Black Feminism Takes Center Stage

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Director of Barnstorm Theater and Theater Arts graduate student, Ryan Pearson, strives to provide a pedestal for women of color in the theater department to showcase their talent and increase their prevalence in the acting community. Photo by Casey Amaral

Since she was 14 years old, Ryan Pearson has had a play in the back of her mind and hoped that one day she would get to direct it. Her high school drama teacher gave Pearson a monologue from a feminist choreopoem titled “For Colored Girls” as a teen, and she remembered being blown away at the script’s ability to record the experiences of women and girls who looked like her.

Almost a decade later, Pearson, a theater arts graduate student and director of Barnstorm Theater finally achieved her dream — producing and directing “For Colored Girls.”

“I’m most excited for the people who will relate to this, or even people who might not relate to it completely, but it makes them feel something,” Pearson said. “This work will make people feel like they see themselves, feel like they see their story, feel like they see their mother’s story, feel like they see a friend’s story.”

The piece addresses issues of womanhood that Pearson can relate to as a black woman. She wanted to bring what resonated with her into the production at UC Santa Cruz.

“Most patrons who go to see Broadway shows are older white people because it caters to them,” Pearson said. “But when something like ‘The Color Purple’ comes on Broadway, [people of color] go to see it because then it’s like, OK finally I see me. I felt that was important, for black women and black people to see themselves in theater arts as well.”

A report by The Broadway League shows that the average age of a Broadway audience member in 2014 was 44 years old, and almost 80 percent of Broadway tickets were purchased by white attendees. Not to mention the attendance rate for shows like “The Color Purple” reached a total of 81,700 compared to “Les Miserables” in 2014, which brought in 904,983 patrons.

Playwright and poet Ntozake Shange wrote “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” in 1975. Depicting the lives of seven unnamed women of color and drawing on issues including sex, self-esteem and mental health, Shange illustrates the blistering truth of a black woman’s reality. Shange’s poetry weaves through the intricacies of being a woman of color in America — the aftermath of abortion, the unshakable memory of sexual abuse and the emotional burden of being a strong, assertive black woman.

As one of the co-artistic directors of Barnstorm Theater, Pearson is provided with a platform to prove her talents as a director. However, producing and directing existing works through Barnstorm has its limitations.

Kieran Beccia, another co-artistic director at Barnstorm said the theater can only purchase the rights to produce one show per quarter. “For Colored Girls” cost $300. Both the Barnstorm directors and the students enrolled in the course may produce and/or direct a show that requires purchasing rights, but limited funds can make the pool of opportunity narrow. Beccia said he had more reservations than Pearson and Managing Director Adrian Centeno about purchasing the play.

“I’ve worked in the Barn before and seen the student community there and really value the undergrad opportunities in the Barn,” Beccia said. “I was a little bit more hesitant to just pick ‘For Colored Girls’ as the right show before we accepted other proposals.”

Having worked with Barnstorm for many years, Beccia saw how beneficial the Barnstorm course was for student work in theater arts. In selecting “For Colored Girls” as the show for the season, it took away the opportunity for other undergraduate students to put on a full production like this.

While Barnstorm Theater gives undergraduate students the opportunity to develop their skills as directors, producers and writers, it also allows the three Barnstorm directors to do the same. Though Pearson dealt with pushback from Barnstorm leadership about producing the show, she was able to find another way of accomplishing her goal by getting approval from Barnstorm advisor David Cuthbert.

“Since I’m an artistic director of Barnstorm, it expressly says, by job description, that I can direct should I choose to,” Pearson said.

Pearson leads the actors of “For Color Girls” in an affirmation activity where each member speaks about the positive elements they will bring to the production. Photo by Casey Amaral

With only 2 percent of African Americans making up the UCSC student body, Pearson had her work cut out for her during casting. Posting flyers all over campus and contacting almost every African American organization, she was determined to find seven African American women to act in the play.

Raney Diamond-Wilds, a third-year theater arts major, had already been involved in and directed shows through Rainbow Theater and the African American Theater Arts Troupe, like her most recent production of “When The Ancestors Call.” As one of few women of color in the theater arts department, Diamond-Wilds was contacted directly to audition for the character Lady in Green.

“I auditioned for this play because I have always wanted to do it and I had never seen the production fully through. I love the way the production was designed, and I wanted to see how this director would direct this show,” Diamond-Wilds said in an email.

After a weekend of auditions and callbacks, Pearson cast the seven African American women, and since then, they’ve hit the ground running. With back-to-back rehearsals in preparation for their opening night on Feb. 11, the cast members continue to work diligently, immortalizing Ntozake Shange’s work.

“My goal in my career and in my life,” Pearson said, “is to always provide the best and more opportunities for black people and people of color.”