Grant Supports UMass Amherst Theater Project to Build Awareness of Area’s African-American History and Scholarship

AMHERST, Mass. – Judyie Al-Bilali, Gil McCauley and Priscilla Page of the theater department faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been awarded a $15,000 Public Service Endowment Grant by the university to explore the local legacy of African-American scholarship through “applied theater” – that is, theater created outside of traditional spaces engaging both professionals and non-professionals as performers.

Members of the group say they are motivated by need for an awareness of the rich and unique history of African-American consciousness, scholarship, and culture in the Pioneer Valley over the past 40 years.

The two-year process is scheduled to culminate in an original theater production to premiere in spring 2016 created with UMass Amherst students and faculty, Five College students and faculty working in collaboration with community artists and professional artists. The PSEG award will allow the group to begin the process convening a series of public, interactive forums addressing issues of diversity, cultural self-definition and activism.

The team will employ the tools of both applied theater and “devised theater” in creating the new production about western Massachusetts and its influence in shaping black history in the region and beyond. Devised theater is theater created by an ensemble reflective of the group’s collective voice.

Both approaches have been effectively used internationally over the past 20 years as “Theater for Social Transformation,” and both forms are now recognized as accredited academic disciplines.

Al-Bilali points out that Western Massachusetts boasts an unusually rich heritage of African-American scholarship, arts and culture that over the last 50 years, has attracted some of the most influential figures in the Pan-Africanist canon along with legends of the Black Arts Movement. UMass Amherst has been at the center of the effort to nurture an environment dedicated to expanding definitions of ethnicity and citizenship.

The UMass Amherst-Five College Consortium has hosted luminaries including James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, Nelson Stevens, Pearl Primus, Johnnetta Cole, Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Aishah Rahman, Samuel R. Delaney, Diana Ramos and Paul Carter Harrison.

“Since the 1960s when student activism gave rise to the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, an exceptional community evolved and UMass Amherst became a vibrant crossroads for black culture and consciousness,” said Al-Bilali. “The key to our success is engaging with guest artists to be in residence for the project.”