For the first time in recent memory, Johnson C. Smith University will produce a full-length play for the public this week.
That may be a small rumble in a city full of theatrical noise. But it’s the latest tremor in an artsquake intended to change the JCSU landscape before the shaking stops.
Assistant professor of theater Christian Casper has been shaping the four-person “Best of Enemies,” a play about a civil rights upheaval in Durham in the 1970s, for audiences. And Wanda Ebright, who brought him onto the visual and performing arts team three semesters ago, has been reshaping that department. Ultimately, she plans to turn its concentrations – theater, dance, fine art and the rest – into accredited majors to prepare students for jobs.
That transformation will be in the hands of people such as Casper, a veteran actor-director Charlotteans have seen mostly at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte or Charlotte Shakespeare. He had never heard of JCSU when he went job hunting two years ago.
“We don’t have many theater students yet, but the ones we have are strong,” he says. “I’m excited to be in on the ground floor. The administration said, ‘Take the initiative. Write your own curriculum.’
“I’d like to create a touring company that doesn’t just do fall-spring shows here but goes into public schools along the northwest corridor. I think I’m well-connected to theater companies around town, so I want to place students in internships, too.”
An infectious optimism has hung in the cultural air since Ronald Carter became JCSU’s president in 2008. He brought Ebright over in 2009 from Coker College, where he had been dean of faculty. Within 18 months, The Arts Factory opened on West Trade Street, a quarter-mile from the main JCSU campus, in the old Griffin Brothers tire shop. Then she started hiring.
“There has to be enough growth in the student body and the quality of what we produce that funders want to be part of it,” says Ebright, who has reverted from department chair to associate professor of dance to finish her doctorate. “The plan was to lease from Griffin for five years, then move into a new building, though that term has been extended. My job is to fill this building in order to convince people we need more space.”
“Best of Enemies” is an early sign of what to expect. Mark St. Germain’s 2011 play shows what happened in 1971 during Durham school desegregation. A federal mediator insisted people from all points of view, including a black civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan member, meet on a panel. Amazingly, they discovered common ground: Poverty, not race, had kept both of them down.
“At Boise State University, we were constantly told, ‘Better yourself, better the community, and in a loftier way, benefit the world,’ ” says Casper. “Think about what theater is: It recreates the human condition by telling the truth.”
He has cast VPA major Dasha McKisic as the activist. She trained at a performing arts high school in Atlanta with a well-established program. It instilled “a raw hunger to do things for myself: Never be afraid to build. Leave my own mark. I saw JCSU as the opportunity to do that.”
Though she’s considering acting as a career, her college experience has mainly been helpful in “becoming a better human being. Theater has a way of charging people to thoroughly analyze the world, cultural differences, and issues of the heart.”
Thomas Martin, a New Jersey native who went to high school in Spartanburg, sees his VPA major as a springboard to act in theater, films or TV. He has worked behind the scenes on “Enemies,” learning the technical side to go with his performing experience.
“You gain confidence by being onstage,” he says. “Whatever mood I’m in, once I am in the theater, I feel so much better, because I’m outside myself. I had to play Harpo from the Marx Brothers, using hand gestures and beeping two horns and a whistle to express myself. That was the hardest thing I’ve done.”
Casper, who believes in colorblind casting, likes to make actors stretch that way. He’s had to stretch himself: He didn’t realize he’d have to teach the rudiments of showing up on time and committing to the full run of a play.
“A lot of them are the first generation to go to college, so they’re learning not just how to be theater students but how to be college students,” he says. “I always thought of myself as a patient person, but I’ve learned to be very patient.”
That’s a virtue in a budding program. Ebright has no timeline to convert those minors to majors, though her dance program will go up for accreditation this academic year if JCSU trustees approve that request. (Music is already a major.)
“Even when we have theater or dance majors, they’ll need to be cross-trained,” she says. “If you want to work in a museum, you need to know about lighting and graphic arts. A dancer needs to know technical theater, front-of-house skills. You can’t just act, dance, paint. Every artist has to do more these days to keep the checks coming.”