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Continuing the Conversation: Understanding Race Relations through Performance

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faculty watch a performance

A Penn State course on the arts’ role in race relations will culminate with a public presentation of student projects, which range from paintings and poetry readings to a video screening, on Sunday, April 23, at 2 p.m. in the Palmer Lipcon Auditorium in the Palmer Museum of Art. The course, THEA497, Truth and Reconciliation: Race Relations in America – Performing Arts and Artists Moving Us Forward, has been taught by Lauren Kooistra, associate director and research associate for the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH); Wilna Taylor, arts engagement and program manager in the College of Arts and Architecture; and Kikora Franklin, associate professor of theatre/dance in the School of Theatre. It’s an extension of the “Truth and Reconciliation” series of events started by the IAH in fall 2016.

The three instructors have engaged students with the material through class discussions, readings, guest lectures, writing reflections, and performances.

“The arts present an opportunity to facilitate discussions about topics such as race relations in a way that makes it accessible and palatable to people of various backgrounds. Most of the students are not arts students, and the material is challenging,” noted Taylor. “This course is providing them with the language, perspective, and access to know what to say, how to say it, and the opportunity to affect people positively in their own individual ways through art.”

The first course assignment was for the students, all women from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, to go to the Palmer Museum of Art and find something that represented them and something that represented the “other.” The course also included performances by visiting artists, a discussion about spirituals with Essence of Joy director Anthony Leach, and a movement workshop, led by Kikora Franklin’s mother, Ajile Axam, a professional dancer and founder of Total Dance/Dancical Productions, Inc. Instructor Lauren Kooistra participated by playing the piano during the students’ “reflections” writing assignments.

“To play the piano while the students reflected was a means of contributing what I have to offer, a means of loving them while giving them safe space to process,” said Kooistra “I think there was something deeply peaceful about that moment that was beyond words; the music brought us into a safer realm somehow, by connecting us to each other but also to something greater than us.”

In addition to the group presentation of final projects on April 23, Nicky Jara, a theatre graduate student in the course, will perform her final project, a theatrical piece about masks, on Wednesday, April 19, at 2:30 p.m. on the Palmer Museum of Art Plaza. Jara explained that as a person of color, masks have figured prominently in her own experiences and survival.

Due to the intensity of the course material and personal nature of the projects, performances may be as difficult or emotional for the students to present as they might be for audience members to experience; however, the instructors agree that the process has been meaningful for everyone involved.

“The performance is the final reflection assignment and the culmination of the students’ journeys this semester,” explained Franklin. “The thoughts, feelings, and experiences they processed are moving the conversation on race forward by showing where they were at the beginning of the semester compared to where they are now and by inviting others to participate in the dialogue.”

The final talk in the “Truth and Reconciliation” series will be on Thursday, April 20, 7:00 p.m. at the State Theatre. For more information, visit the IAH website:

There will also be “Cultural Conversations” on Tuesday, April 25 and Wednesday, April 26 at 8:00 p.m. (both nights) in 119 Theatre Building. "Cultural Conversations" foster and promote art dealing with themes of local and global diversity.