AU THEATRE PROFESSOR CALEEN JENNINGS uses the stage and the classroom to dissect some of the most important social issues of the day.
“After 400 years, we are back to square one,” is the core message of her groundbreaking one-woman performance video titled Hands Up, a powerful and poetic exploration of the police shootings of African American teenagers, and what she calls the illusion that we have made racial progress in America.
Jennings crafted her piece in response to recent police shootings and the nationwide demonstrations that followed. Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter movement, and seeing images of protesters marching with their hands raised with open palms, she began to consider all the things we do with our hands: pray, sew, bake pies, fist bump, text, and type. In Hands Up, she notes that African American hands “sewed freedom quilts” and “jazzed up the Charleston.” They “held Harriet Tubman’s rifle” and mirrored Angela Davis’s “clenched fist held high.” Hands reached out across race to “touch and embrace willing hands of white, yellow, brown, and red,” to sing as one voice, “We Shall Overcome.”
But now, “I don’t know what to do with my hands,” Jennings says in the piece. “My hands have forgotten their story, their agency, their glory.”
Meanwhile, Jennings is hoping to use her hands in order to build a community in her classroom. “The theatre and the classroom are two of the last places in society where you get to listen to, learn from, and engage with people who come from different cultures and hold different points of view. I want to make my classroom a safe space to do that.”
This fall, in the AU Scholars Program, Jennings is teaching a course combining William Shakespeare and Pulitzer Prize-winning African American playwright August Wilson. Jennings said that she will teach Shakespeare and Wilson as if they are in conversation with each other. In the course, students will write, direct, and perform while drawing inspiration from the two master playwrights.
Jennings also premiered three new projects. Overture provides new AU students the opportunity to debut their talents to the theatre community in the area. Queens Girl in the World premiered mid-September at Theater J and is a coming of age story about a young girl who leaves her predominately black neighborhood for a predominantly Jewish high school, followed by an international school in Nigeria, and lastly, a college in Vermont.
Finally, her play Darius & Twig, commissioned by The Kennedy Center, ran from October 30 through November 8. The play is a stage adaptation of Walter Dean Myers's book, which tells the story of two young men growing up in Harlem. Jennings said of the piece, “I hope to do justice to Walter Dean Myers's beautiful writing. I hope to show the smart, creative, and tender sides of these young men—a side we rarely see reflected in the media.”
To see the Hands Up video, go to www.youtube.com/watchv=HDUS3O8H9DU