Black Lives, Black Words Grows in Size and Scope in its Second Year

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March 02, 2018

It began with a rousing call and response: “Black lives,” the presenter stated. “Black words,” the audience answered. “Black lives,” the presenter said. “Matter,” the audience finished. Cheers and applause filled the room, setting the stage for a bevy of talented black artists to tell their stories.

The question—Do black lives matter?—was posed to black student-playwrights only a month ago at a Northwestern School of Communication workshop for the Black Lives, Black Words (BLBW) event. For the second year in a row, students had a single month to write, edit, and cast their original 10-minute plays ahead of a staged reading and performances on February 26 at Ethel M. Barber Theatre.

“It’s my favorite event of the year,” said Allie Woodson, a senior theatre major, who wrote, directed, acted, and co-produced the show two years in a row. “Last year, it was so new, so we had fewer writers. It was still powerful, but more specifically related to the question – Do black lives matter?”

This year, she said, the question was taken further, in a less literal way. Plays tackled microaggressions, colorism, interracial relationships, personal spiritual reckonings, toxic masculinity, and more, laced with pop culture references and startling moments of vulnerability.

A trio of Northwestern faculty and the BLBW founder, Reginald Edmund, introduced a performance of “Freedom” by Soul4Real, Northwestern’s premier African American a capella group, and the show was on.

A searching monologue called “It’s Me O Lord,” written by Chloe Noelle Fourte and directed by Camille Casmier, set the tone for the night. Woodson, who performs the piece, questions God again and again about how she tries to take the injustice thrown upon black bodies to turn into compassion for others—and about how she fails.

Fourte, a junior majoring in radio/television/film, said she enjoyed the writing process more this year compared to last year. “I don’t really like revising, but my mentor, (theatre lecturer Sandra Marquez), had me cut out stanzas and rearrange them,” she said. “I learned that it was all there, but that it could be improved if you just moved parts differently throughout the piece.”

The production of the performance itself only spanned one month, with deadlines throughout for rough drafts, casting, directing, and rehearsing.

“I was editing even until a few days ago,” said Kori Alston, a School of Communication senior, who wrote, acted and/or directed in the show two years in a row.

Theatre lecturer Aaron Todd Douglas is an associate artist with BLBW and was instrumental in bringing the project to campus. He collaborated both this and last year with senior lecturer Laura Schellhardt, who facilitated the playwriting workshop that preceded the event the past two years.

“Last year was the first time we applied BLBW to a university space and as such I wanted to incorporate some mentoring and support for the playwrights, as well as make the project an avenue for School of Communication student-artists of color to meet and interact with each other in a way they have not necessarily had the opportunity to do before,” Douglas said in an email after the event. “It was, and still is, important to us that BLBW be an inclusive event for all members of the campus community and Evanston in general, while simultaneously remaining a safe space for artists of color to express their unadulterated truths free from the pressure of the white gaze.”

And it was for this space that student Alston wrote “Jimmy Shoelace,” directed by Woodson, about a boy named James who is compelled by the disembodied voice of Michael Jordan sneakers to wear the shoes and be someone else—someone different, someone richer, someone named “Jimmy Shoelace.”

The play ends with James, or “Jimmy Shoelace,” stealing the shoes. He stands on a block as a voiceover auctions off his criminal sentence, slave auction style.

“It’s funny till it’s not,” said Alston. “I prefer to leave the audience a little uncomfortable.”

The last play of the night was Woodson’s “The Coalition of Black Kids Whose Parents Are Famous, Monthly Meeting, February 2025,” directed by Alston, which was as funny and chock-full of pop culture references as it sounds. Blue Ivy Carter guided Alexis Olympia Ohanian, North West, Willow and Jaden Smith to a consensus on a plan following Kim Kardashian’s latest appropriation of black culture.

Even among this uber-famous, very privileged cohort, the sense of black solidarity and community is palpable—a sense that was mirrored throughout the room.

Evanston resident Julian Marshall said he felt such pride and joy as he watched from the audience. “It’s important in this moment to celebrate black art and black voices,” he said after the show. “Art imitates life, and because of that, this is so important, for black voices to be free. We need this more than once a year.”

Other works by Amira Danan, Felicia Oduh, Ruby Phillips, Nolan Robinson Jr., Liana Runcie, and Elliot Sagay rounded out the performances. The show was supported by the School of Communication and the Theta Alpha chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Black Lives, Black Words, an international project examining black diaspora experiences around the world, began in Chicago in 2015 and has since worked with over 300 artists around the world. The organization will release an anthology of all plays across its performances, including Northwestern students’ pieces.

“I feel so honored to be a part of this production,” said Danan, a junior theatre major who wrote and directed in the show. “I don’t know where my writing would go if I weren’t at NU with this space to grow and have my work heard.”

- Mira Wang (Medill, 2018)