Professor Shows Theater’s Power to Transform
For Old Dominion University professor Brittney Harris, staging a play means more than polishing a performance.
The work is about helping young people express themselves, see their worth, and discover the world around them.
That was crystal clear at a rehearsal for ODURep's production of "Blood at the Root" which opens Thursday, Nov. 9 at the Goode Theater. During practice, Harris, who is directing the show, gave actors clear, nurturing feedback. "Cool, cool, you got this," she said, coaching one of the cast members. "It's becoming second nature."
With the play's opening night still a week away, there were no signs of stress among cast and crew. Instead of anxiety, the team radiated confidence and humor — even when handling the play's deadly serious subject matter, racial strife in America.
A practitioner of what's called devised theatre, Harris sees her student actors as collaborators, not chess pieces at her command. For example, she noted that cast member Koby Lomax created choreography for the "Blood at the Root" production. Another cast member, Zoe Moscopulos, shaped how a key shadow fight scene will play out.
Harris energetic personality makes this kind of collaboration a breeze.
"Wow, this is jacked up, y'all," the director enthused at one point during the weeknight rehearsal, meaning that what they were doing on stage was powerful and provocative.
It was all working. You could see it on her face. Harris beamed.
A Banner Year
A graduate of ODU who was born and raised in Hampton Roads, Brittney Harris is enjoying an action-packed 2023.
She made her first trip to Africa in May. There, she taught devised theater and healing through the arts at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda with the In[HEIR]itance Project. She worked with orphaned and vulnerable youth who are descendants of those displaced by the Rwandan genocide.
Harris asked the young people to express concepts like joy or pain using only their bodies. They would show what oppression meant to them, then the opposite, liberation.
"Taking away the need to have to define the word, but to embody it, that was very empowering for groups," Harris said. "It was dope."
She and teammate Ariel Warmflash asked the participants to describe their personal futures and devised a performance based around their visions of tomorrow.
"The work itself should lend to some kind of artistic enlightening or opening," Harris said. "I don't want this work to be triggering. But let's create not just a safe space but a sacred space to explore that."
Just days after returning from Rwanda, Harris headed to Philadelphia to participate in a summer institute as a National Endowment for the Humanities Faculty Fellow. Hosted by Pig Iron Theatre Company, the institute focused on preserving and transmitting American ensemble-based devised theater.
Participants attended from across the United States as well as from Canada, Poland and South Korea. Harris said she was excited to see how other cultures value and protect this part of their cultural heritage.
As in Rwanda, Harris made an impact.
"It was a gift to have her as part of the institute," wrote Quinn Bauriedel, co-founder and co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company. "She was an ideal participant, deeply engaged in the historical and scholarly discussions while also being a dynamic force during our studio-based sessions."
Harris raised the session's level of the discourse, he said, by sharing her recent experiences in Rwanda and putting their work in a global context. She explained how theater in Rwanda functions as an important agent for healing.
"Unsurprisingly, Brittney offered the group a final ritual on our last day, closing out our session in a manner that both acknowledged the contributions of everyone in the room while also charging all of us to take the work forward," Bauriedel wrote.
Art with Impact
Harris believes that good theater challenges the status quo — around the world and at home.
Her work at ODU has tackled social issues without pretension. Last year's "Tag: You're It!" — which she wrote and directed — was an interactive, ensemble-based piece of performance art that took on the questions of individualism, freedom, protest and identity in the age of social media.
"Echoes: Transcending Through Story" from 2020 was her modern response to Ntozake Shange's innovative 1973 work "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf."
In Norfolk, she's worked with Teens with a Purpose, a non-profit organization that encourages young people to use their voices, creativity and action to improve their communities. With that group, Harris created a project called Amplified to record oral histories of people in the St. Paul's neighborhood.
A few weeks after returning from Rwanda, Harris was working with teens in Norfolk. "Teens are teens — they're the same," she said. "They asked the same questions. What's it like being a professor? What music do you listen to? What's your favorite TV show? It was beautiful to see both groups have an affinity and respect for the arts."
Harris sees drama as a tool for both personal growth and positive cultural change.
"As theater artists, we have a unique role to be mirrors to society," Harris said. "When people come to see our work, it can be for entertainment, but you better be enlightened, too.
"That's literally why I do this work."