The Collegian
Sunday, June 26, 2022

Play examines civil rights as campus reels over doll incident

The University of Richmond Department of Theatre and Dance and the University Players will soon present their last production of the season in the wake of a recent racial incident in Cousins Studio Theater.

The production, "The Meeting" by Jeff Stetson, is being directed by associate professor Chuck Mike. The play features professional actors J. Ron Fleming and Anthony Ofoegbu as well as junior Justin Forte.

"The Meeting" is a one-act performance portraying a hypothetical meeting between Malcolm X, a Black Nationalism and self-defense advocate, and Martin Luther King Jr., a proponent of non-violence.

The recent incident where a doll was hanged by a noose over the theater stage and accompanied by phrases including "art is dead," makes the play's subject particularly poignant.

Mike, who chose to present "The Meeting" and specializes in theater productions for social change, believed the Richmond campus had been lacking culturally diverse works until recent years.

"It's a play needed in the space and time in which we exist now," he said. "[I] thought issues of civil rights and tolerance and equality."

Mike believed the issue of race was hard to approach, but that this should and could change through continual conversation. One effective way to keep conversation flowing is through theater, the acting out of those conversations on stage.

"Race is incredibly difficult to cover," he said. "The only way to get comfortable with [the discussion] is to keep having it."

Mike said youth today knew very little about civil rights, including Richmond students. The play would be fundamental in demonstrating the ideals of the civil rights movement.

"These stories need to be heard," he said. "[Malcolm X's and Martin Luther King Jr.'s] philosophies brought the country to understand more about itself and we need to celebrate them."

Forte said he believed the play was fitting since April marked the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

"We need to enlighten people about who these great people were and the ideas they had," he said.

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Ashley Bloom, the Players' publicity manager, had worked with Mike on other productions and believed his work was creative and artistic.

"It sparks discussion about social issues that other productions have not," she said. "It's the perfect opportunity to stand up against that act [in Cousins Studio] and support the arts. If people see this, something positive will come from it."

Mike said the theater department was a close family and it hurt that it could have been someone on the inside who had betrayed it. He said the hanged doll had been the only overt sign of a problem since he had come to Richmond in 2005.

The incident is still being investigated and no suspects have been pinpointed. It is also not being treated as a hate crime by the police department.

"It's a sad acceptance that this happened and that it could be targeted at me and the work I'm doing," Mike said. "But like a song in the production goes, 'Ain't gonna let nobody turn us around.' We're going to keep on doing what we're doing."

Though he was upset about the incident, Mike said he was happy about the reaction and response it had provoked.

Sophomore Ryan Breen, the play's stage manager, said the play was a good point of discussion on many diversity and equality issues and encouraged people to see the play and express their feelings about it. There will also be a talk back session after each performance.

"Don't be afraid to say something, whatever side you fall on," Breen said. "Let the dialogue happen."

Some complaints have arisen from students in the theater department because there is only one student role in the play. Bloom did not believe this should have been an issue because there were many opportunities to help backstage, and students could learn from watching the professional actors.

"It's a good learning experience for those who want to pursue acting professionally," she said.

Mike said he was aware of the debate, but professional actors were brought in every year and there were many roles for students in the crew.

"What makes backstage less important?" he said. "In the making of theater, there are no small roles, only small-thinking people."

Forte, who is playing Malcolm X's bodyguard, had no prior acting experience, but is taking a theater class and was asked to audition by Mike. "Justin is incredibly talented and has innocence," Mike said.

Forte said he had been hesitant to take the role because of his schedule, but that he had been interested in the topic. Also, Forte's mother, who works for The King Center in Atlanta, told him that he had a purpose to serve.

Forte said anyone on campus could help by expressing his or her opinion.

"It's not limited to these professionals, your opinion will be considered," he said.

The Meeting will run in the Alice Jepson Theatre at 7:30 p.m. April 12 and April 16 to 19 with a matinee performance on 2 p.m. April 13. Tickets are $10 for Richmond students and $12 for Richmond employees.

Audience members may come to the production an hour before the performance to participate in a riot exhibition put on by community members and actors. Some people will act as protesters while others will act as riot police. The exhibition will be complete with riot sounds and a water hose, which will not be sprayed.

Contact reporter Ashley Graham at ashley.graham@richmond.edu

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