Without compensation, credit, or attention from the university, the future of the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) was uncertain when it was founded in 1991. Now, 30 years later, AATAT is at the forefront of theater arts at UC Santa Cruz, as both an organization and as a course. THEA 151A: Studies in Performance: African American Theater Arts Troupe.
Taught by AATAT founder and director Don Williams every winter quarter, the 15-30 person class allows students to explore the history of theater art production and perform scripts written by playwrights of color.
“You don’t have to have any prerequisite to be involved with the African American production theater class,” Williams said. “You have to have a heart, you have to have a desire, and a willingness to say ‘I’m gonna work.’”
AATAT is the only African American theater troupe across all the UC campuses. The troupe was recognized by the university three years after its inception. Williams began receiving compensation for his work with AATAT and students were given an opportunity to earn credit through a theater course. However, had the university been successful in their plans to terminate Williams in 2004, this class may not have been available today. Due to protest and petitions from the student body and efforts from then Chancellor Martin Chemmer, Williams kept his job.
The structure of the production class has not changed much since it was first offered in 1994. While students still need to audition to enroll in the course, all majors and grade levels are welcome.
Those auditioning for the class prepare a two-minute monologue to perform in front of Williams and the other auditioners. Students are asked to stay until the end of the auditions to ensure everyone receives the same amount of support. During quarantine, students auditioned through Zoom and video submission.
Students in the course focus on studying playwrights such as August Wilson, best known for his 10-play series “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” Lorraine Hansberry of “A Raisin in the Sun” — the first play by a Black female playwright to ever hit Broadway — and Ron Milner, writer of the Broadway play “Checkmates.”
Once students are in the class, they analyze the scripts and dig into the history of the show to learn about the politics and social life at the time. Along with their traditional course work, students also learn about the different elements of theater production, including sound and audio, blocking, costume design, and lighting queues.
“You have a whole new world that you’re introduced to,” Williams said. “Even if you don’t act again, you walk away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the arts. You have a better understanding of who you are as an individual, your confidence level goes up tenfold.”
Outreach coordinator and fourth-year John Bennett fell in love with acting after one of his friends encouraged him to take part in the performance for AATAT. Being involved with AATAT, Bennett believes that it shows marginalized perspectives through a lens that most mainstream theater does not usually display.
“It’s Black writers writing about Black characters,” Bennett said. “I don’t want to say that anybody else is not capable, but it’s nice to see characters that are not one-dimensional drug dealers or gang affiliated, [as long as] those topics are brought up in a way that’s not disrespectful to culture.”
The AATAT class works on AATAT productions during winter quarter. Recent AATAT productions include “Black Eagles”, which depicts the first Tuskegee Airmen in America meeting their younger selves, “God’s Trombone” by James Weldon Johnson, where the speaker tells the audience about Black history and stories, and “Fences” by August Wilson, which tells the story of an aspiring baseball player who was deemed too old for the sport once the major leagues began allowing Black players. These plays all show the history and experiences of the Black community, meeting one of AATAT’s prominent goals.
A key goal of AATAT is to focus on stories written by and for the Black community, along with expanding the knowledge and experience of members, even if they have never done theater before.
AATAT encourages students with little to no experience to audition for the class, with some students being scouted by Williams at high schools and community colleges. Jokaelle Porter was approached by Williams as a student at Cabrillo College and promised that once he transferred to UCSC, he would audition.
“The acceptance that I got from AATAT, that I didn’t even get from my own college or my own major, was phenomenal,” Porter said. “The space was just clearly open for everyone that wanted to be a part of it.”
Finding acceptance in AATAT is a sentiment shared by many participants, as both Porter and Bennet have found not only comfort and acceptance in the community, but a foundation of skills and talents in the theater arts. This space would not have been available for students without the willingness and passion of Williams to continue to be an educator and mentor.
Williams said he was inspired to become a theater arts instructor and producer when he realized the possibilities within the medium to convey unique perspectives within a diverse group.
“I want to be able to tell good stories. I want to be able to work with a variety of people on a project. And that’s what theater gives you. It gives you the ability to work as a team, and develop a better relationship with yourself and the people around you,” Williams said. “It gives you a greater sense of community, a sense of purpose of life because you’re working as a collective group.”
THEA 151A: Studies in Performance: African American Theater Arts Troupe is offered every winter quarter. Next quarter Williams will be teaching THEA 80A: Introduction to African American Theater.