UNCW theatre students write and act in show centered around Black culture

Ashley Jackson and John McCall were among UNCW theatre students who wrote and acted in a collaborative piece, “Am I Next? Voices From Wilmington NC.” (Port City Daily/Photo by Janet Adamson)

WILMINGTON, NC — UNCW Department of Theatre normally hosts two shows a semester, acted and produced by its students, with professors taking the directorial helm. Though Covid-19 has put a damper on the college experience overall — from distance learning to de-densifying campus living — it didn’t stop the department from carrying forward their educational mission.

They launched their first show of the season, Harold Pinter’s “A Slight Ache,” in September — though, only for a 50-person audience instead of the normal 300. Currently, they’re running “Am I Next? Voices From Wilmington, NC,” which opened last weekend. The show is streaming live Nov. 20-22 on Twitch for the community to see. UNCW faculty, staff and students can attend the show in person at the main stage in the Cultural Arts Building; again, it’s reduced in capacity to only 50.

“[It’s] the first devised piece collaboratively created and written by an entire cast on the main stage,” said UNCW theatre professor Robin Post, who also directed the show.

“Am I Next?” was inspired by the civil unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement that has risen to greater prominence since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the spring of 2020. UNCW theatre students interviewed people within their own lives and the greater Wilmington area to create multiple vignettes that make up the hour-and-a-half show.

“The students did a combination of performing their own writing and performing verbatim interviews they held with members of their families, friends, university professors and students, community activists and leaders,” Post detailed. “Those that wrote their own really did so on their own. I really just acted as the director of their performances and in some cases the editor of the pieces they wrote.”

Port City Daily interviewed Post about the show, which will stream for free Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. Last weekend’s performances can be viewed as well anytime.

Port City Daily (PCD): How many interviews were conducted? How were they chosen? 
Robin Post (RP): Too many to include — between 30 and 40 . . . In some cases the cast interviewed people they wanted to hear from, and in others I asked them to interview specific people from both the university community and Wilmington community who were scholars that could speak directly to issues of race, and the way in which our country’s policies and structures are still so imbedded with white supremacist ideology. 

PCD: Who did you specifically ask the students to interview?
RP: I cannot reveal the names of the folks that were interviewed because they were promised anonymity when interviewed. Some were scholars with expertise specific to race; others were local activists and others were community leaders assisting those who have been negatively impacted by racial inequity.

PCD: When threading the interviews together into one piece, what was the approach?
RP: We asked several central questions and then based on the responses, I focused on the way in which the pieces were in dialogue with each other and structured the piece accordingly.

In some cases we spliced the interviews in an effort to directly link one to the other, almost as if we were watching a conversation between two entirely distinct interviews. Also, if we found that an interview posed some questions for us, some students sought out answers or responses to those questions in subsequent interviews. 

We all looked at which pieces we’re bringing life to the whole or furthering the conversation, and which had less juice or seemed redundant. The cast made decisions together and, unless they disagreed, I made the final cuts and wove them together. But many students helped with the structure of the piece as well.

PCD: What were some of the questions you asked?
RP: What do you know about the insurrection of 1898? What was it like growing up in Wilmington with respect to race? How does racial inequity present itself in Wilmington and at UNCW? What does race actually mean? Are you proud of your race? What does the celebration of Blackness or Black culture look like and mean to you? What is the impact of George Floyd’s murder?

PCD: What is the content or setup of some of the vignettes?
RP: There are three vignettes celebrating Black culture. They take place at a salon, a family reunion and church. The rest of the play are interwoven interviews, solos and some movement pieces that speak to the central questions listed above. 

PCD: Is there a segment or two that stands out to you most?
RP: I hate to call attention to specific pieces in that way, and I also know that each person responds very specifically to the different moments in the piece. I guess I would say that some of the very personal stories that the students included in the piece, are really quite profound and reveal such deep currents of racism that are still so present.

PCD: What topics and themes are covered in the show that you think will resonate most with everyone?
RP: Everyone will recognize some level of pain because, as one character says, “suffering is universal,” and everyone will recognize and relate with moments of joy with family and friends. 

PCD: What was the biggest challenge of doing a show like this? The content itself is heavy and timely. How did that land with your performers and you? Did you feel more pressure, more free, more validated to explore off the cuff?
RP: I had originally wanted to do a piece by Anna Deavere Smith that was a piece of activism around race and criminalization when we had to regroup around Covid. However, when we were unable to get rights to stream the production, I decided we should devise our own piece, and one that would center [on] Black lives.

The biggest challenge was making sure that the Black students cast in the show trusted that this white woman of privilege was willing to hear and respect their desires about the direction of the piece. They had every reason to question my motives because white history has not truly worked on behalf of Black lives and so the precedent isn’t there.  That said, all of the students were 100% committed to this production and we moved through those challenges;  all of us are better for it. I would never exchange this experience and have been so honored to be able to lead this really important piece of work

PCD: I imagine being in a theatre class during Covid comes with its own set of issues; how have you and your students adapted?
RP: We just made masks, shields, distance and constant disinfecting a regular thing. They all adapted with grace!

Have arts news? Email Shea Carver at shea@localdailymedia.com

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