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Building Community in the Theater

red velvet theater seats
Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

Is it possible to build community among diverse strangers in a very short time? I’ve seen it happen and the experience is extraordinary.

Years ago, I got involved in the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Theater, established by the Black community in Evanston, just north of Chicago. I just showed up one day to volunteer and they graciously allowed me to stay. Most of the time, I was the only white person in the building.

Rehearsals were underway for Sophisticated Lady, a musical featuring Duke Ellington’s songs. Saturday afternoon came and we were scheduled to do our first run-through: to rehearse the show from start to finish without stopping. Up until this time, people had been rehearsing parts of the show in small groups. This was the first time everyone came together—cast, crew, the band, everyone.

There were a lot of preparations to be made and details to work out. Finally everything was ready and we did the run-through. Oh man, was it rough! Mistakes, dropped lines, missed cues, you name it. We were like a rag-tag bunch of individuals all clamoring in the same space.

Gwethalyn Bronner, the director, gathered us all backstage for an Umoja Circle. I will never forget what happened next. All of us—cast, crew and band—formed a circle and joined hands. Someone started chanting “Umoja means unity” (Umoja is a Swahili word) and everyone joined in. We chanted for quite some time and gradually we could feel ourselves come more and more in sync with each other. We started to relax and just be part of the music we were creating together.

After awhile the chant quieted and we hummed the melody as Gweth started talking. She shared with us her vision for this show, what it meant to her and what it will mean to the audience. She talked about how each and every one of us was an essential part of the show. She talked about what she saw in us and what we could do together. Then, as we continued to hum softly, we went around the circle and each person shared what was in their heart—hopes and fears, love and appreciation, joy and humor, gratitude and prayers.

When we’d all finished sharing, Gweth began again and, with stirring words, inspired us with her vision of this show. The chant started up again, building and building until it ended in a huge shout of triumph. I turned to the guy next to me, a member of the band whom I’d never met before, and suddenly realized he was my brother. We all embraced joyfully and set off to run through the show again. By this time it was 9 pm and we’d already put in a full day. But we were energized and ready to go. We did another run-through and this time it was a show!

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