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Davidson Student Dramatists Explore Social Justice Theatre at Penumbra’s Summer Institute

by Robert Abare '13
Ian Thompson
Ian Thompson was front and center in this choreographed scene. (All photos courtesy of Penumbra Theatre Company)

This summer, student dramatists Maggie Birgel '14 and Ian Thomson '15 taught teenagers the power of art and theatre to enact social justice. The two were serving as interns with the summer institute of the St. Paul-based Penumbra Theatre Company.

"Penumbra is the nation's oldest and most vital African American theatre company," explained Professor of Theatre Ann Marie Costa, who helped establish Davidson's fledgling relationship with Penumbra with help from others at Davidson College Friends of the Arts. Costa continued, "Penumbra's mission is to highlight race and class inequities through the lens of theatre, with a focus on the African American experience."

Birgel and Thompson are the second pair of Davidson students to intern at Penumbra's summer institute, following Maddie Saidenberg '13 and Rodney Saunders '13 in the summer of 2012.

Birgel and Thomson helped facilitate classes for teenage students on music, theatre for social change, yoga, ensemble acting and African-based movement, and aided in facilitating a final presentation with the high school students at the conclusion of the institute.

Thomson was excited to help the students learn how to become socially conscious individuals. "Whether or not they become artists, these students will have the tools and background to realize the impact their actions can have on society," he said.

Birgel added, "Working with theses students has been both exhausting and inspiring. I was often blown away by the level of insight they were demonstrating at such young ages."

Birgel described a particularly remarkable moment in one of her classes when a young student pointed out a correlation between two figures of popular culture. "We were discussing the oppression of African Americans through the mammy figure," she said. "We also discussed Rosie the Riveter, an image used to encourage women to join the work force during World War II. One of the students noticed that both Rosie and mammy wrapped their hair in handkerchiefs. The student thought this similarity wrested these women of their femininity and made them objects of labor. That was one of moments when I felt like these students were, in fact, teaching me."

At the conclusion of the institute, Birgel and Thomson helped produce a live performance for the community. Thomson said, "Our students performed a variety of sketches that pulled from themes including racism, sexism, domestic violence, body image, bullying, LGBTQ rights and discrimination against disabled people."

Maggie Birgel
Maggie Birgel in a Penumbra dance scene.

Birgel added, "I've never been prouder to stand on a stage. I was humbled by the profound wisdom and consciousness that these young people demonstrated in front of an audience." She continued, "I feel honored to have been able to learn with them, grow with them, and perform with them."

Associate Professor and Chair of Theatre Sharon Green, who selected Birgel and Thomson to attend the Summer Institute, noted that theatre for social change is an entire field and practice that dates back to Euripides in ancient Greece, and was important in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. She explained, "Theatre is particularly effective at producing social change because it gives a voice to people's stories, validates their experiences and intervenes in a dominant culture whose story often doesn't include them."

Costa has been very pleased with the results of Davidson's partnership with Penumbra. "Penumbra provides a highly authentic avenue through which students may explore the African American experience in America," she said. "Minneapolis is also a big theatre town, and Penumbra allows Davidson students to immerse themselves in a highly diverse community with a focus on social activism."

Birgel and Thomson plan on putting their experiences to good use. "I think Davidson's theatre productions should venture from the reliable classics towards experimental plays with a social purpose," Birgel said. "I think that theatre could be an effective way to initiate discussions on topics that Davidson students don't often discuss, like race and sexuality."

Thomson is interested in bringing a program similar to Penumbra's Summer Institute to the local area. "I would love to invite young students to learn about using theatre to enact social change, all while having fun and meeting new people," he said.

"Penumbra's Summer Institute helped me learn about myself as an artist and a human being," Thomson concluded. "It's an amazing example of the power of youth and theatre that I hope to somehow continue investigating."