From Safe to Brave—Developing A Model for Interrogating Race, Racism and the Black Lives Matter Movement Using Devised Theater

by Dr. Kimmika L.H. Williams Witherspoon
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

On, (May 25, 2020), for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the world watched the callous murder of George Floyd at the hands of members of the Minneapolis police department in Minnesota and Black Lives Matter protests erupted—not just in the United States; but, in Ireland the UK and across the globe.

Two years earlier, thanks to a $50,000 Lumina Foundation for Racial Justice and Equity grant, the Temple University Theater department worked with a team of faculty, administrators and staff researchers to collect data, conceive and then mount the devised theater piece, called From Safe to Brave. That play was created from a series of Interactive Community Conversations (or, ICC’s), auto-ethnography, body-mapping and poetic ethnographies that pulled together all that research on the effects of race and hate crimes on college campuses across America. It was that research and devised performance—along with the subsequent racialized and polarizing political ecology that led to the development of the Performance Social Justice Model (PSJR) for devised theater.

Methodology

In response to the rise in hate crimes generally and specifically on college campuses in the US, in the context of a political moment, where a nation has been made to grapple with questions around white supremacy, police violence, Black Lives Matter and socio-political and health care inequities for their BIPOC citizenry, a Temple University team of scholars, staff and administrators, came together to apply for and were awarded a $50,000 Lumina Foundation for Racial Justice and Equity grant. Out of a pool of over 312 proposals, 12 were awarded; and the Temple University project, entitled Moving from Safe to Brave Spaces through Interactive Community Conversations, was one of them (2018-2019).

Fifty-seven participants took part in those community conversations over a four-month period and, out of that research, scores of auto-ethnography, body-mapping and poetic ethnographies were created and collected that would become the devised theater piece From Safe to Brave. As PI, playwright and director of just one of the principal deliverables of the grant, that performance piece, From Safe to Brave, was originally produced for Temple University’s Randall Theater (April 23-24, 2019). Playing to standing-room-only crowds for its limited 2-day run, from its conception as a devised theater ecology, the From Safe to Brave project helped us develop a model for digging deep and exploring the impact of race and racism on the relationships of individuals on and through a community like Temple University— a large, urban, educational institution, deeply embedded in what was once, a predominantly Black and Latinx community.

And then, there was George Floyd! As protests emerged around the world, the Temple Theater department wanted to remount that piece following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 for a virtual audience to contribute to the discourse and encourage healing.

Ethnographies

In the Performative Arts and Humanities, conducting and collecting ethnography that can become “performed research” can be an effective tool for mediating difficult conversations and diving deep into the various stakeholder perspectives while capturing community for the non-threatening, non-confrontational performance space. Engaging members of the community in research that results in performance oftentimes tempers and/or defuses their usual defensiveness to publicly discuss the, oftentimes, issues of contention. Instead, these kinds of devised performances can promote a willingness to share the other side of the story when convinced that their views will have equal platform and voice.

This devised community performance grew out of research with an intergenerational tapestry of fifty-seven community voices made up of students, faculty, administrators and resident participants from the Temple University community, that used memory, narrative, song, poetry, and dance to speak to notions of race, racism, and the impact of hate crimes on college campuses.

Performed Social Justice Research (PSJR) Model

PSJR Model

 

Model Phase

 

Items Component Parts Purpose Challenges Outcomes
ICC’s Akin to Focus Groups Interactive Community Conversation

5-15 participants per ICC

Information,

Consent

Pre and Post Surveys

Packing the ICC.

Never reached full capacity.

Demographic data; consent,

Developing a shared lexicon

Reflexivity Memory Writing Prompts

Identifying Stakeholder Positions.

Creation of auto-ethnography and personal narratives. We slotted an hour and one half for this portion. Needs 2-hour minimum Auto-ethnography, personal narratives & poetic ethnography
Visual Model Embodied memory Body Mapping exercises Creation of Body Maps as visual ethnography.

Recorded explanations of map and key—

Additional ethnography.

Slotted time: 1 ½ hours.

Needs to be a minimum of 2 hrs.

Creation of Body Maps as visual ethnography

Recorded explanations of map and key—

Additional ethnography.

Data Analysis Analysis of Quantitative and Qualitative data Reviewing and curating auto-ethnography

Transcription,

Data-mining Archival footage;

Body maps

Reviews the data;

Audio and video ethnography

Script development Framed Body Maps
Dissemination of “Applied,” research data Devised Theater Auditions

Casting

Rehearsals

Developing a DUI signage Turn-around time from rehearsals, to mounting the production. All the participating researchers should be invited to the performance.

Performed Social Justice Research (PSJR) Model

Following the murder of George Floyd (May 25, 2020), not long after the start of the pandemic, I was asked by my chair to remount that initial performance of From Safe to Brave. In the initial face-to-face version, my colleagues and I had used the PSJR model that we developed to collect and distill ethnographies from a wide swath of participants as they grappled with an incredibly complex racialized political ecology. As mentioned, that work became, first, From Save to Brave (2019) and then, remounted for a virtual audience, From Save to Brave Redux (November 2020). This PSJR model allows us to expand the understanding and definitions of ethnography and encourages us, as artists/activists to explore the importance of validating community stories in our work to improve social justice outcomes.

Interactive Community Conversation (ICC)

Relying on focus groups to inform our data collection on the efficacy of interventions, policies and procedures has been part of our work for years. Incorporating the Interactive Community Conversations or (ICC’s) into the model, relies heavily on storytelling and body-mapping. Using Interactive Community Conversations as the first phase of the Performance Social Justice Research, offers a creativity-centric tool that grounds our work in storytelling, theater and performance studies that can be employed to enhance the effectiveness of the kinds of ethnographic data that we capture that might not otherwise be gleaned from any other typical focus group.

The ICC’s should still include information about the impetus for the research and mechanisms to consent to the research, as well as options as to whether they will or will not consent to the use of their auto-ethnographies, ethnographies and body maps to be used in the resulting performance. For our research, all of the reflexive auto-ethnographies that were prompt-driven were written in blue books that we provided participants at the start of each ICC. While all of the participants had the option to take part in all of the activities, at the end of each ICC, participants always had the option of keeping their Blue Books to themselves and not contributing their auto-ethnographies to the overall project. Participants could also opt to allow us to transcribe their auto-ethnographies anonymously.

The PSJR model still incorporates some of the more traditional focus group components. Our project utilized pre and post-surveys. While optional, these surveys attempted to collect demographic, education and social science data, as well as to evaluative data to quantify the participants’ understanding of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion terminology and theories on race and anti-racism—both, before and after, each new activity would be introduced throughout the ICC’s. The post-surveys helped our research team evaluate the efficacy of the Reflexive Auto-ethnography and Visual Ethnography phases of the project.

Cultural Competency: Developing a Shared Lexicon

Following the pre-survey, to develop and encourage a shared lexicon, we introduced a discussion of terms that included words like:

Power

Privilege

Racism

Prejudice

Institutional racism

Violence &

Activism

For those who will, likewise, try implementing the PSJR model, whatever your project is, identifying and defining the terms and theories that are integral to the subject matter and your research; then, reviewing and discussing those collectively with each group of participants evens the playing field, reduces the occurrences of misunderstanding and limits the instances whereby one or more participants who already know the terminology (or, terminologies) to then adopt and take on the role as specialists—and, thereby, potentially, intimidating the others.

Reflexivity Model Phase

Because PSJR operates as “applied performance research”, to promote community understanding and to expand the social justice ecology of the project, allowing participants to craft auto-ethnographies that speak to their own identity as one of the first reflexive exercises gives participants, not only a voice, but also gives them a sense of agency. Later, in the rehearsal process, these auto-ethnographies can be referenced to help mark and solidify how the work should be embodied.

Poetic Ethnography Prompts

Reflexive Writing Activities provided an easy, structured way to craft quick auto-ethnographies. For this project, we used several Poetic Ethnography prompts that I regularly use in classroom and workshop settings that are meant to operate as easy access points to promote creativity.

Poetic Ethnography Prompts

  • One Line on Identity
  • Seven Squared
  • Haiku on Race
  • Happiest Memory free write
  • Saddest Memory free write

 

Using these reflective exercises, seemingly, made crafting and developing the auto-ethnographies easier. While some of the memories that participants wrote about and shared were indeed, rich—full of sights, sounds, feelings and emotions—some were, in fact, triggering and traumatizing. In our project, the prompt sequence allowed participants to quickly access the sometimes, difficult and challenging memories of race and racism and to expeditiously talk about those instances that so impacted their lives.

If your project, likewise, tackles sensitive or triggering issues or trauma-informed memories, using auto-ethnography prompts offers a strategic way to briefly gain access to some of those challenging thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The key to collecting meaningful reflections is to keep the prompts focused, short, quick and easy and to give individuals an appropriate amount of time to share their reflections (or not to share, depending upon their comfort level.) Because the prompts are timed, individuals don’t get bogged down in over-thinking any one memory; and because they are being asked to reflect on their own individual stories, the research team has already assured them that they are already invested in each, individual participant’s positionality, personal narrative, participation and input.

Visual Model Phase

Rethinking Rene Descartes’ notion of Mind/Body Dualism (Rene Descartes, 1993) the Visual model phase of the PSJR work transforms Descartes’ ideas “I think therefore I am” to one that acknowledges the importance of the emotional connections in our work as artist/activists and social justice advocates. I feel therefore I am (Williams-Witherspoon, 2020) builds on the research of people like Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and others, who acknowledge, that by “triggering moments of deep reflection, when people are thinking deeply about things that are really meaningful to them, they are triggering neurobiological connections.” (Immordino-Yang, 2016: 18) In other words, “reflection promotes deep thinking.” (Williams-Witherspoon, 2020, Performing Race: 45)

Body Mapping

For our project, we used Body mapping. My colleague Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, led study participants in the creation and collection of visual ethnographies. The body mapping provided for “a more kinesthetic accompanying narrative about how racism impacts the body.” (Williams-Witherspoon, 2020: Performing Race: 38)

Participants were asked to think deeply about the answers to the following four questions:

  1. Draw how and where racism feels on or in your body.
  2. Draw the emotions that you feel when you observe racism.
  3. Draw the long-term impacts of racism on or in your body
  4. Draw on or in your body where you have strength to fight racism. (Williams-Witherspoon, 2020: 38 Performing Race)

In their creation of the 7-foot-tall body maps, these maps added another layer of texts that visually spoke to the trauma of racism in some spaces. (Williams-Witherspoon, 2020: 38)

Before ending the body mapping activities, participants were asked to explain the Body Map Key for each map. These video-taped segments became the filmed ethnographic material and, some of the longer monologues in the final devised performances.

The Interactive Community Conversations (ICC’s) validated participant’s thoughts, feelings and poetic ethnographies that would later become the devised or applied research data theatre. (Cohen-Cruz, 2010: 5)

Data Analysis Model Phase

Before reviewing and curating auto-ethnographies from the Reflexive Writing Activities, they needed to be transcribed. Transcription is one of the most important steps in the analysis process because so much of our communication strategies are tied to cultural competencies—gestures, eye movement, body language. In addition to the quantitative data collected from the pre and post-surveys administered to participants during each Interactive community conversation, the qualitative data gleaned from the transcripts will become the basis of the devised theater piece.

From Script to Performance

The transcription phase is the longest step in the performed research process. The more accurate and thorough the transcription process, the easier the step to distill the personal narratives, poetry and auto-ethnographies into a devised performance script with ensemble characters based on the real-life research participants from across the community.

In performance, it is vital that everyone’s voice is acknowledged and a portion of everyone’s story becomes part of the scripted performance. In this way, we acknowledge the complexity of political ecologies and we contribute to social justice solutions by elevating and expanding community conversations.

Because of COVID-19, in response to a world-wide pandemic, by Spring 2020, most of the world had experienced some manner or method of quarantine and sequestering. Many theaters were forced to cancel or reschedule performances—others, simply closed their doors. Following the murder of George Floyd and the season of summer protests that ensued,  many of our nation’s theaters were prompted to address growing concerns and to investigate and utilize digital and video technologies to continue to create, and to contribute to the expanding public discourse on violence and the racial reckoning.

With that in mind, Temple Theaters revised fall season, included both some plays that would be performed as zoom performances along with some offerings that were intended to provide students and audience members alike with a safe in-person experience as well. As COVID numbers continued to rise, our Fall 2020 season needed to happen on Zoom ®. To speak to the racial reckoning following George Floyd’s murder, some new monologues, poems and songs were added to the original script. Actors, quarantining in their homes across the country, were sent ring lights, instruction on how to use them, and, in addition to regular zoom rehearsals, were also given blocking and tips on how to enhance their individual video-taped performance on Zoom. Using green screen technologies designed by Temple Theater graduate students and innovative video and sound editing by my colleagues, Jason Norris and Nick Gackenbach, From Safe to Brave Redux premiered on November 20th through December 7, 2020 on YouTube ®, Facebook ® and Temple Theater’s streaming links.

Conclusion

Ultimately, because of COVID-19, theater artists/activists, researchers and theaters had to become even more creative and entrepreneurial—for many of us, by using the PSJR Research model and dabbling and using some of the latest cutting-edge technologies to continue to tell our stories—even in a pandemic when our communities were hurting the most and needed to be separated from one another.

As hate, injustice, racism, sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and oppression continues to raise its ugly head(s) and dominate our collective struggle for equity and justice, Social Activist theater will continue to rise in importance as a vehicle to advocate for social change. Because of the challenges of 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic, theater as we knew it, had to transform and reimagine itself. For those of us already working with devised performance as community engagement, theater during the pandemic necessitated new theatrical devices to continue to do the work important to us as social justice artists/activists.

As we have discussed in this work, Performed Social Justice Research (PSJR). is reality-based theater and instruction. It is participatory. It constructs knowledge and aligns history with more inclusive truths.

By using the PSJR model, with the Interactive Community Conversations component, applied arts researchers can collect more nuanced ethnographic data beyond the more traditional focus-group studies. By using some of the methods outlined here in the PSJR model to collect, transcribe, analyze, then curate and disseminate Performance research, these same research methods can be used to extend some of the new theatrical devices we all had to develop during the pandemic and to expand our definitions of devised theater.

Giving community members “voice” and allowing the ethnographies to speak for themselves, through the art and its text, as applied artists/scholars, we can contribute to our nation’s most challenging problems and to those conversations in the public discourse by providing a “genuine exchange between artists and community”. (Cohen-Cruz: 3) In that way, we will not only “act as a witness” (Albert Camus, cited in Charlesworth, 1975:32); but we will also, be a catalyst for change.


Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, Ph.D. (Cultural Anthropology), MA (Anthropology), MFA (Theater), Women’s Studies (Graduate Certificate), BA (Journalism); is an Associate Professor of Urban Theater and Community Engagement. Recipient of the 2013 Associate Provosts for the Arts Grant; a 2008 Research and Creative Seed Grant Co-recipient, a 2003 Provost’s Arts Commission Grant; a 2001 Independence Foundation Theater Communications Group Grant, the 2000 winner of the PEW Charitable Trust fellowship in scriptwriting, and the 1999, winner of the DaimlerChrysler “Spirit of the Word” National Poetry Competition. Author of Through Smiles and Tears: The History of African American Theater (From Kemet to the Americas) (Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011); The Secret Messages in African American Theater: Hidden Meaning Embedded in Public Discourse (Edwin Mellen Publishing, 2006) she has had over twenty-three of her plays produced. Her stage credits include thirteen productions and she is a contributing poet to twenty-six poetry anthologies.


Charlesworth, Max. The Existentialist and Jean-Paul Sartre. St Lucia. Queensland University of Queensland Press. 1975.

Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy, edited by Stanley Tweyman. Routledge. 34–40. London and New York. 1993.

Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen. Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 2016.

Williams-Witherspoon, Kimmika L. H. Performing Race: Using Performance to Heal the Trauma of Race and Racism on College Campuses. In Storytelling, Self, Society. Wayne State University Press.  (16:1, Spring 2020), https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/storytelling/

Williams-Witherspoon, Center for the Advancement of Teaching, (CAT) Lecture Breakout Session, January 7, 2020.

“Performing SHOT: Personalizing North Philly, Poverty and Performance Poetry.” In Ethnographic in Pan Pacific Research: Tensions and Positionings. Routledge: New York. 2015. 36-55.

Williams-Witherspoon. “On SHOT!: A Rationale for Research and Dramas Depicting Violence in the ‘Hood.” In Theatre Topics 23, no. 2 (2013): 167-183.

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