The Out-Loud BIPOC Theatre Collective
An original theater production allowed a new collective of Olentangy Orange High School students of color to finally be heard.
We sat in generic black plastic chairs, socially distanced, on the stage of the suburban Lewis Center high school. “Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve ever really talked about any of these things,” Tina said.
She was responding to what Michelle had said a day earlier—that she was always bothered by, but never talked about, “the thing about the hair.” The other girls chimed in, and I did, too. We were all familiar with it, one way or another: the very old and incredibly uncomfortable situation Black girls of all shades inevitably find ourselves in. The irrepressible fascination white people often have with examining, commenting on and touching our hair—often without permission.
That had been our first meeting together.
We were there to talk about how to share these experiences in the form of a theater initiative. The idea was sparked by the head of the drama department, who imagined bringing a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) point of view to their already strong theater department. Not being a person of color, she reached out to me. Would I be interested in directing this first project of its kind at their school?
My biggest question, before agreeing to help, was whether this would be sustained. Would the initiative go up in smoke after the momentary impulse to do the right thing began to wear off? I was assured that it would be continued. In that case, I was all in. We reached out to BIPOC students and ended up with six willing and open-eyed young souls. We named it The Out-Loud BIPOC Theatre Collective.
Most of my six students were without stage experience. They were grappling with the challenges of hybrid or totally virtual learning; logistical difficulties attending rehearsals when parents had more than one job or were divorcing; health issues; anxiety. There would be a lot to juggle, but they were committed, and I was committed to meeting them wherever they were.
We began, simply, with conversations. (I’ve changed the students’ names to honor the confidential nature of the conversation.) “I just feel so much pressure in school and what happens after,” Parker said. We would collectively write about that. “I don’t always feel seen and heard by my classmates or teachers,” Zoe commented. Everyone agreed with that feeling. We wrote some more, and for longer. Topics edged into more sensitive territory. Michael offered, “The protests really got me thinking about police brutality and how unfair the system is,” while Lisa timidly shared, “I really hadn’t thought much about race and racism before things in 2020 became so much clearer and closer to me.”
Some days we worked with movement. We added vocal warm-ups. They started to work as actors. Some days I had five students; other days I’d have one. We developed characters. Some of the students would act as themselves, while a few created more fictional characters—although each was an extension of its creator. We had no rules; we were creating the process as we went.
We got more specific. We returned to our first meeting about hair, then colorism, then culture and language, empathy, microaggressions, and the daily experience of feeling “other” within their predominantly white and conservative school and community.
We decided on three sections for the piece. The first would consist of monologues. The middle section would be a montage of images and candid conversations. The final section would be a dialogue addressing that common topic: their need to be seen and heard. The project was taking shape.
The process of creating “Trilogy” deepened my understanding of the mounting physical, emotional and psychological challenges our children face. Events seem to have been gathering speed to create a dangerous maelstrom. Distortions of truth off- and online; a resurgence of overt white supremacy; school shooting massacres; a global pandemic; a planet wailing for care. On top of all this, our Black and brown children (including my own two daughters) are walking in their Black and brown skins to navigate a landscape filled with racial injustice. These young adults are charged with taking over the reins, fixing our faults and cleaning up a gargantuan mess.
“Trilogy” was, for me, an opportunity to use the only thing I know how to use—creativity—to tickle minds, expand hearts and pry open a portal of hope for these teenagers. To steep them in the work of creating something from nothing; something that could root them in the world of possibility.
This was our project, twice a week for two hours. There were ups and downs. A few thought about bowing out when things got tough, but they didn’t give up. They hung in there, and we became invisibly bound in the effort to make something honest and wholly different from anything that the BIPOC students had presented at their school before. It was my job to keep the flame of encouragement lit, hold them safely and foster their trust that together, we could create a meaningful production. The day before opening I reminded them that this was theirs. This was their Out-Loud BIPOC Theatre Collective. They now needed to own it and, as we say, “leave it on the stage.”
And that’s what they did. The audience at the school theater on Feb. 19 was limited, with socially distant seating, but the students’ hard work was rewarded with rousing applause and testimonials to hearts inspired. Afterward, they told me how glad they were that they hadn’t given up. They had been seen, heard and felt. They were proud of the work we’d created together. They liked the way it made them feel.
I had many goals, but more than anything I wanted to give these kids back their embrace of culture, language and pride in who they are—with all of their gorgeous differences intact. My gift from them was trust. My charge was to meet them where they were and let their own inner magic shine. To remind them, through theater, that they are enough.