The performing arts and social justice (PASJ) department ended a year-long hiatus and hosted their first in-person event of the year in Gleeson Plaza on Nov. 20. The event marked the first time the fall concert was held outdoors and featured a combined performance of all three concentrations of music, dance and theater.
Megan Nicely, the PASJ department chair, expressed her excitement about the many firsts of the show and said that “COVID and returning to campus unable to perform indoors led to us combining the efforts of the three classes and producing a shared event.”
Nicely said that there was an added layer of emotion to the performances, a result of the pandemic’s effect on students’ work. “People are a little more sensitive. We’ve been through a lot so there’s this passion and expression, but also vulnerability and tenderness that’s on the surface.”
Although the show was a fusion of the different art styles, the pieces all grappled with similar themes of social justice. “The mission of the department is to look at the arts through the lens of social justice and social justice issues,” said Nicely. “A lot of the works dealt with issues students are dealing with now.”
Through expressive choreography and somber melodies, the performances encapsulated topics ranging from empathy, ancestral connection and love, to darker themes of suicide and loss. The Dance Generators, an intergenerational dance company based in the Bay Area, explored what it means to move forward as a community in their piece “Returning Forward.”
Nicely highlighted the significance of not only bringing these themes to light, but the emotional forces behind them. “While we want to be entertaining, we also want to get at some deeper issues,” she said. “We want people to leave feeling to act or do or just reflect on how they are in the world.”
Laynee Daniels, a senior double majoring in PASJ and psychology, is a vocalist and musician, and plays instruments such as the bass and the cajon, a box shaped percussion instrument. She showcased these talents in the concert.“I grew up in a musical environment. My mom and sisters were all musical people so it was just natural that I joined,” Daniels said.
Daniels participated in the group piece, “No One,” a cover of the original song by Alicia Keys which included other music students. However, her most notable performance was a piece she composed this spring, titled “Everything Will Be Ok.” The composition served as a dedication to her grandmother who passed away earlier this May. Daniels said, “I wrote that song because, no matter what, she would say ‘Everything will be ok.’”
Daniels believes that music and social justice are indispensable to one another. “When we have protests and social gatherings that are done for a cause, and there’s chants, it’s all considered music.” Daniels stressed the unifying power of music, especially in large groups, saying, “Music has the power to change and unite people.”
Kevin Sarmiento, a sophomore engineering major and the theater assistant stage manager, described the collective excitement around hosting the event back in person after two years of it being online. “Holding it outdoors presented its own set of challenges, but having not worked a show for almost two years made me feel motivated to take them on,” Sarmiento said. “Seeing all three concentrations there made me feel fortunate to have been involved in this process. Everyone came together and created a truly moving performance.”
For Sarmiento, theater plays a crucial role in social justice issues. “Theater tells a story that can initiate a conversation in the audience and possibly motivate them to recognize and take action within their own community,” he said.
According to Nicely, the need to speak and perform is more pertinent now than ever. “The world has changed so much, especially in the last two or three years with a lot of racial reckoning and a lot of issues around labor and disparity.” She praised the transformative power of the arts in sharing our experiences with one another, saying, “With the pandemic, there’s that foundation of emotion that’s really starting to come through in all its complexity. There’s a lot of pain there, but also a lot of opportunity for connection and growth.”
As the production manager, Beth Hersh played a major role in making sure the technical aspects of the concert came together. She was impressed with the flexibility of the performers in light of the technical difficulties that came with setting up the event outdoors. Such circumstances included acquiring stage permits and uncooperative weather between rehearsals. “I felt such pride in their ability to be professionals, to keep working even under unideal circumstances where things are changing that are completely out of their control,” Hersh said.
Hersh was delighted to experience the students’ work in person again.“There’s just something that never comes across on a screen the way it does in a space,” she said. Applause and shouts of support from the audience were integral in creating the ambience of a live performance.
Hersh emphasized that the most important thing was the collective joy of the students being able to create and perform together. “The real electricity that comes from live performance was a relief to experience again, and it was so gratifying to see the students get a chance to have that,” she said.