A Summer of Citizen Artistry

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

By Akilah Walker, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program Class of 2017

Staying in the Bay Area this summer has possibly been one of the best decisions I’ve made since coming to A.C.T. I had the opportunity to work with A.C.T. first at a two-week residency at La Clínica (a health center serving two public schools in East Oakland, Roots International Academy and Coliseum College Prep Academy) and then with A.C.T. Stage Coach’s production of Crack. Rumble. Fly.

During the two-week residency at La Clínica, I co-taught two classes back to back. Each class was made up of 20 sixth-grade students—most of whom were Spanish speakers for whom English is a second language—and was 30 minutes long. To most teachers, 30 minutes of class time would sound like a breeze, but for acting—which is extremely improvisational in nature—time constraints like these called for intense preparation to make sure Alec MacPherson (my co-teacher) and I would be able to optimize students’ time while also respecting their learning rate.

As it turned out, we had to modify our plans on a daily basis. The first few days, the students were curious, but also very timid, so it took some coaxing to get them to participate. When this happened, Alec and I would have to quickly decide to play another theater game the students felt more comfortable with, or we would have to give examples ourselves of how to play fearlessly.

On one occasion, the students expressed interest in hearing more about our lives in theater, so we set aside our original plan of playing an interactive game. After we shared our stories, I noticed a shift in their behavior. Many of the students were more vocal about their interests in pursuing careers in theater and asked more questions about how the games related back to the field of acting.

Throughout the class, many of the students would speak Spanish to one another and sometimes ask us to speak Spanish to them. I was fascinated and delighted by the students’ ability to code switch so fluidly. At first I was intimidated, because I only speak a limited amount of Spanish, but I thought it was extremely important for me to try my best to incorporate the Spanish that I knew when requested. It was also visibly appreciated by the students, who would often give me a head nod or a high five of approval when I was able to do that.

I watched the students gain confidence with each passing class. By the end, many of them were jumping up to volunteer and encouraging each other to participate.

This was one of the first times I’ve worked with students who didn’t choose to be in a drama class. The students informed us that they had only seen one play in their lives—a production of Aladdin that came to their school. Teaching students who had almost no theater experience reminded me how important it is to share theater with communities. I know how positively transformative theater is, so I’m invigorated to continue to do work within communities like the one at La Clínica and to spread the good word about what it is that theater artists do.

The next project I worked on this summer on was the A.C.T. Stage Coach production of Crack. Rumble. Fly.: The Bayview Stories Project. For this project, A.C.T. commissioned playwright Aleshea Harris to write a play about Bayview–Hunters Point, a historically black neighborhood in San Francisco whose residents are gradually being displaced due to gentrification.

Akilah Walker and Mary Booker in A.C.T's production
of Aleshea Harris's Crack. Rumble. Fly., performed
at Mendell Plaza in San Francisco's Bayview
neighborhood. Photo by Haley Seppa.
Harris conceived the play after she listened to story circles in which Bayview–Hunters Point community members came together with A.C.T. staff and students to share their stories about their lives in the Bayview and their experiences of gentrification. I had the honor of sitting in on one of these story circles. In that room, we were able to aid in the process of healing for the community. We all came into that room with heavy, burdened hearts, feeling powerless—but we left with hope. We came into that room as people from different walks of life—but we left in solidarity because we had shared with each other. We cried, we laughed, we performed, and we listened. It was the beginning of theater.

After the story circles were complete and the play was written, my next task was to come on to the project as an understudy for the main character, Mother Marsha. Mother Marsha was played by Mary Booker, a pillar in the Bayview community, an actress and a pioneer of the theater scene there. Because of Booker’s age—she’s in her mid 80s—A.C.T. asked me to be an understudy who would accompany her onstage and help her with her lines if she needed any assistance. But during rehearsals, my role transformed into a new character in the play: a spirit who guided Mother Marsha. I was thrilled to be playing alongside a woman who held so much respect in her community.

We presented Crack. Rumble. Fly. on the A.C.T. Stage Coach mobile unit in Mendell Plaza as part of a Bayview Arts Festival. It was thrilling to perform in the center of the neighborhood that our story was about. Seeing the faces and hearing the responses of the people witnessing our play was a humbling experience. Though there were some minor missteps along the way and in performance, as there are in any process, we were able to tell a story that people could connect with.

For me, working with La Clínica and on Crack. Rumble. Fly. reiterated the necessity of connecting with others and the importance of serving the community in which you live. It taught me that the best way to feel empowered is to empower someone else. I was able to give my time, energy, creativity, and love to two communities, and they gave the same things back to me and to the people around them. I witnessed the power of theater as a tool for change, whether it was bringing confidence and curiosity to middle school students or inspiring a community to take back and reclaim the place they live. I learned about how to truly lead by having a vision and encouraging people to jump on board and enhance that vision. After having these experiences, I feel prepared to do more work like this in the future. I’m confident in and inspired about community-based theater and learning, and I can’t wait to embark on my next journey in this arena.
 
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