Eden Strong has been doing theatre since they were around five or six years old. Inspired by their aunt, an artist herself, and “bored with school,” Strong participated in high school productions that eventually inspired them to pursue theatre in college. Now a third-year theatre major at Northwestern, Strong has dedicated themself to making the school’s performing arts scene more inclusive of a diverse student body.
Feeling out of place in a majority-white theatre department, Strong joined together with other junior theatre students to create an affinity space for Black students to build community and foster creativity.
These students were inspired by the work of the African American Theatre Ensemble, which was founded on Northwestern’s campus in 1971 and was dedicated to “producing and performing African American dramatic works.” This theatre board, that was originally a part of STUCO (The Northwestern Student theatre Coalition), featured programming like The Ritual, “an annual production of skits, songs, dance, and poetry” meant to welcome first years and send off seniors, Cafe Noir, an open mic night for Northwestern student performers, and Out Da’ Box, a sketch comedy show written, produced, and performed by the cast, to name a few.
Strong has Northwestern alumni in her family who were part of AATE, and was looking forward to joining when they arrived on campus—only to discover that it was no longer active, and hadn’t been since the early 2010s. Instead of lamenting the void AATE left behind, Strong set out to launch a new organization in its image, a feat which would eventually become the Black Performance Company. It is now the university’s only Black student interest performing arts group.
“Wirtz itself is notoriously white and so is the theatre program,” they said, recalling that there are only a handful of Black people in their whole grade within their major. “I really just wanted a space for Black people to be able to be themselves in performance spaces.”
Strong reached out to Black students within their major to garner interest and eventually brought fellow third-year students Jay Towns, Olivia Pryor, and Maya Schnake on board to bring their idea to fruition. Each member had similar reasons for joining this project, as they are all heavily involved in Northwestern’s theatre department. Pryor, a double major in theatre and statistics, had a similar experience to Strong in that she was made aware of positive alumni experiences with AATE, as she was browsing Facebook and found alumni inquiring about whether AATE was still in operation. Schnake, a theatre and psychology major, cited the turbulent summer of 2020 as her main incentive for getting involved with the Black Performance Company initiative.
“Especially with the Black Lives Matter Movement that’s been gaining traction this past summer, I think it was especially important now to relaunch the group so that Black artists have a space on campus specifically for them to produce their work and work that matters to them with other Black artists,” she said.
Though none of these students expressed outright negative feelings toward or experiences with Northwestern’s theatre department, all of them recognized, as musical theatre major Jay Towns put it, “a gap in a community that doesn’t really have a lot of representation or Black voices being lifted up intentionally.” And he should know — Towns is the only Black male third-year student in his major.
While the Black Performance Company was modeled after AATE, the founding members did acknowledge some changes that needed to be made from its predecessor. By rebranding as the Black performance Company, the members demonstrate their intention to open up the scope of students served by this organization.
“We want to be not just a theatre space, but a performance space…not just a space for African Americans but for all Black people,” Strong said.
Changing the name and exchanging all of the “African American” references in the original AATE mission statement to “Black students” signifies a shift away from being exclusive to Black American theatre students, instead inviting Black performers of all kinds to occupy the space. While talking to the founding board members, it was evident that they intend for BPC to serve the black community first and foremost. In Olivia’s words, “We want it to be a Black space first and a performance space second…We would like it to be about being together, being together through performance.”
Though much of their programming has been negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift towards digital learning, BPC has promising hopes for the future. Some potential events include a reestablishment of Cafe Noir and more mainstage performances including plays and musicals, concerts, dance shows, and script readings by Black students. The founding board placed heavy emphasis on the program being guided by the interests of its members and even intend to step back once the program is on its feet in order to elect a new executive board that is not entirely made up of theatre majors (More information about the executive board elections can be found at the following link: BPC Powerpoint). Evidently, the work of the Black performance company is something to look out for.
If you would like to keep up with the Black performance company’s journey, they can be found on instagram at @blkperformanceco.nu and on twitter at @blackperfco_nu.