The American Civil War is the backdrop of Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which plays the Mark Taper Forum April 5–May 15, 2016. But this tale of a slave who must decide whether to fight in the war on the side of the Confederacy also offers insight into racial dynamics and identity issues we live with today.
Theatre students walk into our classrooms with their histories, their cultural identities, and their ideas about race and diversity. How can we have difficult, important discussions with them about these subjects? And how can we create alliances among diverse groups of students? Working with a play like Father Comes Home From the Wars is one way to start necessary discussions. But it is also something we can do on a daily basis.
Which is why I started a conversation on the subject with Los Angeles stage director Leslie Ishii, who has spent many years working to become a change-maker in this area and in honestly identifying her own blind spots and biases. Not only does she direct, but she is also the Diversity Liaison at East West Players, the nation’s premiere Asian-American theatre, and a member of Center Theatre Group’s Teaching Artist Faculty.
“Our society’s sustainability is going to be based on our ability to address equity, inclusion, and access,” Leslie told me. She has spent her whole career conducting research on these subjects. She also brings a personal perspective that is informed by her parents’ and grandparents’ experience of the “gross discrimination through being interned” in camps during World War II.
Before beginning any kind of discussion or activity with students, Leslie always makes sure to set up and conduct a safe space by utilizing discussion guidelines and working to ensure that the room will “hold confidentiality.”
Then, because there are so many different first languages in any given classroom, she introduces non-linguistic exercises to create connections among students, followed by a class discussion regarding their experiences. One such exercise is called “Crossing the Line,” and asks students to self-identify as belonging to certain groups by choosing to walk to one side or another of a line in the middle of the room.
In another exercise, she directs students to toss a ball around a circle until everyone has had a chance to catch it. Then, the pattern has to be repeated. Participants work at making the ball travel around the circle faster and faster, with the leader timing each round. Eventually, Leslie offers the group an extreme challenge: “How can we get the ball around the group, in the same pattern, in four seconds?”
She scaffolds this portion of the exercise by inserting commentary about the diversity of the group and how we all need to work together to solve the problem. She reminds students that their diversity will give them an array of solutions. “Let’s really listen to the ideas of everyone in our group” she’ll advise, or, “We all have good thinking, we come from different places, let’s combine our ideas.”
Leslie has conducted this exercise with all age groups, from elementary students to adults. “Fifth graders usually solve the problem before adults do,” she said.
Which is why she believes that alliance-building has to start with young people.
“Young people have this righteous indignation about fairness. We have to find where they have this power within themselves,” she said. She works in the classroom to help them harness that power and to develop skills in conducting productive communication around topics of race and inclusion.
Storytelling, especially about family or legacy, is one way to start these conversations and build bridges between students. Leslie said that oftentimes, students might not be aware of their legacy, because families haven’t shared the difficulty that they have gone through. It’s too painful, too hard to talk about. Some may believe that by keeping family challenges secret and unspoken, they won’t perpetuate or replicate the situation. But in fact, the opposite happens. Creating awareness and cultivating tools that young people can use to break cycles of oppression and internalized oppression is a major focus of her work. (Leslie suggested the Tools for Change website as a source for other alliance-building approaches.)
Creating a curriculum around analysis of stereotypes in plays, television, film, and the Internet can also be helpful in bringing awareness to young people. (Teaching Tolerance is a great resource for lessons on this topic.) Students are often exposed to racial and cultural stereotypes, but haven’t had the opportunity to examine where these ideas about particular groups come from. For example, they may initially view a stereotypical character from a particular culture—say, an Asian man in a fu manchu characterization—as humorous. However, upon a detailed examination of the character’s historical context, a new perspective on the character emerges. In the case of the Asian man, students end up learning about the pain the Chinese community experienced as a result of extreme mistreatment and racial discrimination during the building of our American railroads.
Focusing on historical context is a large part of Leslie’s work, from the production of Clybourne Park she is directing at UC Irvine, which deals with issues of race and housing in mid-20th-century Chicago, to her work as a teaching artist visiting high school classes before and after they see Father Comes Home From the Wars at the Taper.
One of the exercises she has developed for students to engage with Father Comes Home From the Wars invokes the Underground Railroad.
“As long as people have been slaves, there have been people who want to escape their plight,” she said. These people, from the slaves of the antebellum era to today’s refugees, are “always trying to get to a different place, a place where they can have a life they’ve been dreaming of.” This exercise leads students into the world of Parks’ play by asking them to create routes to their dreams.
In this exercise and others that grapple with similar subjects, Leslie thinks the biggest possible pitfall for educators is not doing too little, but doing too much. “The hard part for a teacher is that they want to help, but they may need to just hold space and watch a student be uncomfortable while they are working out these issues, or making discoveries or cultivating awareness about situations associated with their life,” she said.
She added, “Classroom management means we have to make sure we are not being dominant in ways that replicates colonialism and isms like racism and sexism. All isms are perpetuated and replicated through our lived experiences and societal conditioning which trains biases and blind spots right into us…these permeate our culture in ways that we don’t even know.”
Take the language we use to talk about these issues. I began the conversation with Leslie by asking her to talk about diversity, which she later explained to me was shortchanging the issues. “Saying ‘diversity’ by itself doesn’t necessarily mean we’re inclusive or equitable or giving access,” she said. “The field is realizing, after years of saying ‘diversity,’ that bias and blind spots keep many from still achieving equity, and real inclusion also means access. So we often utilize three terms—inclusion, access, and equity—in order to create real change.”
Ultimately, Leslie believes that teachers can break the cycles of oppression by “dropping the seeds, holding space, and empowering their students to manifest their experiences. They are showing you what they have absorbed.” When students feel safe enough to share their stories, healing and learning soars and they feel “seen” by us educators.