Britney Walker-Merritte and Trey Smith as Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Mountain

Britney Walker-Merritte and Trey Smith as Camae and Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Mountain


Theatre, Art, Culture Bring Diverse Perspectives

(Top) Radcliffe Bailey gives critiques of student work

(Top) Radcliffe Bailey gives critiques of student work

by Tara Grubbs

The Department of Theatre, Department of Art and African and African American Studies Program are bringing diversity to education by using an interdisciplinary approach to expand the ways in which theatre, art and culture can be studied.

African and African American Studies, also known as AAST, is an interdisciplinary program that enhances the core disciplines of a traditional liberal arts education. Through the study of the history and culture of the African diaspora, the program examines the role that race has played in the creation of current society. The theatre and art departments have embraced these connections though hosting special events, guest artists and performances.

In January, the Department of Theatre and the African and African American Studies Program partnered to present The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. The play imagines what may have happened on the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

The collaboration between the department and program broadens the diversity among the students and disciplines involved in the project.  The two were integrated into a piece of work demonstrating how multiple fields can be studied side by side and create a new point of view for students.

“The Department of Theatre is our biggest supporter; we wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” said Calvin White, director of the program. “Their partnership enables us to reach beyond our usual audience. The play exposes African and African American studies themes to theatre patrons. The production brings together different groups, exposing them to theatre and educating them as well.”

“The partnership allows us to strengthen our multi-cultural theatre initiatives and helps us in diversifying our audience,” said Clinnesha Sibley, head of playwriting and undergraduate advisor in the theatre department and an affiliated faculty member with African and African American studies. “AAST is one of the most progressive programs on campus, and we are thrilled to work together to educate and entertain our community.”

With similar goals of inclusivity and diversity in learning, the Department of Art brought renowned artist Radcliffe Bailey to campus. Bailey uses diverse styles, such as painting, sculpture and mixed media, to create engaging exhibitions that explore themes of ancestry, race and memory. His work has been displayed in many galleries across the country, and his three-dimensional paintings address African American history and his life as a young southern African American. 

Bailey’s work Storm at Sea was on display in the Fine Arts Center Gallery from Jan. 26-Feb. 20. It visually represents the waves of the ocean, shipwrecks and lives of slaves taken by sea, and it plays on the relationship of the past and present. Bailey’s visit also included a public lecture and consultations with art students. His critiques of their individual work give the students a new perspective on their creative expression from an artist working in the field.

“The Department of Art is always excited when we can bring artists such as Bailey, who have international renown, to our campus,” said Marc Mitchell curator and director of exhibitions for the Fine Arts Center Gallery. “It creates an opportunity for our students to engage with an artist in ways that provide exposure to how professionals think and operate.”

The legacy of J. William Fulbright’s vision of cross-cultural understanding and peace through education lives on through the work of each of these academic areas, which make a conscious effort to expand diversity through a view that is bigger than its own.

By involving an interdisciplinary program, the theatre department broadened its audience and provided an example of how other fields of study can directly relate to all aspects of producing and experiencing a play. The art department deepened the views of its students by hosting an African American artist who focuses on history and his own experiences. Those in the African and African American Studies Program were able to experience the powerful ways in which art and theatre can help people interpret ideas in a new and engaging way.

Tara Grubbs

About the author

Tara Grubbs is a junior in the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism advertising and public relations sequence. She is serving as a communications intern in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences for the spring 2015 semester.