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Theatre Program recognized by Kennedy Center

Posted on: 07/13/2020

Theater student on stage

Los Angeles Southwest College’s Experimental Theatre Laboratory has created a new original project titled “Criminal,” which details the historic and horrific murder of Emmett Till in 1955 in Mississippi.  But the play explores more than that – it delves into deeper themes of racism in the United States and its history of lynching. “Criminal” creates parallels to our modern-day, mass-incarceration crisis and uses voice, music, and movement to weave a spell over its audience.  

This experimental play was entirely written, directed, and produced by students in LASC’s theatre program. LASC’s students, the majority of who previously had minimal to no experience with theatre arts, drew on their own personal experiences growing up in South Los Angeles to tell a story that is as emotional as it is insightful. 

The LASC students sharing of the most personal stories on such a public platform as the stage is now, once again, being celebrated. “Criminal” was featured as a Participating Entry at The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Region VIII, on February 13, 2020, at Cal State Fullerton. 

Out of the scores of colleges and universities in the western region of the United States, LASC was one of just six schools selected to perform at the Region VIII festival.  In addition to a featured presentation slot, students were nominated for acting, directing, and community leadership awards. LASC’s Assistant Professor of Theatre Jonathan Pope Evans will also receive the “Excellence in Theatre Education” award for his dedication to student success in theatre.

“The selection of “Criminal” is such an honor for us because so many prestigious schools were in consideration for the festival.  To be chosen as one of six schools to be featured is a culmination of the work we have done for four years at LASC. During this time, I have seen students who had very little, if any, theatre experience transforms into amazing artists,” Evans said. 

“Simply put, the LASC Experimental Theatre Lab wants to use theatre to change lives. I also believe this award is so amazing because it honors our social justice aesthetic and focus.  Four years ago, when we began, we did not only decide to focus on issues of social justice and community but we also started to create a unique form of storytelling involving rigorous movement, creative staging, and student-led projects.”

The Region VIII festival, which is held each February to celebrate college and university theatre in the country’s southwestern region, is one of several that make up a national program overseen by the Kennedy Center dedicated to the improvement of collegiate theatre. One of the productions showcased at the Region VIII festival will be chosen by judges to perform in April 2020 at the acclaimed John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Being able to present our original production is a dream come true and just being nominated and considered for a production at the Kennedy Center is an honor for our whole group,” theatre student Tyana Haywood said. “I feel like I am transforming as an individual because of the theatre program at LASC.”

For the past four years, the theatre students have organized into a unique group – simply calling themselves the LASC Experimental Theatre Laboratory – that uses ‘Poor Theatre’ and ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ to create their own brand of social justice theatre.  The students’ aim is always to create theatre for their community and for people who have been forgotten by mainstream society. 

“Poor Theatre” was developed in the 1960s by Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theatre director.  The technique received its name because it deliberately avoids expensive costumes or scenery.  It strips theatre down to its core – sound, movement, voice and writing -- and challenges its performers to dig deep within themselves to find stories and themes that are true and alive.  Rather than performing a produced play, “Poor Theatre” creates theatre from scratch.  

The students’ dedication to their craft and the sharing of powerful stories have been routinely recognized in recent years by the Region VII festival. LASC was awarded “Best Ensemble” in the festival’s “Devised Theatre Category” for three straight years from 2017 to 2019.   This string of success started shortly after Evans began working with students to create their own signature style and highlight their values with a unique social justice focus.  

“This troupe of actors defines the theatre as they want to see it – created around themes and images the group feels most connected to,” Evans said. 

“Criminal” details the killing of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old, African-American boy from Chicago, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store.  The case was known as a spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. Within the LASC students’ performance, Till’s story is shared as is the history of lynching and mass incarceration in the United States. 

Carol Damgen, a theatre director and professor of theatre at Cal State San Bernardino, said “Criminal” is powerful and heartbreaking but also has a hope that all things are possible with communication and seeing one another as human beings

“Criminal” is “an immersive experience, which will not allow you to be a passive audience member,” Damgen said. It “chronicles the black experience -- from the perspective of both genders -- males who are frightened of what will happen to them from day to day as well as females and mothers fearing for the son they have and for the son they will have.”

LASC will be featured at The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Region VIII, on February 13, 2020, at Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, 92831. Production performances are scheduled for 6 p.m., 7:30 p.m., and 9 p.m. 

Following the festival, LASC’s Experimental Theatre Lab is excited to take “Criminal” on the road. Often invited to perform at celebrations such as Los Angeles community galas or university seminars such as Whittier College’s Diversity Conference, the students welcome the opportunity to showcase their form of theatre as an outlet for their own emotions, trauma, and personal growth. 

LASC’s students will also be waiting anxiously to see if they are one of just a few colleges or universities selected to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Whether they advance or not, a new project will soon emerge and more original theatre will be created to bring about social awareness and social justice to the campus of Los Angeles Southwest College and the community of South Los Angeles. 

“Being a part of the Experimental Theatre Laboratory, I’ve learned how to manage a large group of people, be more organized, and be proud of my leadership abilities,” student Donnise Vonner said.  

“I know now that I can handle all challenges no matter how frustrating because I will learn about myself from any difficult moment or emotional situation.  I’m not afraid anymore. Even if it’s hard, I can do it.”