Society on Stage: The Kunz Center for Social Research Names Annual Event
Popular cross-discipline event is important part of University of Cincinnati's Kunz Center strategy to engage students in critical and reflective thinking
By: Julie Campbell-Holmes
Date: June 22, 2018
“After watching this play, I feel complicit.”
Those were the words of a University of Cincinnati white female undergraduate sociology student after seeing “Kill Move Paradise” at the Know Theatre on March 22. She was among about 55 sociology and acting students and faculty who saw the play that evening and then attended an on-campus discussion the next day as part of the Society on Stage event. While the discussion brought out difficult topics and conversations, students who attended were eager to attend another event and discussion.
"I think attending an event and discussion with sociology students was hugely beneficial,” sophomore acting student Olivia Buss said. “As actors, we naturally experience theatre in a different way than non-actors do. It was so interesting to hear from people who think differently, especially because sociology students have the skills to discuss these issues in such an intelligent manner. It put everything into perspective.”
Erynn Masi de Casanova, associate professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the director for the Kunz Center for Social Research, hosts the cross-college Society on Stage discussion every year:
“For the last four or five years, we have partnered with the College-Conservatory of Music Acting department to invite students to attend a play and then have a lunchtime discussion about it. Feedback from students have been overwhelmingly positive.
This year we named the event “Sociology on Stage” because the experience has become an important part of the Kunz Center’s strategy to invest in novel forms of intellectual exchange in the hopes that students can see how sociology, and social research, can be applied in different areas, including art.”
– In previous years, students attended August Wilson's Jitney, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, and Karen Zacarías’s Native Gardens at the Cincinnati Playhouse
Casanova connected with Brant Russell, assistant professor of acting in the College-Conservatory Music and drama editor of The Cincinnati Review, to collaborate on the event and discussion. In fact, it was Russell who suggested that they attend “Kill Move Paradise” at the Know Theatre.
“It is the only theatre in Cincinnati that would show a play like this, one with four black men in the title roles, and a Black Lives Matter theme. The plays shown at the Know Theatre are entertaining, but by intention they are also socially provocative, progressive, and emotionally rigorous.”
Black Lives Matter
Emotionally rigorous and provocative describe the nature and intention of this play and the purposeful intimacy of the audience seating at Know Theatre. “Kill Move Paradise” was written by Philadelphia performer and playwright James Ijames. It follows Isa, Daz, Grif and Tiny, four black young men, as they try to make sense of their new paradise while confronting the reality of the world they have been ripped from. The play’s world premiere was at the National Black Theatre in Harlem in June of 2017.
Inspired by recent events, “Kill Move Paradise” is an expressionistic buzz saw through the contemporary myth that "all lives matter.” The play takes the Elysium of Greek antiquity and flips the script. It is a portrait of the slain, not as degenerates who deserved death but as heroes who demand we see them for the splendid beings they were.
During the play, one or more of the actors stopped talking and stared at people sitting in the audience.
“I was fascinated by the unique way silence was implemented in Kill Move Paradise,” Buss said. “In my opinion, this silence added a layer of realism to the fantastical nature of the piece. I felt so much closer to the story and eventual message; it caused an almost forced vulnerability between both the actors and audience, which I believe was necessary to convey the play’s purpose.”
Furthermore, based on reactions (or the lack thereof) from the audience, the actors start performing songs or acts. These related to ways that blacks were used to entertain whites; be it Blackface minstrel shows, or even The Cosby Show – a show criticized for its silence about racism.
“I wondered if everyone caught all the cultural references,” sophomore acting student Sierra Coachman stated. “This is what I wanted to talk about during the discussion. All the acts they put on, even the music before the show (including Jimi Hendrix), are cultural references that an African-American person would be familiar with. Especially the reference they made about fathers telling their sons about how to act in public to avoid drawing negative attention to themselves…it’s true.
My father had ‘the talk’ with my older brother. I wanted to hear the responses from other students who attended the play to see if they understood this because most of those in the audience were white.”
Russell noted that this interaction, this sharing of personal experiences, was one of the goals he had for the event and discussion:
“Through these types of events, we can learn more about others’ intellectual paradigms and cultural backgrounds so that it is easier to understand them and reach them. All of us make assumptions based on stereotypes, and it can place barriers on the types of conversations we can have, and the learning we can attain. This is important for those of us who teach to recognize as well.”
“When the students experience the shows together, and then discuss the themes and their own feelings after the show and with each other, they end up having cross-cultural discussions that are memorable and personal to them. Students more readily apply what they have learned from such discussions to other experiences, whether it is critical thinking, communication, empathy, or some other skill.”
This could be observed best after the main discussion, when sociology students were approaching acting students, and vice versa, to discuss in more detail concepts that were foreign to their discipline. Acting students wanted to learn more about social research and its impact on culture and art, and sociology students were asking about the effect of different theatres and stages on the ability of actors to express themes and ideas.
“I hope that these discussions make students think about art in social life and the potential in art for social change,” states Casanova. “Many sociology students are also pursuing art, or activism, and they can apply what they are learning from these types of discussions to the work that they do in the future.”
The List Is Real
One of the most discussed scenes from the play came when Isa read aloud the names of slain black men and women. While the four men in this play are fictional, the names on “The List” are not, and tragically this list grows longer with every performance.
Mr. I James said his play was inspired by the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer in November of 2014. Rice was portrayed in the show by Tiny.
“The list went on for several long minutes, each name being recognized as a real human life that was lost. A few minutes into it, I found myself in a state of uncontrollable weeping,” says Buss. “I was fully engaged for every second of the performance, but I was also in a deep state of reflection. Immediately after the play, I noticed most of my classmates in a reflective state as well.”
A white male sociology student agreed, and stated that it was at this point in the play that he felt responsible, that he felt that he had merely been a spectator when it came to issues of racism and inequality. Further, he noted that the non-linear structure of the play led him to a strong feeling of regret; he would be more involved in the fight against racism in the future. There were many in the discussion who nodded their heads, including faculty members.
Art for Change
While we know that art is created to inspire and move the audience, can a play inspire activism and truly make a long-term difference for social justice and equity? That was also the subject of a lengthy debate during lunch. Aaryn Green, a sociology doctoral candidate, was involved in this discussion. She wrote her master’s thesis in sociology in 2012 about “The Impact of Comedy on Racial and Ethnic Discourse,” and she noted that her research suggested that Americans claim to be colorblind: instead of being blatantly racist with legislation, our society simply attempts to ignore discrimination and racial inequity. Further, her thesis states that art (in her research, stand-up comedians) can reinforce or diminish racial stereotypes, and call attention to issues of discrimination and hate in our society. If this happens with stand-up comedy, she stated in the lunch discussion, then it can also happen with plays like “Kill Move Paradise.”
One student mentioned that those who needed to change, those who are racist, wouldn’t attend plays like this. But Trey Peterson, a sophomore African-American acting student, spoke up passionately and said,
“No, but that’s not the point of the play. The point is that those who do attend can do more. We can stop just watching. We can start speaking up more. I am African-American. I am one of only about six African-Americans in a group of about sixty CCM acting students, and this can be intimidating. For example, the acting group held a social event, and many were in attendance. I thought I felt safe there because we are a small group, and we are all friends. But then music came on that I was not comfortable with because the ‘n’ word was in the lyrics. I didn’t want to speak up because I didn’t want to be the angry black guy who wants to cry racism every two seconds. I didn’t want labeled with the stereotype. So, I didn’t speak up. But this play made me think that I should have spoken up, I will start speaking up. If the words hurt me, they most likely hurt someone else in the room. I mean, whether it is in my personal life, or in my profession, I should think about how I can move people to be more empathetic and sensitive to the world around them.”
Russell agreed with Peterson:
“I want these types of discussions to help students do with their work what I hope my teaching and professional work does for students and audiences: I want to comfort the afflicted, make space safe for those who are in danger, and afflict the comfortable. I want my students’ work to be rooted in social progress. Because otherwise, why are we doing it? Theatre is already inherently risky, so we should make what we do meaningful.”
Expand Offerings of Society on Stage?
Every year the Kunz Center supports attending a play and holding a discussion, and based on the feedback from students, these will continue to be well attended events. The only criticism from students was that there weren’t more opportunities to engage in this type of discussion, and more disciplines weren’t yet involved.
Russell is hopeful that they can change this, and gain support for more of these events and discussions:
“There isn’t the budget in CCM right now to hold these types of events for students, and I would like to change that. I’d like to invite more students, especially upperclassmen, to these discussions so that the freshmen that attend can hear the perspective of those who have been practicing the art more. From a pedagogical point of view, I’d like to engender in my students a better way to emulate and transcend the work that they create and consume. These types of discussions challenge them to articulate what they see and do in ways that better prepare them in their careers.”
“Ideally we will expand Society on Stage to include more events, more discussions, and more students and disciplines,” Casanova added. “These experiences benefit faculty and students, and align with what the university wants to provide to students, so we are hoping that we can increase our support and offerings to students in the upcoming years.”
About Kunz Center for Social Research
The Kunz Center for Social Research, housed in the Department of Sociology, has a two-fold mission: 1) support Center faculty and student research, and 2) develop research-related relationships with community organizations.
Faculty and students affiliated with the Kunz Center for Social Research conduct research on a wide range of social issues. If you are a student, community organization, or donor interested in getting involved with the Kunz Center for Social Research, please contact Erynn Casanova at firstname.lastname@example.org
About College-Conservatory of Music
Nationally ranked and internationally renowned, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) is a preeminent institution for the performing and media arts. An actor who graduates from CCM is ready to say YES to film, television, stage, voice-over, and commercial opportunities. In CCM Acting students practice the skills needed to be a successful actor, no matter where or when.
If you want to apply to CCM Acting, please visit the application page. If you have questions about your application, or would like to sponsor these types of events, please contact Brant Russell at email@example.com.