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Crisis Explores a Century of Oppression

Paul carbonella

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When playgoers filled Bucknall Theater the weekend of Dec.3, they had no idea they were being sent to a different era. The University of New Haven Theater Program’s Crisis: A Performance about Race in America 1915-2015 explores the disturbing history of African-American oppression and exploitation over the last century. The production features performances, playwriting, choreography, scenic design, and original music created by UNH students, who successfully translated the painful effects of racism into an immersive theatrical experience.

Crisis borrows its title from NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, a current-affairs journal featuring scholarly articles, poems, fiction, and plays dealing with issues of race since its genesis in 1910. The first scene in Crisis, “A Sunday Morning in the South,” was written by Georgia Douglas Johnson in 1924. It’s an anti-lynching play about an African-American woman, Sue Jones (Jazmin JeanBaptiste), whose son, Tom (Greg Pease), is unfairly arrested and lynched in jail after being incorrectly identified as a criminal. The scene is just one example of an all-too familiar narrative where normal black families are torn apart because of racism. The ever-present feeling of powerlessness was palpable to the audience as Tom was dragged offstage by two white policemen (Bobby Vaccaro and Julian Paul).

Crisis then transcends the stage by employing “tour guides” (Mallory Clayton, Zachary Fontanez, Jazmin JeanBaptiste, Rose-Emma Lambridis, and Katie McGoff) who directed sections of the audience to different areas in Dodds Hall, which featured student-devised scenes. The first was “Bussing,” a piece dealing with racial division amongst black and white students in schools, which switches between eras to convey how little race relations have changed amongst American students. In the first half, Sal Jonathis (Greg Pease), attempts conversation with an uninterested white student (Sarah Ferguson), who is continually dismissive and suspicious of his friendliness. The setting shifts to the same classroom in 2015, where a different black student (Don Scott) is met with the same disrespect by the Caucasian girl.

Other student-devised sequences included “Sit-ins,” (devised by Ajia Colman, Joshua M. Dill, Dali Irizarry, and Rose-Emma Lambridis) which detailed a form of racial protest by the same name; “Prom and Chill?,” (Mallory Clayton, Zachary Fontanez, Krystal Kidd, and Bobby Vaccaro) which discussed a Georgia high school, which held a segregated prom until 2013; and “Trumbull,” (Nadine Bourne, Zachary Fontanez, Jazmin JeanBaptiste, and Julian Paul) which explored an unexplained traffic stop by a white officer who questioned African American lawyer Alvin Penn (Miles Pease). The frustrating case led to the “Alvin Penn Act,” a bill expanding the collection and analysis of traffic stop data in Connecticut with the purpose of curbing racial profiling.

The closing scenes of the show feature a minstrel show, performed by a white sorority girl at UCLA (Sarah Ferguson). Minstrel shows were a prejudiced form of theater in the Jim Crow-era which featured predominantly white actors donning “blackface” to ridicule African-Americans. There was also a revised, adapted version of “A Sunday Morning in the South,” this time replacing Georgia Douglas Johnson’s original characters with the likes of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, solidifying the century-long span of outright and systematic black oppression in America.

“UNH theater students have bravely taken on the challenge of theatricalizing a crucial problem for college campuses across the country,” said Jessica Silsby Brater, director of the play, in last week’s UNH Today.

Amongst the constant media coverage of police violence aimed toward African Americans in the last few years, Crisis is a successful attempt at exploring America’s culture of racism through theater.

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Crisis Explores a Century of Oppression