For the community-based learning course Documentary Theatre: Massive Resistance, Dr. Patricia Herrera, assistant professor of theatre, and Dr. Laura Browder, Tyler and Alice Haynes professor of American studies, challenged students to write an original play based on their research into Virginia’s response to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954.
“The process of making documentary theater demands that students not only learn about the history, but also embody it,” Herrera said. “Embodying important figures, pivotal moments, and people’s experiences invites students to think about the impact of history on a completely different register.”
Throughout the semester, students discussed readings relevant to the period, watched films, and conducted archival research at the Library of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University’s special collections and archives.
Students considered the viewpoints of politicians, including U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., who initiated the campaign to prevent public school desegregation in Virginia, as well as Richmond natives whose lives were affected by massive resistance.
“While exploring the archives was quite revelatory,” Herrera said, “interviewing people who lived through the period was the most vital source of inspiration for writing the play. These interviewees are the living links, witnesses and bearers of history.”
As the short play “Schooled: Race, Racism, and Education” took shape, the class traveled to Richmond’s Northside to perform a scene for students at Henderson Middle School, one of the University’s established community partners through the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement’s Build It initiative.
“The presentation to the school was a great learning opportunity for UR students,” Herrera said. “The play was hot off the press, and the students presented a scene featuring a 1970s cheerleading squad at George Wythe High School. Afterwards, Richmond students asked the audience how they might make the scene more effective.”
The final performance of “Schooled: Race, Racism, and Education” took place at UR Downtown with a standing-room-only audience.
“The students succeeded in creating an atmosphere that was authentic, that encouraged the audience to think about the emotional impact of massive resistance,” said Dr. Kenneth Warren, academic technology consultant and adjunct assistant professor of education. “Their decision to use the color of a T-shirt as a racial identifier was abstract, creative, and non-prescriptive, especially considering the black students could have conveniently, and solely, played roles of the oppressed.”
A panel discussion, moderated by Dr. Sylvester Turner of Hope in the Cities, followed the performance. Community panelists included Lewis Booker, former Richmond Public Schools School Board member; Dr. Carmen Foster, Thomas Jefferson High School alumna; Mark Person, George Wythe High School alumnus; and Elizabeth Salim, George Wythe High School alumna.
During the next four years, Herrera and Browder will continue their groundbreaking collaboration with four more community-based learning courses based on different aspects of the history of civil rights and education in Richmond.