Independence Day reminded me I never had a chance to write about a University of Central Florida project that honored an American hero — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — this spring.
UCF students and faculty spent their spring break in Ithaca, N.Y., presenting a new, devised play about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. to elementary-school students. (The students later performed the play, "We Carry the Dream," in Orlando at the Orlando Science Center.)
Theater faculty member Be Boyd organized the project, which was a collaboration with the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca. Jesse Bush, the associate artistic director of the Hangar Theatre, was the playwright and collaborator for the piece. He visited UCF in February to work with the cast before they traveled to New York.
"Devising a new play gets back to the heart of the creative process, the stimulation of ideas, a spontaneous environment that students aren't experiencing in a scripted environment," says Boyd.
Boyd says the group knew the play was going to focus on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and that it needed to reach contemporary youth.
"These kids have never experienced segregation," she says. "They hear people complaining about standing in lines to vote, but don't understand that at some time not so long ago, they wouldn't have had the right to vote."
"We knew that we could somehow help the younger students connect his values and legacy to their own lives. Most people know he was a leader of the civil-rights movement, but don't know what his values were. They don't know the enormous amount of organization, energy, and braveness it took to create the March on Washington or the Montgomery Bus Boycott," Boyd adds. "We wanted to help the younger generation understand this."
The rehearsal process started with abstract concepts.
"For the first few couple of weeks in rehearsal, we'd throw out a word like 'unity' or 'perseverance' and then would do a sound, movement or improv activity about the word," Boyd explains. "We recorded the sessions so we'd have material to build the script. We sent the recordings to Jesse, and he created an outline for us based on the material we had created. Then we fleshed out the outline with more details."
The performance was judged a success:
"The students were absolutely captivated by the soulful voices that filled our cafeteria, the enthusiastic personalities of the cast, and the overall history and message that was being delivered," says Julianne Tvaroha, an art teacher at Groton Elementary School, near Ithaca.
Terrance Jackson, who graduated this spring with a BFA in Acting, says this experience influenced his career choice.
"I will be working at the Barter Theatre for the next 15 months, where I will be doing a three-month tour from January to March, performing shows for the exact same audience age as we did for 'We Carry the Dream,'" Jackson says, "so this experience has given me insight on what to expect and how to deal with theater for young audiences."
The partnership between Theatre UCF and the Hangar Theater is one that has been building over the past several years. Boyd says that the relationship started a many years ago when Stephanie Yankwit, artistic director for Hangar, was excited by a production of "Antigone" that Boyd directed in North Carolina. "Stephanie came to UCF to recruit for interns, and once here, she really liked our students and the work they do. We've now had many students, both actors and stage managers, participate in their summer Lab program."
The hope is that this production will launch an annual collaboration with Hangar Theatre to develop new pieces that are nurtured and staged in Orlando at the University of Central Florida and then are shared with young audiences in Ithaca.
The project was funded by the College of Arts and Humanities Dean's Office, the UCF Office of Diversity Initiatives and the MLK Orlando Commission.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun