As the only group on campus that focuses on the work of African American playwrights, Karamu Theater Company offers a unique cultural perspective to the Duke community. Although the group was first started in the 1970s, it went on a brief hiatus and is now looking to make a comeback with its upcoming fall showcase.
Karamu’s mission is to spotlight the original plays written by black students and alums within an integrated system of actors of all races. Student playwright Ashley Diane Long elaborates on the group’s mission when she says, “Karamu gives black playwrights a stage to show their work and to talk openly about what it means to be a black playwright.” Jay O’Berski, Theatre Studies professor and faculty advisor for Karamu, says he was interested in advising because he “desired to mentor black playwrights and directors.” He believes that their plays too often fall through the cracks, and their perspective is sorely missed. In his fifteen years at Duke, O’Berski remarked that he could count on one hand the number of plays directed by black students. Furthermore, he stresses the role that Karamu has in assembling multicultural casts whose actors do not fit the standard drama/theater studies mold. Even though many of the performers are acting for the first time, they bring a fresh set of talents and experiences which liven the stage. Lexia Chadwick, one of three directors, noted that “Karamu wants to produce everything from technical theater to musicals to spoken word so that the art of diverse people can be experienced.”
The showcase will feature two plays: Dark Covers, which is written by Ashley Diane Long and co-directed by Lexia Chadwick and Long, and Serendipity, written by an alumnus and directed by Molly Forlines. Both pieces are completely student-produced, -directed and -acted, highlighting the talent and dedication of the student artists. Dark Covers explores the interplay between race and body image in a world where women are only valued for fitting very specific ideals of outer beauty. One of the unique characteristics of Covers is its emphasis on improvisation. Both Chadwick and Long expressed that they wanted the performers to incorporate some of their own experiences with race and body image into the story. Serendipity, on the other hand, is thematically centered on the experience of being a woman at Duke. Effortless perfection, hookup culture and dissatisfaction over Duke’s dating scene all take center stage and, Forlines and O’Berski say, are treated with an authenticity and honesty one usually doesn’t see. For O’Berski, this authenticity will definitely grip the students’ attention: “the alumnus wrote a very salacious account of Duke Life and it is absolutely reflective of how students really talk, think and treat each other.” Chadwick hopes that the showcase will whet students’ appetite and raise awareness about Karamu’s presence on campus.
A large part of creating this interest, Chadwick explains, is celebrating the work of Duke students, and the ideas that they are passionate about. “I want a really organic environment where students start projects that mean a lot to them. There’s so much talent here, and it’s vital that Karamu focuses on content Duke students can relate to.” Long also echoed the sentiment that students feel trapped in Duke’s bubble, and this idea of confinement is central to the inspiration of both pieces. Moreover, the group’s emphasis on experimenting with new material challenges both performers and playwrights to create something authentic that both speaks to and questions important aspects of the Duke experience. It is exactly this willingness to approach challenging issues in new ways which drew Forlines to Karamu in the first place.
For students in attendance, the directors hope the two plays initiate a vibrant dialogue. Long expects Dark Covers to challenge students not only on how they perceive beauty, but also raise questions about the steps they take to live up to these oppressive standards. Likewise, Forlines believes that Serendipity will stimulate discourse about why women and men are frustrated with various aspects of social life on campus. Above all, the goal is to challenge the normative discourse, and recognize how it disrupts students’ relationship with each other.
Black theatre has always been an integral part of the African American community at Duke, but this weekend, Karamu seeks to share this tradition of excellence with the broader Duke public.
Karamu Theatre Company will be holding its Fall Showcase in Brody Theater on November 2-3 at 8 pm and Nov. 4 at 2 pm.