BLACK HISTORY MONTH SPECIAL COVERAGE
(Editor's note: for more Black History Month stories, click here.)
A philosopher once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This Thursday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m., University of Akron students will present a performance of the Akron Color Line Project at E.J. Thomas Hall. The hour-long performance strives to provide unique insights and inspiration for the Akron community to not only remember and rethink its role in the civil rights movement, but also to acknowledge the impact that race continues to have in Akron today.
Directed by University of Akron theater professor James Slowiak, the content of the performance is a collection of true stories gathered using the “Story Circle Methodology.” “Our mission was to go into different Akron communities and collect stories about race told within these story circles, archive them before they are forgotten, and then choose a group of these stories for the performance,” said Slowiak. By dramatizing about a dozen of the collected stories, Slowiak said the audience will not only learn about true things that happened, but also understand how race-based issues continue to affect the community today.
Story Circles and The Color Line Project itself are national initiatives pioneered by writer, performer and director John O’Neal. O’Neal co-founded the Free Southern Theater (FST) in 1963. The FST served as the cultural arm of the civil rights movement, bringing arts and theater productions to people and communities that otherwise would not have had access to them. When the FST dissolved in 1980, O’Neal founded Junebug Productions.
Slowiak first met O’Neal when the University of Akron began its Rethinking Race project several years ago. “Junebug Productions did a performance on campus and John talked to me about the Color Line Project,” said Slowiak. Central to the community outreach work done by Junebug Productions, the Color Line Project is a unique effort to archive true civil rights stories locally and nationally while engaging those in the arts to serve as catalysts for positive change in race relations.
O’Neal’s team soon engaged a core group of University of Akron professors from various fields and trained them on the methodology of story circles. “We spent about two years facilitating story circles throughout Akron in churches and other community organizations,” said Slowiak. Akron now joins cities including Flint, Mich.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and New Orleans that have completed story circles for the Color Line Project.
While sitting in a circle telling stories sounds quite informal, Slowiak stressed the rules and required steps associated with facilitating a successful story circle. “The most important thing is to listen,” said Slowiak. “Every participant must actively listen to the stories being told before there is opportunity for ‘crosstalk’ during which they can ask questions and provide feedback.”
“In our society, we don’t allow enough time to tell stories,” said Slowiak. “People listen to each other in a different way if you are telling a story rather than just giving your opinion.” Story circles are an empowering, safe place where people can share their experiences without being judged. It ends up being a very emotional experience for many people.”
The Akron Color Line Project performance will feature stories beginning with Akron’s riot of 1900 up to present-day events. “The audience will hear some things they will have heard of like John Brown, Akron’s connection to the Underground Railroad, and some things about the rubber industry,” said Slowiak. The more emotional pieces of the performance, however, will likely come from personal stories, including not being able to shop on certain floors in downtown department stores because of your race in the 1950s, not getting served in a downtown Akron restaurant if you were black in the late 1960s, or how race affects relations with law enforcement and education in Akron today.
“Many participants in the story circles had moved to Akron from the South,” said Slowiak. “We learned that things in this ‘northern city’ were often just as segregated as they were in the South over the years.”
While the performance's honest, often raw look at Akron’s history of race relations may be perceived as provocative, Slowiak contends that “this is who we are” and said he hopes the audience will walk away with a greater appreciation for the transformation that arts can have on a community. For now, the Thursday night performance is the only show, but Slowiak hopes to expand and perform for other community groups and organizations. “We’ll need to find open-minded venues for this production,” said Slowiak, who points out that the strong language makes this an “adults only” show.
“In Akron, we have a lot of communities that have the theater, but not a lot of theater for the communities. A rebirth can happen with these stories,” said Slowiak, who said he firmly believes that Akron’s race relations need not be condemned or silenced. Instead, as poignantly said by that famous philosopher, “We don’t have to keep playing the same tape over and over again. Tell your story, listen to others – and you can move on.”
For more information, visit www.uakron.edu/race/colorline.