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Political Science and Theater students tackle race issues together

Collaborative project is beginning of things to come

The topics of race and racism are always difficult to discuss in a public setting, but two Ohio University classes recently collaborated to tackle this difficult subject.

The Department of Political Science senior-level class of Assistant Professor Debra Thompson and the School of Theater senior-level class of Assistant Professor Rebecca VerNooy teamed up on a non-traditional learning project titled "Performing Race."

Thompson's class, "The Politics of Race in Global Context," completed the first step of the two-week project on Feb. 19 when they broke up into five groups and presented their research findings on various topics of race. VerNooy's "Physical Theater" class was in the audience taking notes.

After defining the word "racism," the political science majors addressed issues such as: white privilege, stereotypes, post-racial society, how schools teach American history, covert racism, racial ambiguity, educational inequality, assimilation, legacy and responsibility.    

After listening to the political science students' thoughts on race, the theater majors took on the challenge of writing and performing short vignettes based on the race material one week later.

Mission accomplished. The theater students came through with 13 emotional and thought-provoking performances.

One of the most memorable dramatic pieces involved a student who was home for Thanksgiving dinner and heard her relatives use racist terms but did not have the courage to stand up to them. Another memorable skit involved a college student treating a black student awkwardly by trying too hard to prove she's not racist.

After the performances, the students from both classes gathered into small groups to discuss the outcomes of the project.

Thompson said the total project was a huge success.

"Some of the skits were both powerful and heartbreaking, but that was the point of this collaboration," Thompson said. "The goal was to empower the students as teachers."

VerNooy said she didn't know what to expect going into the project, but feels that her students gave a really raw performance. She said another benefit of the project was that it allowed the students to engage in a different medium of exchanging information.

"From the performance part I was happy because they had no rehearsal time and it was really thrown together," VerNooy said. "They did a great job. The production value could have been better, but the point of the project was the collaboration. Looking around now and seeing the actors talking with political scientists – that's what it's about."

Thompson said this year's project is the beginning of an exciting new partnership.

"The politics of race is messy, complicated and contradictory, but ultimately very powerful," Thompson said. "We definitely want to do the project again next year. It clearly worked and we want to expand it to make it more encompassing."

The cross-college collaboration was Thompson's idea. She had experienced something similar while she was presenting a research paper at the University of Toronto.
She also made the race project account for 35 percent of the students' final grade because she wanted to make sure they took it seriously.

Senior theater performance major Brian Steele said that although the audience that really needs to be educated about the aspects of race was not there, the project was still beneficial.

"One of the benefits I got from the project was to get uncomfortable," Steele said. "I didn't want to do this race project initially because my personal experiences ignite a fury in me. This project showed the differences in the cultures and proved that many people are as sick of racism as I am. I commend my classmates for being courageous."

Senior political science major Alex Cooke said she also appreciated the theater students taking on the race project.

"They did a really good job and it was nice to see them share their stories," Cooke said. "I like how Brian (Steele) said, 'For you this is a play, but this is my life.' I definitely feel that way."

Kaila Benford, a senior theater major, said she hopes the science and art worlds keep coming together, because it was nice to show that theater majors have a voice also.

"This was astonishing and amazing," she said.