UMass students take over a new space to present a new work
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
By Megan Lewis, with additional material by Gaven Trinidad and Ifa Bayeza
UMass made a big splash in New York this weekend with graduate MFA dramaturg and director Ifa Bayeza '18G's staged reading of her new play Benevolence. A packed house of about 60 people gathered in the NYPOP studio space on W. 26th street in Chelsea for the two-night inaugural event at this Umass performance space, co-sponsored by the Departments of Theater and Afro Am.
Megan Lewis, Ifa Bayeza, Christine Hicks, Ryan Jacobucci, and Judyie Al-Bilali participate in a post-show Q&A at the Feb. 28 performance of Benevolence. Photo by Priscilla Page.
Bayeza's powerful play is the second in her trilogy about Emmett Till, the 14-year old African-American boy who was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. Focused on the white woman (Carolyn Bryant), her husband (Roy, who lynched Till) and his twin brother (Ray, with whom she finds the love missing in her life), Bayeza creates "an imagined story evoked from a real one" that asks audiences to engage with our country's racial history and simultaneously reflect on contemporary race relations. Benevolence explores the psychology of whiteness and racism in America, creating complex characters who are at once fully human and depraved. Through the triangle of the bored would-be southern belle, Carolyn (played by the smoldering Christine Hicks, a sophomore); her controlling, violent husband Roy; and his sensitive brother Ray (both expertly performed by senior Ryan Jacobucci), Bayeza explores the intersections of sex, gender, power and race.
“When I introduced myself last semester to the Afro-Am Studies Department, I didn't expect such a fruitful and meaningful relationship to blossom so quickly,” said Bayeza. “This was a win-win for everyone. I was able to achieve all of the goals for my directing project, to really explore and stretch, blending direction, writing and design.”
For 25 years, UMass Amherst’s New York Professional Outreach Program (NYPOP) has served UMass visual art students, facilitating travel to New York city and hosting intensive, two-day encounters with arts professionals. In 2016, NYPOP’s reach was expanded to include all departments in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, providing the invaluable service of helping humanities and arts students understand their limitless opportunities and bridge the divide between academia and the professional world.
"From the moment of contact," says Bayeza, "NYPOP coordinator Amanda Tiller was supportive every step of the way."
Bayeza’s creative team included an impressive roster of her fellow students. “We had a fabulous team of both graduates and undergraduates, bringing superb creativity to every element of the production. Graduate student Gaven Trinidad's dramaturgy was vital not only for research, but also for insight and commentary on polishing the text. Glenn Proud 15G's fight choreography was simply amazing. Undergraduate Brenda Bauer's eclectic haunting sound design mixed African heavy metal bands with ambient sounds of trains and breath, Abbey Lincoln and an Appalachian shape note hymn. Kaylie Kvoriak's elemental costumes were simultaneously period specific and contemporary and Q-mars Haeri's media design was just fierce! All of that and we get to inaugurate a space in New York?!”
Writer-director Ifa Bayeza and actors Ryan Jacobucci and
Christine Hicks in rehearsal. Courtesy of Gaven D. Trinidad.
After the reading, the audience stayed for a post-show response session with UMass Theater Professors Judyie Al-Bilali and Megan Lewis. Al-Bilali praised Bayeza's play for opening a space, through theatre, for the difficult conversations we need to be having at this moment in our country's history. "This is theatre for social transformation," she said. Professor Lewis commented that Benevolence examines how white femininity was placed at the center of racist ideology and used to justify atrocious acts of brutality against black men and boys. "This is a black play about white people," she said, that offers an alternate perspective on the rehearsed narrative of the American South.
Professor John Bracey and poet and playwright Sonia Sanchez were the respondents on the second evening. “[Ifa] brought the reality of ordinary white people [in the 1950s],” Bracey said in reaction to the show. “That's the reality that hit me with the play. It's an achievement that Ifa has done ... An honest discussion of race.”
Sanchez was equally laudatory. “I watched the very good acting by the two young people and listened to [Ifa's] words... What does this play say to us about America? Which I think is the key to this beautiful writing. What does it say about us? As a people? As a people who still look at each other with fear? ... We're coming full circle to Emmett Till; coming full circle to a country that... requires this writing again because [these racial issues] have never been resolved.”
Megan Lewis, Ifa Bayeza, and Judyie Al-Bilali with dramaturg Gaven D. Trinidad.
Photo by Priscilla Page
The audience response was decidedly positive as well, with rounds of applause for the team of intrepid, talented collaborators who brought the piece to New York. Jacobucci and Hicks both said this was an incredible learning experience, as young actors tackling risky, difficult characters from our collective history and having to find the humanity and psychological truth within people considered to be "monsters."
“I didn't know anything about the story, but when Ifa said she was doing a project in New York, I said, 'Oh yeah!' Then I read the play! What can you do to prepare for this? I spoke with my parents, and I didn't know how they would feel about it. My mother said it was really jarring to hear me to say [some of the words] in the play, but they loved it,” said Hicks.
Jacobucci praised Ifa. “Ifa's direction made it easy for us, made us comfortable, and Gaven's dramaturgical packets gave us a lot of the background. Plays like this are extremely relevant... tackling racial injustice. This is the time. It's our responsibility to take part in this discussion.”
Responding to a question from the audience, Bayeza said she was "called" to write Till's story and to give voice to the story of a boy whose life was "short...but not uneventful." Having told his story in her Edgar Award-winning play The Ballad of Emmett Till (2008), she turned to exploring the saga from the perspective of the people of the Mississippi Delta. She wrote Benevolence for "young people," black as well as white, as a way of engaging our culture's fraught history. She also shared that Act Two is in development and will tell the story of Clinton and Beulah (Bee) Melton, the black couple who were murdered shortly after Till.
“I am so grateful to Professor Bracey for the invitation to present something for Black History Month and to Chair Penny Remsen and the entire Department of Theater for supporting the effort,” Bayeza said. “This maiden voyage suggested the tremendous opportunity NYPOP offers theater majors. Theater faculty, my cohorts and I are already planning future ventures. Stay tuned!”
Curious to see Benevolence but missed your chance in New York? The Department of Theater will offer an encore presentation in 204 on April 7, 8, and 15 at 8 p.m., and April 9 and 16 at 2 p.m.