New POC Ole Theater Ensemble provides space to celebrate, share identities
“How can my words matter? How can my energy matter to something?”
These are questions that St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Theater Michelle Gibbs has been considering as she develops the new POC Ole Theater Ensemble, which uses theater as a tool to restore racialized ethnic identities. Through collaboration with people of color (POC) on campus, Gibbs is focusing on dialogical and restorative practices that will be used as “a restorative way to process our identities and our own ways of being that we present to the world.”
In graduate school, Gibbs spent years researching and analyzing “essentialist notions of blackness.” She learned about how the African American community uses theater to “save the race,” and her immediate thought was to start a theater company. This not only supports her research, but it also makes an impact on the black community by creating an environment where students can grow as well.
“Rarely are there spaces made for black and brown students to tell their stories, and so I’d like to change that,” Gibbs says. The POC Ole Theater Ensemble gives students the opportunity to tell their stories, while exploring and reflecting on their own identities and cultural practices.
Rarely are there spaces made for black and brown students to tell their stories, and so I’d like to change that.Assistant Professor of Theater Michelle Gibbs
The ensemble’s first production was held in early October, and members performed a staged reading of Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimkè. This play uses the stage as a platform to shed light on racism and discrimination toward people of color. Gibbs wants to combat these “factions that want to split us apart” by utilizing this collective unit and “making the black bodies’ presence known in effective ways.”
As she thought more about the purpose of the ensemble, her vision shifted slightly. Gibbs realized she wanted to have a more inclusive collaboration geared toward POC rather than just the black community. However, her core practices are still rooted in black acting methods. Connecting ideas from the New Negro Movement, practices on restoring the spirit, and method processes, Gibbs believes the POC Ole Theater Ensemble initiative has the power to accomplish these goals.
“I am wanting to tailor the initiative to what I feel are the needs of POCs at St. Olaf. I don’t want to speak for anyone, but right now I need radical self-care with some community restorative practices that can help me think about how I process,” Gibbs says.
Gibbs received funding to support the POC Ole Theater Ensemble from the college’s To Include is To Excel initiative, which aims to transform curriculum and teaching practices for new generations of students, and the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion. “My spirit is calling for this work to happen,” she says.
The To Include is To Excel grant gives Gibbs two years to get the POC Ole Theater Ensemble on its feet and the budget to do a performance every semester. Her long-term goals for this project include bringing in a guest speaker to host workshops for the final semester of 2021. Through this, she hopes to bring many departments across the college into a conversation geared toward racialized ethnic communities.
While Gibbs wants to foster a safe community for Oles of color where they can have open conversations to share their journeys and identities, she also notes that this ensemble isn’t just for students. Gibbs voices how she, too, has to be restored in order to “guide and impact them in ways to benefit their lives going forward.”
“My spirit is exhausted here,” she explains. “I don’t feel like there are enough places on campus — for black faculty in particular — to be restored.”
The POC Ole Theater Ensemble aims to provide an environment where people of color on campus feel their voices are heard. Gibbs views POC Ole Theater as an opportunity to build and cultivate an atmosphere of support and respect.
Eugene Sandel Jr. ’22 says his experience as a member of the POC Ole Theater Ensemble has been really valuable, and he feels at home when he’s around other members.
“They can understand, sympathize, and relate to my experiences as a POC,” says Sandel, a music major who enjoys participating in theater. “Sometimes, being on such a white campus can feel isolating, especially for me because of my major. Music and theater are very white-dominated fields, and being in a space that was created as a haven for students of color lifts a part of my spirit with joy that I don’t know I’d be able to find elsewhere.”
Music and theater are very white-dominated fields, and being in a space that was created as a haven for students of color lifts a part of my spirit with joy that I don’t know I’d be able to find elsewhere.Eugene Sandel ’22
Sandel loves the fact that this ensemble offers flexible rehearsals, allowing him to still be involved despite his busy schedule. “Theater has always been a part of my life, and being able to do shows that are specifically geared toward POC is a completely new and exhilarating experience,” he says.
The core part of this program is the rehearsal time for the ensemble. “I want to use rehearsal time to try theater methodologies that support that restoration and tell one’s story from a vantage point that requires vocalization, physical movement, and bringing their whole selves to the surface,” says Gibbs.
These expressive mediums are important to restore because these are the students who are often being silenced and come from marginalized communities. “We are told our stories and past doesn’t matter and there’s nothing you can do about the past. We code switch so we’re not seen as dangerous or to be taken serious,” Gibbs explains.
She wants to utilize the experience to inform students, help them reflect about their identities, and teach them not to conform themselves for white people. Her intention was never to work within “white frameworks.” She really wants participants of the ensemble to build trust with one another, be vulnerable, and “find plays that will articulate our vulnerability and also not try to make white people feel safe.” Gibbs notes, “We aren’t married to what white audiences expect of us.”
The performances offer members of the POC Ole Theater Ensemble an opportunity to share their findings with the Ole community; however, that is not the primary focus of the ensemble. Gibbs really wants to harness the energy of rehearsals and processes, and hopes that people don’t look at the ensemble as a variety show. Rather, the ensemble is a group of diverse and minoritized people who celebrate race and share their identities.
Gibbs has not only found this work restorative, but also rewarding. Because the POC Ole Theater Ensemble is a program supported by the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion, Gibbs hopes to create a shared relationship that’s mutually inclusive and can serve the Theater Department and Taylor Center.
The only challenge she sees going forward is certain racialized communities feeling like they can’t be a part of the POC Ole Theater Ensemble. She’s hoping that students don’t turn away from the ensemble just because she uses certain methods from different ethnic groups. Regardless of the methodologies she uses, they are open to all students. Gibbs is finding ways to “create inclusive pedagogies that can serve all.” As a result of this, she hopes students will take this further and sustain the core values of the ensemble.
The ensemble performed Jean Genet’s existential classic, The Maids, during the final week of January. During rehearsals for the production, members of the ensemble engaged in “creative play, movement, embodiment exercises contextualized through African diasporic, and ethnic theater frameworks,” says Gibbs. Their goal “is to build an acting practice that includes recognizing the actors’ ethnic and cultural identities as part of the process.”
Another overall goal for the ensemble is for it to continue long after Gibbs. “I hope students will be excited enough to take this approach in another direction and that it becomes student-run,” she says. “We need more groups that celebrate race and ethnicity as its own unique cultural community.”
We need more groups that celebrate race and ethnicity as its own unique cultural community.Assistant Professor of Theater Michelle Gibbs