sociology. This is psychology. It’s spirituality. This is research-based. This is a pedagogy that crosses a myriad of disciplines,” Cruz said. “We take theater at the undergraduate level as a holistic experience so it’s quite different being in the liberal arts as opposed to being, say, in a conservatory where students are learning specific acting skills without the reflection of the liberal arts education.”

The Dec. 12 finale was the culmination of another pressure-packed, filled-to-the-brim semester for both students and Cruz, but it ultimately delivers immense satisfaction. Cruz has typically taught the Theatre and Community course once each academic year for nearly a decade. Focused on theatre and performance as a means to explore social and political issues, Cruz calls it “an uncomfortable, beautiful and crazy process … and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Material for each student’s project is culled through site visits, improvisation, heavy classroom discussion, workshops, in-class readings and, perhaps most importantly, carefully tuning into the struggles, turmoil and emotional stories learned during a site visit at this semester’s local community organizations, a homeless shelter and a domestic violence shelter.

Some stories, Cruz said, sparked personal narratives that are woven into the individual scripts. When performed, it is seen as an important growth opportunity because a student “felt safe enough to unpack it as a human experience and we can now each look at it and increase the empathy we have for each other.”

Ce’Sjonnae (Cee-Jay) Taylor said performing was “liberating” for her because she suffers from stage fright. One might have been hard pressed to notice, though, as she wrote one piece, “My Dad,” but acted confidently in “Not a Date,” written by classmate Yajaira Nunez, and she delivered a rousing pair of vocal performances in “Hopeful.”

“I could feel all the nerves I had disappear and it gave me more confidence,” Taylor said. “This class was a very different experience for me, but I really felt like I was part of a family.”

Students expressed admiration for Cruz’s help and encouragement throughout the process. Padilla said the class “was very empowering and it gave us all a chance to express our own form.” Lemmons simply described it as “learning in a different way, a good way.”

Nunez said the class’ visit to the homeless shelter sparked both an idea for her one-act project as well as a self-reminding lesson. “It was an experience I won’t ever forget. I will never look at a homeless person the same way again. I don’t want to have a prejudgment of other people.”

The students validate “why I do what I do,” Cruz said, but it’s not a surprise that there’s a personal transformation taking place here. Cruz has a wealth of experience with this type of art expression. An experienced writer, director and actor from The Bronx in New York, Cruz focuses on empowering communities by addressing issues of social justice through the art lens. Her work has earned her praise locally, including USD’s Innovations in Experiential Education Award in 2009 and the prestigious KPBS Local Heroes Award.

“We’re exploring tensions, and also our personal biases because we’re engaging in communities unlike our own, which is part of the university’s mission. This class being a capstone course, it is a synthesis of a lot of the things they’ve learned along the way as Theatre Arts and Performance Studies majors. We’re studying humans, and humanness through the physical embodiment of others.”

Cruz warns students at the start of the semester that the class can be an exhausting process with everything inserted and extracted, but it’s easy to see why her enthusiasm for the knowledge gained through each student’s performance is important.

“This class is special,” Cruz said. “Some students have natural [acting] ability and some who’ve had good training, but more than half of the class has not been involved in a fully staged production or performance. Some are incredibly shy. What happens is that I get a marriage of students that are more experienced as activists for social change with students that are at various levels of their theatre training as theater artists. They’re able to learn from each other in ways that are not only intensely pleasurable, but also challenged in ways that aren’t comfortable. Everyone is sufficiently challenged. It’s the best of both worlds. Both are artistic and concerned with social justice, but what each group has privileged for the two groups is distinct so this marriage is beautiful. I’m never disappointed.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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