This week, the Washburn High School’s Black Box Theater came to Carleton to present their latest act “Step Back, Listen Up: Stories we all need to Hear: Promoting youth voices and change through social justice theater.” Setting up the rhythm of the performance with strong call-and-response chants of “Where you at? Right here,” the Washburn Black Box Theater gave a thrilling performance at the Little Nourse Theater.
The performance was brought on to campus by Professor Deborah Appleman as part of the Educational Studies class “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning in Diverse Classrooms.” Washburn is a public high school in the Tangletown neighborhood of Minneapolis with an especially robust drama program led by Crystal Spring, the drama teacher there. Her classes are formed mainly of juniors and seniors that come together each semester to create a play from the ground up by piecing together poems and scenes that they create based on their own personal experiences. The play, comprised of a diverse group of actors, left the audience with the question of “What will your legacy be?”, bringing up the idea of our intertwining legacies as different individuals. With an emphasis on climate change and the need to take action as a generation, the play also featured scenes of personal stories by the students.
All scenes and stories within the play were written by the students based on their own experiences, so “the students are able to let go of their trauma and embrace their realities through art,” commented Suhani Thandi ’23, a student in Professor Appleman’s class.
With a stronger focus on showing rather than telling stories, the performance was an amalgam of real human emotions that presented the complexities of identity and the fear of leaving behind a legacy that may have taken more than given. From scenes portraying stories about domestic violence to growing up multiracial, the play brought up notions of intersectionality in these experiences as well as the dilemma faced by the people involved in them.
“These stories that you see on stage have happened to me, and I know how hard it was to navigate what I was going through,” said Einer, one of the Washburn students. “So when I see these stories happen on stage, I am able to give a part of my experience to the audience.”
The performance involved the audience as much as they involved the actors. From the start of the play, the audience was encouraged to interact with the performance itself, whether it be the warm-up chants or breathing exercises. After the end of the play, the performers got off stage in order to interact with the audience and get their views on the performance. Eventually, on Ms. Spring’s instructions, each Washburn student brought an audience member on to the stage to engage in a bigger conversation stating what they found particularly interesting. “We want to be unapologetic about our art, but we also want people to be able to ask questions about something they didn’t understand and want to know more about,” said Kiley, another one of the performers.
Washburn Black Box has performed at numerous college campuses and community centers across Minnesota. “We performed at a county church that was having racial tension, and some people walked out. But I would rather you ask me ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’ questions after the performance than just walk out,” said another performer. With these unapologetically authentic scenes, the company engaged and challenged the audience.
“We want to learn from our audience. We want to know what’s working and how we can tell our stories better,” said Jan Mandell, who has been a drama teacher for more than 30 years. The performances begin with students getting to know each other for weeks before the creative process starts. “It all begins with having a safe space and being comfortable in telling your story,” said Ms. Spring. With a guiding hand from the directors, the students start with writing scenes and poems about an experience that they feel shaped their lives, eventually weaving the narratives together to create an experience that is more than just a play.
The Washburn students portrayed stories that not only expressed their stories but took control of their identities. Their authentic performances are an attempt to take power back from a society that has been structured to oppress them. An experience that leaves you with a deeper understanding of the human condition, the play definitely accomplishes its purpose of inciting an urgency to take action in its audience and reassessing what our legacy will be.