Each year, American University recognizes the exceptional achievements of outstanding faculty, students, staff, and alumni through University Awards. This year, Theatre Professor Caleen Jennings has won the first-ever Faculty Award for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
In 2016, Jennings became the founding chair of American University’s President's Council on Diversity and Inclusion (PCDI) at a moment when issues of diversity, inclusion, safety, and equity were challenging AU’s campus and community. “Her vision, patience, perseverance, and collaborative spirit helped transform a series of negative incidents on campus to a productive and proactive conversation, laying the groundwork for the ‘Inclusive Excellence’ initiatives that define American University’s future,” says Andrew Taylor, chair of the Department of Performing Arts.
Under Jennings’ leadership, the PCDI confronted racist incidents, gathered responses to the university’s strategic plan, and met with students to build trust and solve problems. PCDI reviewed all aspects of campus life regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. The group was instrumental in developing a roadmap for diversity and inclusion at AU and getting feedback from constituent groups. In spring 2018, PCDI launched a campus grants program for diversity and inclusion-related projects.
Award-Winning Actor, Director, Playwright
In her 30 years at American University, Jennings has directed for the main stage season and taught 13 different courses in the theatre and general education programs. She is also an actor, director, playwright, and a founding member of The Welders, a DC Playwright's Collective. She received the Heideman Award from the Actor's Theatre of Louisville for her play Classyass; she is a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee for Outstanding New Play; and she won the 2003 award for Outstanding Teaching of Playwriting from the Association of Theatre in Higher Education.
In 1999, Jennings received a grant from the Kennedy Center for her play Inns & Outs. Her play Playing Juliet/Casting Othello was produced at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. Her play Hair, Nails & Dress, was produced by Uprooted Theatre Company of Milwaukee and by the DC Black Theatre Festival. In 2014 she was commissioned by the Kennedy Center to write a stage adaptation of Walter Dean Myers' novel, Darius & Twig.
“Professor Jennings has been a positive and driving force for diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of her work,” says Taylor. “Through her creative work as a playwright, she has explored and expressed issues of identity, history, and social justice, receiving significant publications and performances, as well as multiple awards and nominations.”
Helping Students Develop Their Voices
Jennings has a long history of inclusion, says Taylor. “As a teacher, she has (literally) helped countless students—especially those from historically marginalized communities—find their voice, serving as their acting, voice and speech, playwriting, or general education professor, and through direction of student performances.”
During her very first academic year at AU, Jennings formed the AU African American Actors Ensemble and the AU Multicultural Performing Group. “It was a way to reinforce community, build trust, and get familiar with some of the important campus issues related to diversity and inclusion,” she said.
Over three decades, these groups have performed at dozens of events, both on and off campus. Jennings says she always casts her productions with an eye towards multi-culturalism. In her production of Our Town, she featured families in which the father was white, the mother was black, and the children were Middle Eastern and Asian. Her original play, The Cast, features students of color performing their truths about color, casting, and stereotyping. Her most recent production of Shakespeare's Othello explored issues of race. Jennings also created a performance piece that highlighted diversity, which was performed at Sylvia M. Burwell’s inauguration as president of American University.
An Appreciation of Unsung Champions
During her three decades at AU, Jennings says, she’s had the chance to form meaningful friendships with a wide variety of faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and students.
“I have been fortunate to work with so many people who are deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion at AU,” she says. “I very much admire all the unsung champions, who, in ways big and small, give generously of their time, energy, and hearts to make AU a warm and welcoming community. I am grateful for what they have taught me, and I proud to accept this award in honor of them.”