I have long been interested in theatre as a means for social justice. A couple of years ago I went from assigning research merely with printed/electronic media to including eld research with the people at the heart of our project. Connecting to the theme of “Service,” we decided to give a voice to a marginalized population. In 2013, it was the homeless in Jacksonville, whom we interviewed at our local shelter, New Directions. We wrote and performed, The Paths to Homelessness. It even got a reprise the following February as part of New Directions’ three-year anniversary. The project was such a success that I repeated it the next year, this time partnering with Illinois College alum and local playwright/actor/director Ken Bradbury and the local NAACP chapter to write about race relations in Jacksonville. This resulted in It’s Not Black and White, which included Illinois College faculty and community members as well as students.
Last summer, I got an email from Melissa Pantier, our Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, informing our faculty about The Facing Project, an organization that sponsors just such projects as those I had done with the two previous first-year seminar classes. I was eager for the opportunity to have more support and guidance from an organization devoted to this kind of work. We applied and were accepted. I was excited to discover all the information in the online “toolkit,” which helped me renew my plans.
But this project presented additional challenges. We were going to interview local Congolese immigrants who had come to the United States through the State Department’s green card lottery, a program designed to increase our country’s diversity. Some of them spoke French predominantly. So we partnered with faculty in the French department, Devin Bryson and Emily Adams, and Emily’s French 302 students, who had relationships with the Congolese as language partners. Given the language barrier, we extended our interviews from 20 minutes (which I had allotted on previous projects) to an hour, aided by the French 302 students as interpreters and Emily as organizer of the event. The first-year seminar students also either witnessed an English language learning session led by Devin in the apartment of one of the immigrants, or they attended a service at the Congolese Baptist Church. My students were fascinated by what they learned and awed by the tenacity of the Congolese, many of whom worked in very difficult conditions at the meatpacking plant in Beardstown in order to get the opportunity for a better life. They were surprised that these men and women, who previously had professional jobs in the capital city of Kinshasa, left that for the hard labor they experienced here. But greater security both politically and economically are powerful lures. The students were tantalized by issues they encountered in the interviews and did further research on the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) as well as the transition to life here, which they presented to their classmates.
We then identified areas we wanted to illuminate and share with our audiences, and we began writing. The students were highly engaged by this process, and our Facing Project coach, Lorri Markum, gave us encouraging and helpful feedback. One of our challenges, however, was casting. Most of the Congolese worked the night shift, when we would be rehearsing, and many were still in the early stages of learning English. While students of any ethnicity can play a homeless person, that’s not the case for the Congolese. When I did the play about race relations, I brought in several African-American students from the theatre program to play those roles. But most of our African-American students are relatively far removed from their historical roots. I also wanted the sound of an African dialect without having to teach it to first-year students, which would add a heavier load to an already compressed rehearsal process. Much of the early part of the semester was spent looking at other documentary plays or plays about immigration as models as well as conducting and transcribing the interviews, then identifying, researching, and presenting information on relevant topics to broaden our knowledge base.
I emailed Almut Spalding, director of global programming, to see if any of our African students wanted to participate. A first-year student, Anima, was interested in the project and recruited her friends. One of the original interviewees also had a work schedule and English skills that allowed him to participate. While we initially thought we would have to use photos, voiceovers, and scrims for much of the production, we ended up with eight Africans who played the Congolese. There are significant cultural differences among students from different African countries, but this was the closest match we could create considering all the needs of the play and its performance.
I’m writing this several days before our show; however, the rehearsal process has already been a moving and enlightening experience. If you did not have an opportunity to see the performance, feel free to contact me and I will share a link to the video recording. Thank you for your interest in this work. The project has been a reminder to us about the history of immigration in our country, for America was founded by immigrants. We hope From the Congo to Jacksonville will prompt you to learn more about the DRC and Africa, to think about the value of diversity, to admire the self-sufficiency and fortitude of this community, to not take for granted the freedoms we enjoy—freedoms that Congolese are currently dying in the streets to secure. May they inspire us in the United States to recognize our need to continually strive for a healthy and well-functioning democracy, genuine equity, and justice.