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“Black Lives, Black Words” showcases diverse Northwestern voices

From a poignant scene about a mother braiding her daughter’s hair to a sometimes-comical exchange between an artist and a cynical buyer, Black Lives, Black Words offered more inclusive, representative, and necessary points of view to a crowded house at the Ethel M. Barber Theater on February 27.

The show, consisting of student-written ten-minute plays, offered a variety of viewpoints and authentic characters, all designed to answer the question: Do black lives matter?

“This began with Black Lives, Black Words in Chicago in 2015, as an initiative so that diverse performers and artists could have a mirror to see themselves reflected with greater diversity, greater accuracy and greater frequency,” said Aaron Todd Douglas, a Theatre Department lecturer who also performed and wrote for Black Lives, Black Words in Chicago. Black Lives, Black Words has since expanded to Minneapolis, Baltimore, Cleveland and also London as part of the Black Lives, Black Words International Project.

This is the very first time Black Lives, Black Words has collaborated with students.

The show began with an a cappella performance of the musician Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” and then transitioned into the first ten-minute play, “A Letter to a Lost Friend,” about a poignant letter recounting a hurtful blackface incident and how thoughtlessness and aggressive ignorance hurt a friendship.

“Half the thoughts in my head are about the color of my skin,” said student actress Devyn Johnson during the piece.

The show also featured student written work from Mary Ann Anane, Kori Alson, Amira Danan, Catherine Davidson, Chloe Noelle Forte, Elliot Sagay and Allie Woodson. The production was emceed by Communication Studies Assistant Professor Aymar Jean Christian.

In another ten-minute play, “Milk,” a mother encourages her black daughter to see her skin and hair as beautiful after her daughter comes home with a self-portrait of a white girl. When the daughter asks her what “melanin” means, the term for darker skin tones, her mother answers, “It means your skin is full of sunlight.” 

Another ten-minute play, “A Hoop Dream” found a photographer trying to convince a buyer of his work that he wasn’t focusing on the victimization of minorities.

“The black experience is a human experience,” said the photographer. “We’re not just victims. Why do people only want to see me as someone who’s hurt?”

Reginald Edmund, the founder of Black Lives, Black Words, said he wanted this collaboration between the professional production and a college campus to be the first of many.

“Why did Black Lives, Black Words come to campus? Because they are the next generation of artists,” he said. “This is the opportunity to let them know their voices matter. They’re speaking a truth that is unfiltered and real.” 

Black Lives, Black Words will be releasing a bound anthology of all pieces featured in their theatrical productions, including the work written by students last night.

In preparing for the production, students had just a week to write their ten-minute pieces, and then they were mentored by faculty members to hone their stories, said Laura Schellhardt, a playwright and senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre, who helped organize the production. Then, student writers were given just two weeks to find a director and a cast. Despite the tight deadline, they found plenty of willing participants.

“Many of our students were clamoring for this kind of work,” she said. “We have a program where we have more diverse voices than we’ve ever had.”

Schellhardt added that both she and Douglas were gratified by the overwhelmingly positive response they received to this initial production on campus. They hope to make it an annual event.

“The thing we were really thrilled about was the community that formed around this production,” she said. “Some of our writers and actors might have shared classes but didn’t real know each other before this. We also had audience members from Evanston Township and the Evanston community, as we made a direct push to get them on campus. It was just wonderful to see the community that built up around this event.”

-Cara Lockwood