When Art Illuminates Nature

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Introduction: My Journey to Theatre Education

From a young age, I had a deep love for the arts. It was something my mother nurtured in me from childhood. My passion for the performing arts in particular grew as I became involved with church plays and concerts. When I went to college, it was natural for me to combine education with theatre. Studying both at Howard University developed my appreciation for just how much the arts are part of my Black heritage. Howard has a respect for classical theater, and it was at Howard that I learned about Terence, Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson.

When Terence was brought into slavery from Africa, he was naturally drawn to Roman theatre, and become one of the most successful playwrights of his day. The history of theatre in Africa parallels that of Ancient Greece and Rome. In both contexts, theatre was used to teach communities about the stories that bound their cultures together as communities of faith. Even in the middle ages, Passion plays taught the Bible to Christian communities. Terence is a significant part of this intercontinental tradition.

Even though he was born in New York, Ira Aldridge felt so oppressed in America because he was not allowed to pursue his passion for theatre as freely as in Europe. He yearned to tell his story on the stage, through the life of Othello and through other works of Shakespeare. He used his fame in Europe to speak against slavery in America.

Paul Robeson was the son of a former slave. He attended Rutgers University and, later, law school at Columbia University. Due to the lack of opportunities for Black lawyers, Robeson found his way to the stage and made his debut in London. He eventually joined the Provincetown Players, and found success playing the part of Othello. In addition to a flourishing career in theatre, Robeson was known for his vocal performance of Negro Spirituals.

Aristotle believed that imitating nature (what he calls mimesis) through theatre and the arts in general was instinctive. The lives of these Black actors reveal how deeply-felt the call to drama is in all people, no matter what race they are. There is a desire to dramatize our life experiences. This is what humanity does. This is something Aristotle understood.

From childhood, a man has an instinct for representation, and in this respect, differs from the other animals. We enjoy representation, even the accurate likenesses of things which are themselves painful to see: grotesque beasts, for instance, and corpses. As we look, we learn and infer what each is, for instance, “that is so and so.” Learning gives pleasure.

I feel such a strong conviction about the instinct of drama, that no matter how shy a child is or how much they may not be able to speak well, I feel that drama helps to draw them out. Drama also helps people to connect to other human stories, be it on a page or in a person. Terence often used his plays to tell his life story in the Prologue. It was a tool to communicate with the world about his life. Ira Aldridge used theatre to communicate with the world about his feeling about slavery and inequality. As a Black woman, knowing about stories like this, nurtured while a student at Howard University, drew me into theatre education even more.

To me theatre and drama was more than an after school program or an elective. It is an essential part of teaching because it helps students internalize history, literature and so much more in the core school curriculum. It inspires connection with the lessons being taught and students begin to translate this understanding into their own lives. I have always used theatre as a primary teaching tool and I would like to take some time to share with you how I used theatre in my Great Books classes with Black students and how those same students in turn wanted to create a piece of drama that would tell their story about how Great Books touched their lives while students in my class. The following is a chapter from my dissertation, which unveils my journey into using theatre in the Great Books class and also tells about how my students and I created a play together to dramatize the experience.

The Stage: A Play is Born

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties

Why should the world be overwise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
(Dunbar, 1895, p. 896)

Six years of teaching Great Books literature to African American high school students is a lot of time to unpack. I wanted to make time stand still and capture the moments students would tell me about their lived experiences in my class. In order to capture these moments of students freely sharing their renderings, I decided to have the students and I go away for a weekend, as opposed to interviewing them one at a time over a longer period of time. During this time away they shared openly about their lived experiences of being in the class and there was no interruption. The conversations flowed as students enjoyed an interchange and a walk down memory lane. Everything was fresh. As the questions were asked, students gave the first expressions that came to mind, revealing the authenticity in what they shared. Students were even surprised by each other’s personal inner struggles during that time. The lived experiences that were shared that weekend in the transcriptions I read through later, touched me so deeply. The students revealed that they were going through experiences I was not aware of, and they also shared how engaging in the literature helped them to work through some of their inner struggles. I asked the students to write monologues that expressed who they were at the time they were in my class. These monologues revealed internal struggles I never knew were going on at the time I was teaching them.
Eventually, the monologues found their way into a play that we created towards the end of the weekend called The Table. The title came out of students remembering how everything within the class happened for them around a table. Years ago, I set my class up with a long table and chairs around it, just like the seminar classes that I enjoyed at St. John’s College. The Table, is a dramatic demonstration of African American students revealing their lived experiences while sitting around a table, engaging in Socratic Dialogue about a piece of classic literature. The play was developed towards the end of the weekend, after the bulk of the conversations had taken place. To create the play, the students were given excerpts of several classic texts to choose from. They all chose “Character,” an essay by Voltaire, because they felt that this essay revealed how they often wore masks that hid their true character when in the class. The Table illuminates all of the discoveries (the internal struggles of each student, the process of engaging in Socratic Dialogue with students, and the battle to connect with the students during that time) that took place during the course of the weekend where I conducted the conversations with them.
As a part of this study, the play was performed at St John’s College, February 13, 2016. Below is a plot summary written by a UMD grad assistant, for a second presentation at the University of Maryland performance, however, not being a part of the study:

Though billed as “a play,” this performance is really a dramatic exploration and representation of the power of dialogue about literary texts. A group of African American students within a high school literature class engage in dialogue about “Character” by Voltaire and “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Students, along with their teacher connect the texts to their lives, both as individuals and as African Americans. They also compare and contrast the texts in order to develop a synthesized world view. In so doing, the teacher becomes an equal participant in the search for knowledge and understanding.

Additionally, students share their inner thoughts about their feelings of going through the process…feelings that the teacher was not aware of at the time. These private feelings are shared through individual monologues presented by the students as if they are reading through a private journal. The monologues/journal readings reveal some of the struggles students and teachers face in trying to connect over literature. The monologues also reveal how the dialogue and the literature can chisel away at those internal obstacles. (Groff, 2016)

In order to work through the production of The Table and reveal its connection to my study, I have chosen to include excerpts from John Rudlin’s Commedia dell’ Arte: An Actor’s Handbook. Commedia dell’Arte was a form of theatre that used masks to depict various characters. I have found that my participants actually reminded me of some of the characters in Commedia dell’ Arte as shown in the following section. I also draw from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which addresses how theatre is used as a sort of catharsis for its participants, freeing them from the chains of life struggles that sometimes seek to silence the one who is engaged in the struggle. Both of these texts discuss how art can often times symbolize human nature as well.


The Metaphoric Plot

Although the production of The Table is not the heart and soul of this study, it does provide a framework where I can introduce the participants of the study. This chapter seeks to lay a foundation for them to be understood as I share each of their lived experiences in the proceeding chapters. Also, because the conversations with the students were not conducted individually but in a group, the play helped to synthesize their experiences.
A work of art was created through the oral tradition of stories shared, having deep connections to the story of the slaves’ escape to freedom, guided by the North Star. For The Table the students and I mainly wanted just to present the lived experience in dramatic form, to spark conversation from the audience after the performance. We wanted them to look at what happened in the class and to reflect on what it may reveal about teaching, learning, and the relationships between students and teachers. From the active dialogue that took place after the play at St. John’s I sense that the audience began the discussion mentally, well before the play ended and the post play discussion began. For example, one audience member noticed that the students in the play seemed to get so into the literature, that they seemed to go into another world. She noticed that whatever distractions they may have had in the real world, they seemed to disappear during the discussion. Her question with regards to this observation was, “What do students gain by leaving the real world, going into the world of the literature, and then returning to the real world again?”
We discussed how eventually, once the students become more involved with the literature, it is no longer two different worlds, but the two worlds collide, or become one. As students begin to read the literature consistently, something begins to change about their thinking. The audience being able to view this experimental theatre piece, allowed them to visualize the transformative nature of engaging in the literature, and it caused them to wonder. Art is often a silent dialogue between artist and audience (Brackman, 2006, location 169). Van Manen (1997) says, “We might say that hermeneutic phenomenology is a philosophy of the personal, the individual, which we pursue against the background of an understanding of the evasive character of the logos of other, the whole, the communal, or the social” (p. 7). The drama helped to evoke a conversation that led to a deeper understanding of the lived experience of African American students reading Great Books literature.

Throughout this project I have used the star as a metaphor. Returning to it, I think of “The Chained Star,” a quilting pattern and how it connects to my study. I see the Great Books as a Polaris for my people during the time when they were not permitted to read or gain literacy by reading the literature of the master. Barbara Brackman (2006) uses poetic license to interpret “The Chained Star” quilting pattern as a way to tell the story of slaves being captured from West Africa and brought to America. The audience viewing The Table was given this same “poetic license.” As I share this rendering of my students’ lived experiences, it is my hope that those who read it will be given the same freedom to interpret the lived experiences of my students for themselves and be able to connect them to their own teaching and learning experiences.
The lived experiences shared by my students through conversation and drama are the “layers” to make for a rich and thick retelling. In reviewing the transcripts of the conversations, I saw several themes develop. I also call these phases, because it appears that the students went through an evolutionary process as they went through my class. The poem above reveals how a quilt can reveal the phases of a person’s life. This is how I see my process of constellating the students’ lived experiences. Reading through the transcriptions I was able to identify several phases/themes: The Flickering Light, When the Flame Catches, Being in the Light and The Lived Experience Shining into the Present. The Flickering Light, speaks to that first step into reading Great Books literature. I think of when night begins to fall and we start to see the stars slowly make their appearance. It seems as if at first they are flickering as they begin to settle into the coming of night. My students flickered when they first started the class. There was a lot of resistance. Sometimes they would complete the reading assignments and sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they would participate in the literature discussions and sometimes they wouldn’t.

When the Flame Catches represents that time when night has fully come and the stars are shining bright. They have settled into the night. The students have settled into the darkness of the book and have begun to let it illumine their consciousness. The books can be a sort of “night time” because they are written in a time and culture that African American students are not familiar with; however, their flickering light starts to settle into the darkness of the book and they begin to shine—they begin to understand and connect to the books. The students start to read more consistently and have something to contribute to the discussion. They even start to read independently, allowing these books to shape their thinking about life and the world around them.
Being in the Light is that time in the journey when the students are completely immersed in the books. The books have become a way of life for them, they are thinking more critically and they are starting to see the different quotes and subjects of the books in their current culture and life (i.e. in a movie or song or a quote may be used in their everyday converation).
The Lived Experience Shining into the Present reveals how the students shared the way in which the books they read in my class have affected their thinking and way of life currently (several years have passed since they graduated from high school). By engaging in a group conversation, as opposed to having individual conversations, the students talked as one, flowing through the conversation and reminiscing about their shared lived experiences.

The Players and Their Masks

Commedia dell’ Arte is a type of theatre that primarily uses masks to represent human life. Each mask has its own personality and whenever you see the mask you know what character is going to take the stage. Connecting the Commedia del’ Arte to my project is appropriate, because of the students’ decision to make masks an important part of the play they created towards the end of the weekend. Their desire to use masks for their characters came about due to feeling they were hiding behind some type of mask in order to go through their lived experience. The concept of a mask was so strong, that they chose “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar as the theme poem for the production. One audience member, during the discussion after the performance, wanted to know why the characters in the play wore a mask. Arthur Scott came forward to answer that question:

Everyone had their own different reason for wearing the mask. There is no one reason. But let’s look at this. Let’s think about Batman. He wears a mask because he cannot show who he is to everyone else and that’s how we felt when we were in the class.

From this question and Arthur Scott’s response, we engaged in a dialogue about why students may sometimes wear masks and how can we as teachers help students come to be liberated from the masks. One of the main reasons we realized that students may wear masks, is because of the fear of not fitting in with their classmates. The masks served a very important part in symbolizing the students’ inner struggles while taking the class. Even though in this study I will be using the names my students chose for themselves for the play, I connect them to the various characters of the Commedia. As Boso states above, the Commedia characters represent the people of society, and my students took on many of the traits of the Commedia characters.

During the time that Sophia was in my class she had an intense desire to learn and to go deep. She often wrote the most and provided the most dialogue in our class discussions. Her desire was to show me how much she knew. Sophia reminds me of Columbina from the Commedia, because it says that Columbina could read and write and went beyond other women by becoming self-educated (Rudlin, 1994, p. 130). Columbina also sought to show others how intellectual she was. Interestingly enough, the name “Sophia” means “wisdom” (although I am not sure she knew the meaning of the name she chose for herself).

Then there was Zora, who chose this name in connection with the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, who shaped her sense of self as a young African American woman. Over the course of our discussion for the study, she referenced the amount of “drama” that was going on with her while she was in my class. Like my student, Isabella in Commedia was the very heart of the drama. Often times this drama was used to mask her inner turmoil, around her desire to be noticed and significant (Rudlin, 1994). Zora wrestled so much with wanting to fit in with her peers and to be viewed as important, that initially it hindered her from reaching her full potential during the class.
Arthur Scott, the third participant in the study, hid behind an air of self-confidence and humor. He chose this name for himself after his maternal grandfather. He also said that he chose this name because Arthur Conan Doyle is his favorite author and Scott Mescudi is his favorite artist. I found that these former students had such wide tastes, spanning from hip hop culture to classic literature. In Commedia there is a character that can take several forms called the Zanni (where we get the word “zany” from). He is the comic relief of the play and the star that keeps the plot moving forward. He is the boss and always maintains his status (Rudlin, 1994). He is astute, ready for anything, humorous, quick-witted, and he is capable of intrigue, deceit, making a mockery of the entire world with his mordant, salacious wit (Rudlin, 1994). The Zanni reminded me of Arthur Scott so much, because he always seemed on top of everything and had a humor that entertained all of us, especially as his humor brought to light some of the craziness of the school, the class and the world. We did not realize that this mask was used to hide very deep pain. Like most of the Zanni characters he always appeared relaxed and calm.

Ray Charles was the youngest of the students who participated in the project. He’d been skipped forward in school two times and struggled always to fit in with his older classmates.

He is like Arlecchino in the Commedia. He had a sense of always knowing and he never wanted to be the loser. Arlecchino never simply just “does” anything, but everything was done with a touch of flare. He was also known for using the somersault to complete a task or to get from one place to another (Rudlin, 1994). I found this description interesting because this participant was heavily involved with gymnastics and often did somersaults and back flips at school. He also was a black belt in martial arts and taught classes. Ray Charles hated to be wrong or to fail at anything. He was very smart and many times he and I would go back and forth in debate during class.

There was one student who I feel did not wear a mask and that was Zeke. As I listened to him during our discussions, what he revealed to me is what I observed of him myself. In Commedia, he connects the most to Pierrot because of this character’s somber demeanor. Pierrot also pretended to be mute (http://shane-arts.com/Commedia-Pedrolino.htm). This participant rarely spoke in class, although his mom would often tell me what he was thinking and what he was feeling. Pierrot of Commedia was also known for only revealing his true feelings in private (Rudlin, 1994). The one main trait of Pierrot was that he was a very honest character. This was my student. Reflecting on the dialogue I came to wonder if he was the most genuine during the course of the time he was in my class. It was around his senior and fourth year in my class that he became more vocal and more open, but it was always from a genuine place. One more characteristic that I feel connects him to Pierrot is that Pierrot was always sleepy and my student shared that one of the main reasons he struggled with my class was because he was always sleepy. It was hard for him to stay focused on what we were discussing.

These five participants are my window into understanding the lived experience of African American students reading Great Books literature. The time we spent over the course of the weekend for the conversations and the time we worked together to create “The Table,” was a time of great illumination for me.

We poured out our understanding of the books around the table. I remember in one class years ago, Arthur Scott suddenly got inspired around the table to write a song about how life is all meaningless. All of us were sitting around the table and he just jumped up, ran to the piano and started singing the song. The table is where their minds wrestled with their inner struggles, and the books inspired them to work through those struggles.

We tend to think of a table as only a place to eat and satisfy our appetites, but it is a place to meet others on the life journey and satisfy the longings of our souls. My students revealed longings that they had within: a longing to be heard, understood, accepted, appreciated, and loved. The table is different from desks, because nothing separates us. We are all one around a table. The Great Books, I have come to discover, just as Frederick Douglass did as a slave, also unify us into the realm of our shared humanness. I relate this lived experience of African American students reading Great Books literature to her opus about the table, and its power to draw us into a shared journey through life’s ups and downs. Kara ended her blog entry about the table and Shauna Niequist’s book with this:

Her words remind me that the work of the meal isn’t the point. Not at all. The point of the meal is the communion of those who are joined around the table. There will be days I can create the intricate meals she includes, and there will be days we meet around the table with our favorite bean and cheese burritos from La Casita. It’s the meeting, the loving, the time together today that matters. No need to be impressive—just breathing, alive, sharing grace together. That’s the meal…Meet around your table and find community and love that you never
expected. (http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com/home/2014/03/31/bread-and-wine-shauna-

To capture the significance of the table in the Great Books class, the students wanted the main staging of the play to happen around a table. As the poem shared at the beginning of this section, the table bore a very heavy burden. Their desire to wear a mask for the play, however revealed a different dynamic. The act of engaging in Socratic dialogue during the class years ago, was an exercise in working through those struggles internally, but the outward dialogue being only focused on the book also prevented me as the teacher, from seeing them go through that process of inner struggle. Ray Charles, in particular, displayed a monologue performance that physically revealed his inner struggle. He literally fights with his mask on the stage, and for his performance he demonstrated how his mask won. The other students provided some type of hope by the end of their monologue, showing that by working through the class, they started to overcome their struggles, but Ray Charles did not win his struggle with his mask. This is interesting because I never felt that I established a connection with him while he was in the class, and I was surprised when he asked if he could participate in the study.

The struggle of Ray Charles and others all happened around the table. It was the burden bearer, a place to come together, a place to struggle through our understandings and questions. Just like the table in the poem above, and just like the table that Kara Tippetts dreams of having and experiencing, our table was a strong place. Sometimes it did actually wobble a bit under the load of books, feet propped up on it, heads leaned down on it, hands banging on it in the midst of a heated discussion, elbows resting on it, bottoms leaning on it, and stacks of essays resting on it written by the students. It still stood strong through the ups and downs of African American students reading Great Books literature.

Breaking the Chains through Monologue

But the theatre can also be a weapon for liberation. (Boal, 1979, p. viii) The conversations with the students revealed how they were each struggling with their own identity and seeking to build their own “uniqueness.” Boal (1979) says, “Art would, then, be a copy of created things” (p. 1). In the book Childhood’s Secrets I recall the following perspective on the play’s use of “masks”:

There exists a paradoxical relation between the need for secrecy and the need for supervision. If we constantly must know what preoccupies the inner life of the child, this could frustrate the development of a unique self. So the question is: When should we try to find out what is going on, and when should we leave children to deal with things in private?…in larger and smaller ways, the tension between privacy and supervision is constantly at work in the lives of children and their parents, teachers or caretakers. (van Manen & Levering, 1996, p. 151)

Through investigating their lived experiences, I am able to get at the essence of each of their inner most thoughts during the course of that journey. The monologues they each created at the first session of our weekend long conversation, created a door into their lived experiences. The monologue is a theatrical element that forces an actor to delve deep into his/her inner self in order to bring out the emotions of the character—without any type of hindrance from another actor on the stage. It is very freeing. There are no other characters to distract you from yourself. The monologue was sort of the ice breaker for the students and from that activity, everything else flowed. Their thoughts about the lived experience began to flow; a play about the lived experience organically developed that they felt symbolized that lived experience; and a world of understanding was created between all of us through the conversation about their lived experiences.

Suggested Reading:

It is my hope that the following books will give teachers tools for bringing drama into their classroom!

Creative Drama in the Classroom by Nellie McCaslin Teaching Drama in the Classroom by Jeana Whitaker The Creative Classroom By Savvas Learning Company Theatre Games for the Classroom by Viola Spolin A Reflective Practitioner’s Guide by Peter Duffy

Drama and Education by Manon van de Water

Terence the Comedies (This is a collection of the plays by Terence the ancient Roman playwright)