December 16, 2022
New York City Trip Blends History, Theater, and Equity
On December 10, 2022, thirty-three students and faculty traveled to New York City for a day of experiential place-based learning, reflection, and joy. The trip was a result of the collaboration between the History and Creative Arts Departments and the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. The first-of-its-kind trip started as a conversation between History teacher Steph Sperber and Director of Theater Kyle Reynolds, who then sought the support and collaboration of the Office of DEIB. “Our hope,” said Reynolds, “was to offer students an interdisciplinary opportunity that promoted history and theater through an equity lens.” Sperber added, “I really appreciated the support and encouragement to make this trip a reality, because it exemplifies KO’s Strategic Vision to ‘engage students in real-world and interdisciplinary learning opportunities by expanding the classroom beyond our campus.’” Students were encouraged to discuss how museums, public art, and theater can be transformative in telling the stories of the past.
The first stop was at the African Burial Ground Memorial and Museum. The Burial Ground was the final resting place for nearly 15,000 free and enslaved Africans between the 1630s and 1790s. It was well known at the time, but over the centuries, due to urban sprawl and the construction of New York’s subways and skyscrapers, it was ignored and lost to history. At the museum, students learned about the large African and African descendant community in New York City, and the vital role enslaved and free people played in the city’s growth. Students also learned about the struggle in the 1990s to get the burial ground recognized, as there were plans to build a federal building on top of the site. Part of the museum exhibit was a large art gallery where students were given a guided tour and discussed the significance of remembering the experiences and lives of the people buried there.
The theme of the day was Sankofa, a Ghanaian word meaning that it is not too late to go back and re-examine something that has been overlooked, return to your roots, or re-tell a story in a new way. After the experience at the Burial Ground, students attended a matinee of the Broadway revival of 1776, a musical about the historic decision of the American colonies to declare their independence from England. Whereas the original cast features historically accurate older, White men, this revival featured a cast composed entirely of multiracial female, trans, and non-binary actors. The production took great care to appropriately and meaningfully highlight the challenges and, at times, the hypocrisy of creating a ‘free’ America when nearly half a million people were enslaved, sometimes by those very men declaring it.
The goals were to expose students to professional theater, make connections to what they are learning in the classroom, and give an opportunity for our LGBTQ+ and students of color to see themselves in historically White roles and spaces, reclaiming stories that are also theirs. After the show, students participated in a talkback with the cast, who highlighted what it was like to play some of the more controversial historical roles given their own personal experiences, their process in making creative decisions, and how they worked with the production team to highlight their own individuality in their costumes and movement choices. Students thought deeply about the contradictions and promises that independence brought to all Americans, and how that directly impacts the world they are living in. They also gained a deeper appreciation for the use of public art and theater to tell stories – sometimes stories that have been waiting hundreds of years to be told.
The Christopher Conrad ’91 Fund for Social Justice sponsored this event. The fund, named in memory of the son and brother of the Conrad and Wedeles families, supports faculty professional development and student programs.
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