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Culture as drama: Interterm class mixes urban experience and the arts

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by Cari Holliday

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Before students can graduate from Bethel College, they must fulfill the cross-cultural learning requirement, which often takes them off campus into the wider community to study other cultures and have experiences outside the comfort zone.

This past January, Ami Regier, professor of English, offered Studies in Drama, which fulfills not only the General Education requirement for literature but also for cross-cultural learning.

After two weeks in the classroom reading culturally diverse plays that deal with issues such as gentrification and the plight of the farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley, we traveled to Chicago to attend some dramas and experience a different, urban environment.

One main focus of the trip was to understand better how urban spaces, with numerous cross-cultural interactions, can function as drama. Another was to study the structures of multicultural drama and how they differ from traditional Western, Aristotelian dramatic structure. To gain insight into these issues, we attended a variety of plays and met with people at several different community theaters and companies.

One recurring sentiment expressed in those meetings was refusal to accept “art for art’s sake.” In many of the talkback sessions after plays – where we were able to meet the cast – and in our meetings with theater companies, most agreed that theater should be used as an agent of change, to make a strong political or social statement. We saw this attempt in all the dramas and musicals we attended, although their messages were radically different.

The play bare, performed at the Bailiwick, was subversive in its portrayal of two Catholic schoolboys who fall in love, contrary to all the church’s teachings. We also saw Aquí Estoy by Albany Park Theater Project, which deals with the divisive effects of immigration and how ridiculous it is that having a nine-digit number (a Social Security number) should determine one’s success and opportunities in life.

We also went to the Black Ensemble Theater and saw the lighter, crowd-pleasing musical Sounds So Good Makes You Wanna Holler. It depicted an interactive contest between two musical groups – an older group that sang Motown hits and a young hip-hop group. This experience was valuable because it brought together a diverse audience, in age and race, to enjoy and appreciate each other’s music.

In addition to attending plays and visiting theater groups, we also went to presidential candidate Barack Obama’s home church, Trinity United Church of Christ on the far South Side of Chicago, a mega-church with a predominately African-American congregation.

Kimberly Schmidt, a senior from Wichita, said, “I appreciated going to Barack Obama’s church during this crucial campaign time.” Other students also expressed their excitement at being able to get a closer look into one of this election’s most publicized candidates. Many students were impressed by Trinity UCC’s emphasis on social justice. The class left feeling more involved in the upcoming election.

Overall, this class taught us more than just about multi-cultural drama. For many of the students, it was the first time to visit a large city. Together we learned how to navigate public transportation, which was in itself an empowering experience for many of us.

Other students in the Studies in Drama class who took the Chicago trip were Brittany Dirksen, freshman from Goessel, Justine Erb, freshman from Henderson, Neb., Amy Flax, freshman from Brownell, Megan Fowler, freshman from La Junta, Colo., Rachel Gaeddert, freshman from Larned, Lindsay Geisler, freshman from Leonardville, Clint Harris, freshman from Manhattan, Andrea Kaufman, junior from Harrisburg, S.D., Kate Larson, senior from Clay Center, Raechel Lockhart, freshman from Blue Rapids, Hannah Massey, freshman from Valley Center, Bradley McKellip, sophomore from Newton, Anna Quiring, freshman from Newton, Leanne Reimer, sophomore from Hesston, Diana Rempel, sophomore from Littleton, Colo., Kim Schmidt, senior from Wichita, Alison Schmidt-Tieszen, freshman from Newton, and Kristin Wedel, senior from Hutchinson.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

Cari Holliday is a senior from Andover, majoring in English and Spanish.

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View photos from the trip.

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