Powerful descriptions and illustrations of experiences filled the screen last week as the Performing Arts and Social Justice (PASJ) department hosted a virtual festival to celebrate their 20-year anniversary. They showcased PASJ alumni and students through performances, discussion panels, and social advocacy projects. The three-day festival lasted from April 29 to May 1, and was organized by professors and staff within the department.
At the center of the festival was a production titled “Breathing Room,” which featured a collaboration between all three programs within the department — dance, music, and theater — for the first time. It premiered on the evening of April 29 and ran for 75 minutes, including an intermission. It was made up of several shows put on by students over Zoom, each one emphasizing how different groups of individuals are cornered in society with little room to breathe. The full show is available to watch on PASJ’s performance works page.
One of the performances within “Breathing Room” was entitled “Breath My Black,” and was a project that set the stage for improvement within the PASJ program by revealing important truths. The production of the performance included some deep learning experiences for both the organizers and performers.
PASJ’s webpage outlines how the department takes pride in educating artist-activists, “seeing performance as a powerful tool for promoting positive change.” USF alumni and “Breathe My Black” co-creators, Reyna Brown and Ashley Smiley explained, in interviews, how this goal actually played out behind the scenes.
“We were involved in a divisive theater process, which means we don’t start with a script, we instead start with people,” Brown said. She explained that this production was put together based on the stories of the people who were involved. Brown worked alongside Smiley and Danielle Smith, another USF alumni, to bring “Breathe My Black” to life.
“We [were] talking about [specific] experiences and the trauma that occurred,” Smiley said. However, she described that it was uncomfortable for students to discuss their experiences during rehearsals when festival organizing members would drop in unannounced. She said, “It felt like we were being picked on.”
According to Brown, the organizers of the festival asked herself, Smith, and Smiley for a work-in-progress video part way through the process of putting the show together. A few days later, they were told by the organizers that their video was being used in a trailer for the final production. “That was not made apparent from the beginning,” Brown said. In the video, Smiley pointed out an instance in which a professor “called her stupid,” and “the response [from PASJ festival organizers] was extremely negative to this during [subsequent] meetings with organizers,” Brown said.
Brown also explained that she understood the festival organizers expected their show to celebrate PASJ, but the point of “Breathe My Black” was to explore the juxtaposition between the mission statements of inclusion and acceptance from PASJ and USF versus the actual experience of Black students within the program, as there was a significant difference to be brought to light.
“Within the department of PASJ there’s no opportunities for Black students to create exclusively together, so we wanted to create that space and give insight into what it means and feels like to be a Black student at this white institution, trying to make art and also grapple with and heal from all of the ills in the world,” Brown said.
When it came to finishing up the show and presenting the end result, Brown said, “Even though PASJ apologized, it was clear that we could not move forward [with the show] in the way that we [originally] wanted to because of all of the drama that the work-in-progress video created.”
PASJ professor Roberto Varea spoke about the improvements PASJ made in the form of inclusivity at a post-viewing discussion panel on April 29. Varea is one of the founding professors who created the PASJ department and the critical diversities forum at USF. “A lot of learning is happening around this. One of the key pieces that we are learning is how to be far more inclusive in ways that we haven’t, to have critical voices at the table,” Varea said. When discussing what will be implemented specifically, he said, “we will be reaching out to students through the newly formed Performing Arts Student Council where students have a direct voice to be heard, and we are looking forward to thinking about how we can engage alumni in the same way.”
Brown acknowledged this progress: “I want to explain and acknowledge all of the work that PASJ is doing because they are having difficult conversations. They are going through training as a department, they are challenging each other, and they are thinking critically about the curriculum to achieve their goals of serving the students that they want to attract to the program,” she said.
However, Smiley said, “I think there’s a long way to go.” According to her, there is still a discrepancy between what is being said or advertised and what is actually being done. She explained that there have been many missed opportunities for improvement, and there is possibility for change, but only if PASJ is truly committed to making it happen.