Cover art courtesy of Anchor Books

Rooted and Rising puts Black voices onstage

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by Sophia Escudero

In five years at Cal Poly Humboldt, lecturer Dionna Ndlovu had not seen a single production written by a Black playwright. On Monday, Oct. 24, she will direct one. 

Rooted and Rising is a series of staged readings produced by CDOR and the Umoja Center for Pan African Student Excellence in collaboration with the Theatre Arts Department, beginning this semester with a reading of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” by Anna Deavere Smith. Each work, including this one, will be one written by a Black writer.

“The staged reading series will happen twice a year, once in the fall, once in the spring,” Ndlovu said. “It’s a collaboration between multiple departments, faculty, staff, students, and community members.” 

A staged reading differs from a play in that there is not a set or full costumes. Traditionally, the cast reads off scripts, and there is minimal stage movement, allowing for a lower investment of time and energy while still creating theater. Ndlovu was personally drawn to theater by listening to and participating in staged readings.

“When I looked at our season, I noticed we didn’t have one staged reading, and we didn’t have use of our second stage space, which is our studio theater,” Ndlovu said. “It creates an opportunity for students who are maybe looking for more performance opportunities, for faculty and staff who want to participate, at low stakes.”

To Ndlovu, another important aspect of the staged reading format is that it is often followed by a talkback between the audience and the cast and crew. This work, she believes, is part of an important dialogue to be had in the Humboldt community. 

“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” is a series of monologues about the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, a six-day series of riots. The conflict was born from the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King, the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean convenience store owner, and years of racial tensions, particularly between the Black and Korean communities. When the riots ended, 63 people were dead, 2,383 more were injured, and over 12,000 had been arrested. All of the monologues are derived from real interviews with people who were involved or directly affected, their words translated directly to the page. 

Performer Jennifer Be, born in LA county, is very aware of the history behind the show. 

“I did some research on what the production was going to be, and saw that it was something I could contribute to,” Be said. “It showcases so many perspectives and experiences after the riots, that felt like something I wanted to contribute to and be a part of.” 

The cast is composed of eight actors, including Ndlovu, of various races, ethnicities, genders, and ages. Casting was entirely open— some actors are students, others members of the greater Humboldt community. Every performer delivers several monologues, each one from a different person’s perspective. 

“I’m reading four folks, and they all have very contrasting backgrounds,” Be said. “They’re all from different socioeconomic experiences, and what sort of their purpose was during that time was very contrasting as well. There’s such a juxtaposition, that’s really fun, but the most important thing is that there’s something relatable about everyone’s experience.” 

Several performers had not had any previous experience with theater. Performer Elijah Moore had not acted before, but found himself intrigued by a casting call flyer and joined the production. He says he’s proud of the opportunity to present such powerful monologues on a crucial topic. 

“It’s groundbreaking work, of course,” Moore said. “The written word is very important, and I think highlighting the massacres and the terrible things that happened during the riots is really important to understand that police brutality is really a thing. Being able to highlight those topics in a performance is really cool.” 

Patricia Iwok, also new to performance, found the experience to be educational as well. She had never heard about the Los Angeles Uprising before, and feels that she has learned a lot from her involvement. She particularly appreciated the staged reading format. 

“I feel like it’s the most stress-free experience, like it’s really nice,” Iwok said. “Just reading lines, experiencing what we’re reading, I feel like that’s cool. It’s something new, something exciting.” 

Fellow performer Binta Wright finds Rooted and Rising to be incredibly significant for Humboldt’s Black community, and an important step forward for representation locally. 

“To be part of something like this where we are is unprecedented,” Wright said. “Humboldt has never had a focus on Black works, and stage readings have been just as scarce. It’s refreshing and I’m excited that there will be more presence of Black playwrights and stories told in theater here at Cal Poly in the near future.”

“Twilight: Los Angeles 1992” will be performed at 7 pm Oct. 24 in the JVD Studio Theater, and is free to attend and open to everyone. The reading will be followed by a talkback with the audience.

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