In its second semester since its return to campus, Karamu Theater Company debuts its spring production tonight. “Jada’s Journal” is a show which is part-play, part-musical with sprinklings of spoken word, gospel, rhythm and blues, rap and hip-hop, said sophomore and show producer Lexia Chadwick.
“[The musical centers around] a young girl in middle school from a single parent household whose teacher tries to show her that she could reach her full potential,” Chadwick said.
While its premise may be likened to “The Blind Side” or “Freedom Writers,” “Jada’s Journal” differs from these films in that the “at-risk” youths are helped by someone of their race.
“It offers a novel perspective to a teacher helping a student,” Chadwick said. “Oftentimes we see movies with a white teacher who can’t relate to the minority student but ‘Jada’s Journal’ is different because the teacher, although from a different social class, shares the same culture as the students.”
The musical draws on the experiences of the show’s playwright, Nnenna Ukwu, who spent two years at a Bronx middle school through Teach for America. Much like Jada’s teacher in her play, Ukwu had to step outside of the box in order to get the attention of her students.
“I had to break beyond some of the traditional boundaries of the teacher-student relationship while still maintaining the respect that was necessary to teach and maintain [order] in the classroom,” she said.
In creating Jada and her friends and schoolmates, Ukwu sought to mold characters who were teens with personalities, rather than problematic youths, which she said contradicts the trend in similar literary works.
“I want to present them as teenagers who are dealing with some issues but are not defined by them,” she explained. “I’m trying to humanize [these students] and show that they are ordinary people like you and me.”
Graduating from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in theater studies with a concentration in performance, Ukwu wrote her first play for an undergraduate playwriting class. Entitled “Father’s Mother” (which she noted is the meaning of her first name in Igbo), the play was produced her senior year and Ukwu both directed and acted in the production.
“Jada’s Journal,” her second play, was written as a master’s thesis when Ukwu decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in musical theater writing from New York University. While she crafted the dialogue, Ukwu said the musical elements of the production are the result of her collaboration with Robert Eldrige-Waks, a Columbia graduate and fellow student. In addition to examining race, “Jada’s Journal” looks at the issue of class and the divisive nature it can at times play in the black community, as evidenced in the teacher’s interactions with the school’s janitor and Jada’s mother.
Karamu is unique among Duke’s theater groups in that it focuses on the works of black dramatists. Ukwu noted that, though primarily in the underground scene, the world of black playwrights is flourishing.
“I hope it’s just a matter of time before it all breaks out into the mainstream,” Ukwu said.
She added that there still exists an element of “second-class citizen” culture in explaining the tendency to separate “black theater” and “theater” as separate genres, yet Ukwu believes that others are still searching for alternative narratives.
“You don’t want every story to be the story of the struggle of being Black,” Ukwu said. “‘Jada’s Journal’ is about the struggle of growing up.”
And in that sense “Jada’s Journal” should be able to resonate with Duke students regardless of their background.
“It’s important to have performers who can relate to [the Duke community] regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, gender or sexual identity,” Chadwick said.
She said that many can relate to Jada, who deals with common issues ranging from interacting with her single mother to relationship trouble with a longtime boyfriend. In addition the musical has a diverse cast that Chadwick said mirrors the diversity of Duke. Yet she noted that it may raise questions of whether Duke is diverse enough, particular where its faculty is concerned.
Ukwu hopes that people who see the musical will gain a better understanding of inner-city education and start a dialogue about finding a solution to some of the problems.
“I hope they see it as a place of hope, not as the hopelessness that it is often portrayed as,” Ukwu said.
"Jada’s Journal" runs tonight, April 19, and Sat., April 20 at 7 p.m. as well as Sun., April 21 at 2 p.m. in East Duke 209. Admission is free.
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