by Melissa Lau
What do you get when you combine a supportive theater department, passionate students and a rich culture?
One of the most important elements at the University of La Verne and one of the paramount components in the ULV mission statement has taken another stride forward through the introduction of a unique course.
This spring, the African American Theater Workshop, which meets every Wednesday from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., answered the long-awaited requests for the opportunity to learn more about diversity through African American culture and history.
Visiting Professor of Theater Steve Kent proposed the idea to conduct this class.
Kent, who is the instructor of the course, is also the director for the Institute for Conscious Acting. He has proudly worked with national African American theater groups such as the Urban Bush Women, Junebug with John O’Neal and the Carpetbag Theater. Through his knowledge and experience, Kent helped create this forum-like class.
“The African American community has been underserved for many years,” said Kent. “Not just by the university, but in theater, too.”
During January Interterm, Kent taught a class called “The Power of Story.” As an assignment, he had his students interview someone in their family about their cultural roots. The results students shared were surprising, Kent said. He found it amazing that many students had never heard the stories of how their parents arrived to America. He mentioned that one student even discovered that her grandmother spoke a Native American language. Because this concept of family oral history has such a great impact on cultural identity, it is one of the keystones for the African American Workshop.
“They don’t have to wait for someone to write a play,” Kent said. “They should be able to start here (with their roots).”
LaVelle Wilson, a ULV Theater Arts alumnus, will be assisting Kent as the co-facilitator for the workshop. Through education and understanding, Wilson hopes to contradict the negative stereotypes that are projected to the public through television and other media. In addition, the class is also intended to help students express their feelings and share experiences of racism they faced while growing up.
“The class is designed to get them involved and to have the students come out of their shell,” Wilson said.
Throughout the month of February, the class will focus on the origins of Black History. Specifically, the class will discuss the different types of communication used during the Middle Passage, and the journey to the Americas.
During the Middle Passage, various African tribes were mixed together purposely so they were unable to communicate with each other. As a result, the tribes developed a form of communication through dance, music and drums.
Students from the workshop will also participate in activities sponsored by the African American Student Alliance. In addition to participating in the Poetry Slam on Feb.13, students will also share in the Griot Monologues. These works are a form of storytelling by a figure in Black history.
The term Griot was originally a title used for a storyteller or singer who, today, would be similar to a combination of the newspaper and a cultural historian.
What we know as rap music today, can also be considered a form of Griot, Kent said.
The workshop, which is funded by the Irvine Development Grant from the University, has invited movement choreographers to join them every Wednesday.
Although small performances are occasionally done in class, a final performance will take place during finals week in May.
This will possibly be done in collaboration with another new class added this semester — West African Drumming, Kent said.
The theater department greatly encourages students of all majors and ethnic backgrounds to experience the workshop. Students who are not enrolled in the class are also welcome.
“These students are highly energetic,” said Kent. “There are some really gifted students around here, really gifted.”
Wilson cautions, however, that those who wish to participate must have an open mind and an understanding heart.
“They need to know that they will be dealing with tough issues,” Wilson said. “We will be dealing a lot with racism.”
Although this is the first semester ULV has introduced the class, both Wilson and Kent hope the tradition will continue.
However, it is too soon to determine whether students will see the class listed in the fall registration catalogue or not.
If the class does not continue after this semester, Kent hopes that it will be a “pilot program” for other minority groups who will take the idea and run with it.
He also hopes the class and the students involved will influence the curriculum of the university. He feels that although a university like this one can accept a diverse group of students, they must also consider the thought, “Are you prepared to serve them culturally?”
Kent said, “Students need some kind of outreach to see that their college curriculum is relevant to their lives.”
“We didn’t expect a big turnout for this class,” Wilson said. “But we got one, and they’re not going to be disappointed.”