At LaGuardia Community College, Visiting Fulbright Scholar Steven Gilbers discusses African-American English through the comparison of East Coast and West Coast hip-hop. In a classroom filled with students and professors, Mr. Gilbers proceeds to break down hip-hop culture and the importance of authenticity in the hip-hop community. “Another crucial part of hip-hop culture is this […]
Social justice theatre and self-reflection have never been so intersected.
It is this imperfect junction that is explored in the newest work devised by LaGuardia Community College theatre students and faculty, under the dual direction of eatre Program Director Stefanie Sertich and LPAC Artistic Producing Director Steven Hitt. “Intersections” reflects themes that both encompass and expand the crux of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The performance follows three different families dealing with the modern realities of gender-racegenerational- health disparities. The casting of such an ethnically and gender-diverse set of actors was intentional, said Mr. Hitt. We see the inescapable link between characters’ appearance and gender or ethnic identity and the subsequent success and struggles in living the lives they want to lead based upon such facets of their identity.
In a scene between a Latina and her white boyfriend, it is the white male who wears the privilege of pursuing a career in the arts. Shooting victim Janelle Williams, portrayed by Cheyenne Winley, also represents how a double minority, a black woman, becomes a threat to a policeman without just cause, while the white man who accompanies her, played by Mike Johnson, wears the privilege of being left alone.
Audience member and LGCC theatre student Dara Mellon said such scenes remind him of the importance of “connecting to seeing everyday differences in how people are treated or profiled differently based on color and gender.”
At the same time, directors and actors alike strive for more than just stereotypes. ere is perhaps no other moment in which we more closely witness this strain of complexity than in the alternating moments of victimization, aggression, and re-humanization of new recruitturned- police officer Alex Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez is humanely portrayed by Ricky Hernandez as the tormented soul who shoots the innocuous Ms. Williams.
We meet Mr. Rodriguez as a trainee who first struggles against a policy of indiscriminate use of force promoted by his peers and superiors. His contorting face and shaking body reveal a conflict that intersects the mental with the physical. rough his body language and the yells that burst from his chest as others around him shell out positive reinforcement, Mr. Rodriguez’s qualms seem to reflect an internal conflict that can only be suppressed, never resolved.
Later, we witness Mr. Rodriguez’s adoption of this policy, and his acceptance of an abusive power dynamic between the police and innocent civilians, in his barked order at Ms. Williams when she attempts to explain her confusion: “Do not talk back to me!” After the shooting, Mr. Rodriguez’s sobs revert his toughness to unravel the facade and reveal a vulnerability that transmits heat goosebumps.
The goosebump factor is not a room temperature trick. This scene summons strong reactions in part because it is so real. As Mr. Hitt clarifies in the show talkback, the language of the police training session is the only section of the performance not devised. The fact that it is taken, word for word, from an actual training video, adds an even greater authenticity to the actors’ portrayal of officers and recruits.
Learned orders such as “Arms out like an airplane!” thus take on deeper impressions, calling to mind the conception of a victim as someone who cannot fly away, a person lacking the opportunity for freedom as soon as the individual is stopped by an officer.
Such scenes hit close to home for audience members on the receiving end of aggressive police bias. Cory Greene, an activist featured in 13th, a Netflix documentary about the mass incarceration-race link, recounted what is was like to have the police “rolling by just because [I’m] black” while Mr. Greene sat in his car with his son and ex-partner.
“You feel like you’re not talking to a real person,” said Mr. Greene. “You are literally criminalizing me and my family, by making assumptions–not based on fact–that crime is happening in the car.”
Part of what weaves such an authentic connection between the characters and the audience, according to Stage Manager Patrick Surillo, is in the inherently improvised nature of the piece. The students’ help was key, said Director Sertich, especially with the White, Black, and Police tracks. In these scenes especially, actors such as Matae Springs, Ms. Winley, and others brought their own personal experiences to the table during the devising process.
Even the more mundane details of the characters’ lives connect to authentic student life, delving into absenteeism and the CUNY policy requiring students to attend class regularly in order to maintain an on-campus job.
These realities are explored through comedy, such as when an overzealous Professor Gingrich (played by Mariah Reyes) accosts a frequently absent student (played by Ms. Winley) at a coffeehouse. Reyes and Winley effectively use humorous facial expressions to further bring to life the awkwardness of professor-student interactions that some LaGuardia student and faculty audience members may have known too well.
Why lighten up a performance piece that explores such serious issues? According to Professor Sertich, it is precisely because of the darkness in these realities that we need to intersect the gravity of situations with humor.
“The audience needs to breathe,” said Professor Sertich, chuckling. “We laugh when it is too hard. Laughter is a way to deal with emotions, a defense…from crying.” She pointed out that even in tragedy, laughter lies just along those edges: “Life is funny!”
Life is also much more complex now, said Ms.Winley, as society has handed us dehumanizing tools to create chasms among each other,“ to break ourselves away from connecting due to differences like gender, race, and technology.”
Nayarit Alcantara, who plays Danielle Williams, sister of Ms. Winley’s character, also emphasized the importance of “stripping people from their beliefs to see who they truly are, because we are not our beliefs.” She urged listeners to keep in mind that individuals are not binary and thus should not face blind biases with regard to their character solely because they voted for a particular presidential candidate or hold certain opinions.
Audience member and “Intersections” student collaborator Victor Vargas said he believes this re-humanization must be fought at both the societal and individual levels. According to Mr. Vargas, by failing to consistently connect with ourselves, by rejecting responsibility for our reality before bemoaning the culpability of political players, we ultimately fail ourselves.
“It starts with us,” said Mr. Vargas, “with our personal journey, being in touch with our own humanity before looking outward.”
At the close of the talkback, Mr. Hitt hit the audience with a heavy-handed question, one paid forward to the reader: “What is one way you can make a change for yourself, for society?” What can we create within and outside of ourselves to make life an art form that intersects with more of our humanity than the inhumane?