The actions of our executive branch — both in Kentucky and at the federal level — have put the discussion of race and identity politics back in the headlines, and it’s exactly those issues that are discussed in “Baltimore,” the next production from University of Louisville’s African-American Theatre Program, which starts Thursday, Feb. 2.
The play is about college students struggling with their identities and ideals in the wake of an on-campus racial incident.
Nefertiti Burton, the chair of the Theatre Arts Department and director of “Baltimore,” spoke with Insider about the production.
“I was particularly interested in ‘Baltimore’ because it has such an inclusive cast,” says Burton. “The students in the play are African-American, white American, Latino, Asian.”
While the inclusion of characters of a wide ethnic or racial background can in and of itself suggest themes of diversity, Burton says the ideas in this play frequently include frank and even unsettling discussions on the topic of race.
“I think the conversations in the play are very challenging,” she says. “There are moments when conversations are private between — for example — black students, or between two white students.”
These scenes ask another question that also has been in the news — how do we talk when we aren’t on our best behavior, when we’re saying the things we might normally keep to ourselves in mixed company?
Burton expects her audience to be challenged by this play. “There is nobody who is gonna feel comfortable watching this play,” she says. “It really challenges everyone — it doesn’t matter how old you are or what race you are or how you identify in terms of sexual orientation or gender.”
Between the removal of Confederate statues and an ex-university president who appeared in a stereotypical — and some said offensive — Mexican costume, the subject of race at UofL has been in the news for the past several years.
But Burton hones in on a particular incident when discussing how current the issues in the play are to her students. “It very much reflects something that happened right here on this campus, just less than two years ago, which is an incident where hate speech was splattered all over the door in one of the honors dorms,” she recalls.
While she spoke about the connection between the play and events at UofL, she also brought up the play’s broad accessibility. “It’s specific to Kentucky in that (racial incidents) happen here, but it’s also national because the ideas and events represent things that are going on all over the country.”
Burton mentions the dialect work done for the show, coached by new professor Rachel Hillmer, an assistant professor of voice and speech. And while the stories and themes of the play are interesting, they still offer learning opportunities to the student actors, and dialect work is an important skill. Even though the action all happens on one campus, it features characters from different regions, and the use of dialects help reflect and reinforce that reality.
Actor and MFA student Danielle Smart plays Shelby Wilson in the production. Wilson is a resident advisor who is forced to confront issues of race because the inciting incident happened in the dorm under her watch.
Smart says Wilson has an outlook very different from her own.
“Her ideas on race are, like, ‘Labels don’t exist, we’re one race, we’re all just human,’ whereas I try to value people’s cultural differences,” says Smart, adding that exploring the mind of someone with such a different outlook was a challenge.
Those differences, as well as the other ideas and viewpoints on politics discussed in the play, created conversations in the rehearsal room.
“The first few weeks, when we were getting accustomed to the text and what the playwright wrote, we had several deep conversations about race on campus and how it’s manifested at the University of Louisville,” says Smart. She believes those conversation feel more urgent now.
As part of pursuing her master’s degree, Smart teaches a non-major acting class to undergraduates. She says she sees these same conversations in those classes. “There have been times in the classroom when I encounter their opinions on Black Lives Matter, and All Lives Matter, and these students explain their perspective, their point of view.”
Smart has to keep the conversations short because of time constraints, but starting the conversation is important. “I try to spark them … so they can have them outside of the classroom,” she says. “Because if you have the conversation inside the class, it’s not as impactful as sparking something that’s going to spread outside.”
And perhaps “Baltimore” will spark and spread its own conversations. Catch the production Feb. 2-12 at UofL’s Thrust Theatre on the Belknap Campus. Showtime is 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15.