Feature Stories

Collidescope 2.0

Adventures in pre and post racial America
  • Ping Chong, arms stretched, rehearses with students on a UMass Amherst stage.

Students in the devised theater class researched local history for Collidescope 2.0, a production which looks at the troubled, often violent, history of race relations in the U.S.

Growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Anderson Lara ’17 didn’t give much thought to issues of identity. As a Dominican-American in a city where three-quarters of the city’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino, “I didn’t know much about race, or where I fit in American culture,” he says.

That changed for Lara in a UMass Amherst devised theater class taught by Judyie Al-Bilali, ’78, ’01 MFA, an assistant professor of performance and theater for social transformation who holds a joint appointment in the Commonwealth Honors College. In the class, students engaged with materials about race, gender, and identity. “My political and social awakening really started with Judyie’s class,” says Lara, a theater major who’s working on a Multicultural Theater Practice Certificate. “It raised a lot of questions about what can I do as an artist to take these issues and make theater out of them.”

The work done by Lara and his classmates helped shape a unique performance that will take place in April at UMass: Collidescope 2.0: Adventures in Pre and Post Racial America, co-written and co-directed by Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks. The play originated at the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies in 2014, in reaction to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and other young African-American men in recent years. The play looks at the troubled, often violent, history of race relations in the U.S. through the eyes of aliens visiting on a spaceship—a device that encourages the audience to consider that history through fresh eyes.

Al-Bilali saw the original Collidescope production in Maryland and immediately began talking to Wilks, a longtime friend, about remounting it with an Amherst-specific twist: the UMass production will include scenes from local history, researched and written by her devised theater students. One group researched the story of Angeline Palmer, a freeborn African-American girl in Belchertown whose employer tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to sell her into slavery in the South in 1840. Another investigated the Black Power movement at UMass in the late 1960s and early ’70s that led to the creation of New Africa House and the establishment of the W.E.B. Du Bois Afro-American Studies Department. The third looked at a 2014 incident in which racist graffiti was found on the dorm room doors of UMass student activists.

“They went to the library, read editorials, found recordings,” Al-Bilali says. Then, working with Wilks, who was in residence at the time, the students considered how to present those stories on stage. “How do you take historical material and make it theatrical? That was huge for them, and they came up with very good ideas.” While it remains to be seen what will end up in the final production—Chong and Wilks, who are in residence again as the co-directors will shape the new material during rehearsals—the students’ research has informed the script, says Al-Bilali, the producer of Collidescope 2.0.

The production will take place April 14-23, including performances as part of the UMass Black Alumni Reunion. The production is the culmination of ‘Art, Legacy, and Community,’ a two-year research project of Al-Bilali and her department colleagues Priscilla Page and Gilbert McCauley. The project, which uses theater to investigate local African-American history, was funded by a grant from the UMass President’s Creative Economy Initiatives Fund and a Public Service Endowment Grant from the UMass Amherst Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement. The project also received broad support from across campus and the Five College community.

Lara and his classmate Kaylie Rose Kvoriak, a senior studying drama therapy, researched the campus activism of the ’60s and ’70s. “It was a really exciting process,” Kvoriak says, noting that the heavy research focus of the class was unlike anything she’d encountered before in a theater class. Their team combed through the Collegian archives to see what was written at the time about the protests, which included a sit-in at the Whitmore Administration Building and the takeover of Mills House, the dorm later renamed New Africa House. Then they wrote a scene comparing that era to present-day activism.

“We found that there were a lot of similarities between what students were demanding then and what they are demanding now,” Kvoriak says. “It was pretty disheartening to see that things had changed that little in that time. But there was also a ton of positive change from the protests in the ’60s,” including the creation of the Department of Afro-American Studies and the recruitment of more students and faculty of color, she notes.

Collidescope 2.0 is particularly meaningful for Al-Bilali because of her longtime association with UMass Amherst, first as an undergraduate, later as a graduate student and, now, as a professor. “It gave me an opportunity to look at this area, this community, this university, which I’ve been a part of since the ’70s,” she says. When she first came to campus, she says, “there was this real excitement and radical thought and passion around the Black Arts movement, and black scholarship and research. They were really seamless; we didn’t think about separating what we were discovering about liberation movements here and around the world with the dance and the theater we were doing. That’s my creative foundation, and I got it academically at UMass.”

And she was eager to share that foundation with today’s students. “They have the same concerns. Their movement is Black Lives Matter; they’re looking at self-representation, inclusion, social justice,” Al-Bilali says. In the classroom, “I want to give them a taste of what their lineage is, as student activists, as artists who make political and social statements.”

Maureen Turner