'A Soldier’s Play' brings murder mystery to life on ASU stage
Award-winning Broadway play comes to Gammage May 16–21
May 2, 2023
Set in 1944 at Fort Neal, Louisiana, a segregated all African American Army base during World War II, “A Soldier’s Play” is a murder mystery that follows the investigation into the murder of a soldier on the base. The play explores this man’s past and his complicated relationships with his white superiors and fellow African American soldiers.
In an investigation where suspects include members of the Klu Klux Klan, highly respected white military officers and even other African American soldiers, the lead investigator, Capt. Davenport, an African American Army officer, must sort through conflicting testimonies and sparse evidence to find out whodunit and, more importantly, why.
“It's an interesting insight into the African American experience in the United States segregated Army in the 1940s. These African American soldiers were anxious to go to battle with the hope that when they came back from fighting that democracy would live up to its promise to no longer treat them as second- or third-class citizens,” said cast member Eugene Lee. “But the play is also about self-hate within a culture and racism in the segregated Army.”
Davenport ultimately reveals the complex relationships and racial tensions between the African American soldiers and white officers, and how racism affects the soldiers’ daily lives all while unraveling a dark truth about the lengths people will go to defend their truth.
Lee portrays Sgt. Vernon Waters, who plays a key role in the investigation. Waters is an older, by-the-book Army man who has extremely high and often unrealistic expectations for his subordinates.
“He really isn't a well-liked guy, but he’s someone who wanted to see the Black race thrive and succeed, especially in the Army,” Lee said. “Sgt. Waters, as he's portrayed by pretty much everyone who talks about him, is a spit-and-polish soldier, and that's what he wanted all of his recruits to be as well — spit-and-polish, perfect soldiers.”
This isn’t Lee’s first time performing in “A Soldier’s Play." He portrayed Corporal Bernard Cobb in the original cast in 1981 when it was staged off Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company. He starred alongside actors like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson.
“It's a wonderfully well-written, poetic, nuanced play, and the history that I've had with it really kind of gives me an interesting insight into trying to portray this character with some clarity and maturity. I know I am 40 years older than I was when I first did this play. And I've lost count of the number of plays I've done over those 40 years. So, I’ve come full circle with this in a way,” Lee said.
“A Soldier’s Play” isn’t the only thing Lee is once again returning to. He, alongside other performers from the Negro Ensemble Company, came to ASU to work on a performance with former ASU theater and film Professor Gus Edwards during the '80s. Lee said he remembers the experience fondly and is “excited to be back in Tempe."
Even though the play takes place in a time nearly 80 years ago, there are many themes that still exist today, and through the tense scenes and hard-hitting dialogues, there are moments of genuine camaraderie that are filled with music and laughter.
“This play is what I call the truth, told with clarity, and the truth doesn't change. And so many of the truths about what was happening in the segregated Army in 1944 are still true,” Lee said. "(The audience is) gonna meet characters that are familiar to them. They're gonna see their uncle, they're gonna see your cousin, they're gonna see themselves, they're gonna see their parents and the challenges that they have had to deal with. Whether they're African American or not, they’re gonna get some insight into the human condition.”
Eugene Lee (center) and the cast of the national tour of "A Soldiers Play."
Photo by Joan Marcus
The cast of the national tour of "A Soldiers Play" performs on stage.
Earlier this year, the Arizona Board of Regents formally approved a plan to create two new schools in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts: the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and The New American Film School. The two new schools take the place of the former School of Film, Dance and Theatre and the former School of Music. Four actors appear in a 2016 production of "She Kills Monsters," produced by the theater program in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Photo by Tim Trumble. Download Full Image
The downtown Phoenix location will serve as the home of ASU’s newly launched popular music program, the first popular music bachelor’s degree in the state. The film program will be housed in the new state-of-the-art facilities in Mesa.
The new School of Music, Dance and Theatre is defined by some of the top faculty in the world, in all three of its disciplines, Tepper said, and “embraces a spirit of collaboration and a push for innovation, while remaining committed to craft and practice.”
“Our aim with the new School of Music, Dance and Theatre is to create a dynamic, collaborative unit that respects what each of the disciplinary faculties has achieved individually,” Tepper said, “while inviting the faculty to think together to leverage their resources, talents and reputation.”
Heather Landes, formerly the director of the School of Music, has stepped into the new position of director of the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. Landes served as director of the School of Music for the past eight years and prior to that was associate dean of students for the Herberger Institute.
Under Landes’ leadership, the School of Music has seen growing diversity among its faculty and students, the launch of new degrees in musicology, conducting and popular music, minors in music performance and musical theater, certificates in music theory pedagogy and music entrepreneurship, more than $25 million in philanthropic gifts, the formation of the Gospel Choir and the Philharmonia, and an increased commitment to community engagement and social embeddedness.
“I’m eager to work with faculty and staff in music, dance and theater on the design and evolution of a new type of school, one that is inclusive at its core, with extraordinary opportunities for students, new forms of creative expression, and powerful ways to engage our communities," Landes said. "Together, we can combine our strengths in production and design, devising and creating new work, collaborative performance, education and more to build new multidisciplinary projects and support the music, dance and theater of the region.”
New faculty in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre include Erin Barra, director of the new popular music program.Barra is one of eight new faculty who joined the school this fall.
Last year, the film program at ASU was ranked among the top 25 film bachelor’s degree programs in the nation. Tepper said that over the course of the next two years, The New American Film School will seek to operate across three cities as the institute opens the new facilities in Mesa and Los Angeles.
Jason Davids Scott is serving as interim director of the new school. Scott is an associate professor of film and served as an assistant director in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre. Scott has been a key driver, along with faculty colleagues, in the growth and development of the institute’s top 25 film program.
“The school is dedicated to finding and supporting new creative voices that are fully representative of the nation’s growing diversity,” Scott said. “We are assembling a team focused on building the most dynamic, diverse and technology empowered film and media production program possible, with the goal of quadrupling the number of film industry partnerships and relationships and building significant philanthropic support for this program.”
“A film school focuses on the making of film as a creative art, with its own technical language, professional practices and histories of practice and creativity,” said Tiffany López, vice provost designee for inclusion and community engagement at ASU and professor in the new school. “ASU’s New American Film School will be the most egalitarian film school in the U.S. because of its foundations in our charter and its focus on access and inclusion. The growth of our faculty and curriculum over the past several years illustrates our honoring of the charter and its design principles.”
Recent film faculty hires include two-time Emmy award winning writer and producer Peter Murrieta, best known for his Emmy Award-winning work as head writer and executive producer on the Disney Channel sitcom “Wizards of Waverly Place,” and currently working on the hit Netflix series “Mr. Iglesias.”
Tepper said that working groups are helping determine the structures, programs and resources necessary for everyone in both the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and The New American Film School to thrive.
“We are advancing new degrees with access to new spaces and technologies that will prepare our graduates to thrive in the growing creative economy,” Tepper said. “Our new schools position us well to navigate these exciting changes and opportunities.”
Arizona Wellbeing Commons conference finds answers for COVID-19, hope for future
October 15, 2020
After battling on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic most of the year, Arizona’s health care community paused on Oct. 9 to evaluate what we’ve learned about COVID-19, what challenges are yet to come and how best to work together for greater success. Approximately 300 health care professionals, researchers, policymakers and others gathered virtually for the fourth annual Arizona Wellbeing Commons event, which focused on the coronavirus pandemic.
Arizona Wellbeing Commons brings scientists, clinicians and partners together in a powerful network of researchers to tackle the health issues that impact well-being in the state. This initiative, which includes Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, has created a community of collaboration to find successful answers for our most pressing health issues — such as cancer, dementia, mental health and obesity. ASU's Joshua LaBaer (left) and journalist Jude LaCava speak at the fourth annual Arizona Wellbeing Commons conference on Oct. 9. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASUDownload Full Image
Bringing together multiple points of view enables solutions that are as multifaceted as the problems themselves. The current challenge of COVID-19 has highlighted the power of collaboration even more.
Though the scope of the virus’s impact is vast, the research community has answered the call by sharing resources to increase testing, distribute personal protective equipment, understand how the virus works, treat those affected, predict how the virus will react and travel, search for a safe and effective vaccine, evaluate the social and economic effects of social distancing, and help schools and businesses find ways to continue operating.
“The Arizona Wellbeing Commons was created to help researchers in Arizona connect with one another to build collaborations and achieve greater results. Now that COVID-19 has limited our routine interactions, it is more important than ever to come together at this virtual annual conference to learn about what is happening in our community,“ said Joshua LaBaer, conference leader and executive director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.
LaBaer compared the group to a swarm; just as bees can do more together than they could individually, so it is for scientists working toward a healthier Arizona.
“In order for us to accomplish things, we need to work together,” said LaBaer, who is also a professor in ASU's School of Molecular Sciences.
What we know about COVID-19
“We are living in the age of epidemics,” noted Tara O’Toole, executive vice president and senior fellow at In-Q-Tel, in the keynote address. “We should not be surprised when epidemics appear, and we should be more prepared to deal with them.”
O’Toole, an expert in epidemic and pandemic response and preparedness, directs B.Next, In-Q-Tel’s initiative devoted to identifying and accelerating biotechnologies that could help detect, manage and quash epidemics of infectious disease. She shared an overview of what the scientific community has learned about COVID-19 in her address.
For example, instances of a large number of people being infected at the same time, which she called superspreading events, play a significant role in the spread of COVID-19. Only 10%-20% of those infected cause 80%-90% of cases of the disease.
It’s also clear that Black, Hispanic and American Indian populations are disproportionately affected by the virus, with higher numbers of infections and hospitalizations.
“Epidemics always cause social, economic and political disruption to various degrees,” she said, in particular by exacerbating existing societal stresses.
Looking toward the future, the public health community’s concerns for the winter include the possibility of a “twindemic” with the flu and increased spread due to holiday travel and gatherings. A vaccine opportunity may be available by next spring, but O’Toole cautioned that it could take years to deliver it throughout the U.S., let alone the world. Further complicating these efforts is a lowered confidence in vaccines.
“The intrusion of politics has eroded people’s trust in whether a vaccine will work,” said Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative Regents Professor George Poste, who moderated a Q&A with O’Toole.
To earn back that trust and boost vaccine confidence, O’Toole said, the public health community must be extraordinarily transparent about vaccines, increase awareness of misinformation campaigns, work with doctors to communicate with patients and lead a public information campaign.
But an even longer view is needed to be truly proactive, O’Toole argued. COVID-19 will not be the world’s last pandemic. Recent advances in technology, such as data collection, diagnostic tests and vaccine development, can be put to our advantage.
For example, it’s known that pandemics originate when microbes spill over from animals to humans. (A bat or pangolin is suspected as the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.) The process of animal disease developing and then being introduced to humans is a long one, however. O’Toole suggested using this delay and our available technology to identify as many coronaviruses in the wild as possible, create antibodies for them, and store samples of the viruses and their antibodies so that we have them at the ready if needed.
The state of the state’s coronavirus research
In his address to conference attendees, Arizona Board of Regents Chair Larry Penley praised the efforts of the state’s three public universities to combat COVID-19. He called out UArizona’s 13 teams working on different aspects of the virus; NAU’s study of its different strains; and ASU’s efforts to model its spread and adaptations. He also lauded their collaboration to offer COVID-19 testing to the public, as well as their dedication to continue providing education despite today’s new obstacles to teaching and learning.
“Thank you for what you’re doing,” Penley said. “Keep at it.”
Throughout the daylong conference, researchers from across Arizona shared their efforts, findings and recommendations in areas ranging from diagnosis, treatment and prevention options to public health policy to healthy lifestyles and mental health.
Efrem Lim, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences and researcher in the Biodesign Institute, reported that the “viruses, immunity, microbiomes and infectious disease” division of the Wellbeing Commons was the first in the state to sequence the virus’s genome. The group is now monitoring virus mutations across the state.
Brenda Hogue, professor in the School of Life Sciences and researcher in the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, presented on her laboratory’s work to develop a platform that can build vaccine-like particles, which could mimic the virus in a vaccine without introducing the live virus.
Lim noted that there is much concern in the virology community about misinformation about a future vaccine, and that this group could be a resource for the public to find reliable information.
David Sklar, a professor in the College of Health Solutions, praised the public health successes of rapid testing, improved collaboration between hospitals, improvements in telemedicine and citizen activism for measures such as mask mandates. He also noted that the immediacy of the pandemic has taken focus away from other important public health issues. Going forward, he recommended the public health community not only continue their efforts around COVID-19 (including growing recognition of complications related to the disease), but also emphasize other pressing health crises like climate and heat, vulnerable populations, violence and guns, health policy and legal issues, and women’s health issues.
College of Health Solutions professors Stavros Kavouras and Dorothy Sears emphasized that preventing disease is the key to fighting COVID-19 — and a healthy lifestyle plays a significant part in that. One practical step?
“Go outside and walk,” said Kavouras, for socially distant exercise with a vitamin D benefit.
Sears spoke about how diabetes and obesity are both risk factors for severe forms of the disease; successfully addressing them not only improves well-being but lessens risk of severe COVID-19. Kavouras observed that the ACE-2 receptor, a protein that provides entry for the coronavirus, is expressed in the body more when a person is dehydrated. He said supporting data is still needed, but that it is possible that dehydration could be one factor in catching the disease.
“From the work that’s been done by each of you, I derive a sense of hope for Arizona, our country and for the globe.” — Arizona Board of Regents Chair Larry Penley
Athena Aktipis, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Biodesign Institute researcher, presented her project, “Cooperation in the apocalypse,” a longitudinal study of how cooperation changes during the pandemic. Her team has been collecting data from around the world since early March. So far, she has found an increase in feelings of interdependence — the belief that we rise and fall together — in the general populace, but especially among those with preexisting medical conditions.
Looking toward the future, Davis and Corbin believe that mental health researchers and practitioners should focus on studying how COVID-19 affects people emotionally, providing mental health services to first responders, and acknowledging other sources of stress, such as social or political stress.
Rita Sattler, associate professor at the Barrow Neurological Institute, and Jason Newbern, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, said that studying the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the nervous system is important, but that this research is still in its early days. One important insight is that SARS-CoV-2 affects the central nervous system, causing inflammation that then affects the vascular system. Young people who experience a stroke, they said, should be tested for COVID-19 as a potential cause.
Richard Gerkin, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, spoke about his research on smell perception in the brain and how it relates to COVID-19 — a known symptom of which is loss of smell. He conducted a survey to figure out how people’s experience of smell changes specific to COVID-19 versus other illnesses. This allowed him to create a clinical scale, dubbed ODoR-19, that determines the odds ratio of a patient having COVID-19.
“If you want to figure out if it’s COVID-19 or another respiratory illness, check smell loss,” Gerkin said.
Biodesign Institute researchers Professor Karen Anderson and Associate Professor Carlo Maley of the School of Life Sciences gave updates on the latest in cancer research. Cancer expertise, Anderson argued, can also inform our understanding of COVID-19. For example, cancer immunotherapy studies T-cells, and scientists could use that information to help understand how T-cells recognize mutations of SARS-CoV-2. She also stressed the importance of continuing cancer research, saying that although COVID-19 has become the No. 3 killer disease in the U.S., it has not surpassed cancer.
In that vein, Maley described his vision of applying agricultural pest management techniques to cancer prevention. Farmers know that some pests are more resistant to pesticides than others, so to keep the resistant ones in check, they help the more sensitive pests outcompete the resistant pests. Then, using minimal pesticide later allows for maximum population control. This method, he proposed, might also work for controlling cancer cells, some of which are more resistant to treatment than others.
Tamara Underiner, associate professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre and associate dean in the Graduate College, reported for the Wellbeing Commons’ newest division, “culture, arts, design and humanities in health.” She pointed to the ability of the arts to promote social cohesion, fight isolation, improve mental health, manage chronic illness and even reduce pain. During the pandemic, the arts have become crucial as people seek creative outlets to cope while staying at home. This unique time presents an opportunity to study the impact of digital arts, she said, since much of our consumption of and participation in the arts has moved to a digital medium. She urged that researchers should also study how the arts can specifically support those with COVID-19.
“Especially in COVID-19, really over the past 10 years, we’re beginning to understand how important the arts are to health and well-being, that the arts are no longer just something nice that you add on after taking care of essentials,” Underiner said. “They’re increasingly a necessity.”
Though the conference was centered around finding answers for the coronavirus in Arizona, attendees left with more than fresh ideas and connections for addressing the current crisis. A focus toward the future throughout the event not only emphasized the need to prepare now for the next pandemic, but also renewed the public health community’s resolve to continue their important work in other areas of physical and mental well-being.
“Out of the challenges of this time, what we really need to call on ourselves for is a sense of hope,” Penley said. “To me, the work that we’re doing at our three universities provides a sense of hope. This conference provides a sense of hope. From the work that’s been done by each of you, I derive a sense of hope for Arizona, our country and for the globe.”
Videos produced by Grace Clark Media.
The Arizona Wellbeing Commons conference was sponsored by the Arizona Biomedical Research Centre, a unit of the Arizona Department of Health Services.
A Sun Devil leads the way for change by helping to create an anti-racist dance world
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.
For many people, dance is a form of escape. The sweat-soaked physicality of the art offers the freedom to temporarily forget. For dancer, choreographer and activist J. Bouey, ’14 BFA in dance, dance is healing. It’s doing the uncomfortable work to confront trauma head on.
For Bouey, dance is the vessel for breakthroughs. It’s a way of dealing with the constant pain of being a Black person in America.
Healing is a recurring theme for Bouey, who is a member of the world-renowned, New York-based dance troupe Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.
Bouey’s latest choreographic work, “Chiron in Leo” — originally set to premiere before the pandemic struck — centers on mental health, generational trauma and healing the inner child.
Bouey, who prefers they/them pronouns, is also the founder and co-host with Melanie Greene of The Dance Union Podcast and platform, a community hyperfocused on healing within the dance world itself. Since launching over two years ago, the platform has convened a steadily growing audience of creatives of color, all eager to create a more equitable and just landscape for all dancers.
A love for dance
Bouey’s passion for abolishing oppression in all forms began at a young age.
Their mother was involved in a nurse’s union at the Los Angeles County Hospital and their father was a community organizer. Growing up in South Central L.A. and later Phoenix and Chandler, Bouey found an early love for dance, performing with step and hip-hop teams. At 15, they decided it was possible to make a career out of it.
A full ride to ASU led them to the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Bouey originally studied dance education, but when Ashleigh Leite, a postmodern contemporary dance professor, told them they could make it as a performer, they switched majors.
After graduating in 2014, Bouey left for New York — the epicenter of concert dance — determined to build a career as a performer.
Life as a professional dancer
Making a lasting career in dance has become ever more challenging for aspiring dancers and even seasoned choreographers. As governments, from federal to local, continue to cut arts funding, long-standing dance companies have dwindled and audiences continue to shrink. The traditional model — landing a full-time spot with a company — is not viable for most.
Many turn to freelancing, which means dancing, teaching, choreographing and building a social media presence, all while working other nondance jobs to afford New York’s cost of living.
“It’s a field that makes it really hard for anybody who’s Black and does not have financial support from mom and dad,” Bouey said.
Freelancers must also fund their own training to keep their bodies in top-notch shape. Many don’t have health insurance. In some dance companies, a lack of diversity and hostile environment for Black and other performers of color can make it even harder to succeed.
“I started to find community in the struggle, the struggle of being a freelance dance artist, which was to essentially be like an indie music artist or any kind of artist without real management support,” Bouey said.
Despite the hardships, they persevered, quickly building a name. From 2015 to 2017, they performed as an apprentice under Artistic Director Tiffany Rea-Fisher with modern company Elisa Monte Dance — launched nearly 40 years ago by a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Before landing a spot with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, they also danced with groups including the project-based AntonioBrownDance and MBDance, a company centering the experiences of queer people of color.
They won residencies and fellowships that provided funding, space and time to develop work, and showed their original choreography about healing in well-known performance spaces, including New York Live Arts and Gibney Dance.
Bouey also worked to make dance more accessible to Black and brown communities by teaching at Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx and other schools. But still, they wanted to do more.
The Dance Union
Having learned the business side from other dancers and through trial and error, Bouey wanted to share what they learned. This sparked the idea for a grassroots education system — a free podcast called The Dance Union — focused on ensuring that dancers of all ages have the necessary tools to make it.
The podcast also tackles topics that were floating around among other dancers who are Black, Indigenous and non-Black people of color — tokenism, hostile environments, toxic masculinity, the need for a union and what reparations would look like in dance.
It became “a hub and a space to amplify the voices of folks who already have a megaphone and are making really radical and bold choices and change,” said Greene.
In addition to the podcast, when the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd forced a reckoning over systemic racism in institutions, ranging from academia to the arts, Bouey moved quickly. They planned a virtual space to process, grieve and express anger centering the perspectives of Black dancers. The town halls offered a platform for artists to speak both about failings and about ways to build a more inclusive future. With more than 10,000 views, others have been learning as well, and The New York Times wrote about the work.
Creating space for tough subjects is one of Bouey’s strengths, Greene said. “It’s been a blessing to actually have someone in my life that is modeling a type of vulnerability and courage and growth, creating a very hospitable environment for that loving and learning to actually happen.”
A topic that has come up often since the podcast started in 2018 and now in the town halls is white supremacy in dance. It shows up through implicit racism in dance education — the idea that Eurocentric ballet is the foundation of all dance technique, Bouey said. The hyperfocus on ballet often means the contributions of dancemakers of color throughout history are sidelined.
On the podcast, Bouey, Greene and others in the community could dream up a more inclusive education that gave the same reverence to dance styles from the Black diaspora and other ethnic groups.
Bouey points out other ways that white supremacy shows up in dance: “not allowing trans and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary folks to live in their full expression in dance … not letting children who are of trans experience, nonbinary or nonconforming experience really be fully supported within the studios and education process.”
The conversations on The Dance Union Podcast, in the town halls and on social media platforms were about shifting the dance community from being “not racist,” which is a passive state of being, to anti-racist — acknowledging complicity in white supremacy and actively fighting against racism.
Many people were unaware of these topics and conversations. But in recent months, racism and white supremacy in dance have burst into light.
Raising money for dancers
In recent months, the Dance Union team has been working overtime in response to back-to-back societal crises, from seeing the continued violence perpetrated on people of color, to seeing the way COVID-19 has disproportionately killed people of color, to the additional crisis that the shutdown of live entertainment has had on dancers and other artists.
When it was clear COVID-19 would be devastating for dancers, wiping out gigs and performance opportunities, Bouey sprang into action, helping to organize a relief fund which raised over $23,000, going to more than 130 dancers so far.
As long-standing institutions including American Ballet Theatre and Gibney Dance have recently posted messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and made promises to rectify damage done to dancers of color, it’s easy to question if true lasting change is possible.
The question then becomes: What’s next? There’s no comfortable answer, Bouey said.
They want institutions to practice radical transparency and admit they ignored the long-lingering trauma Black people have faced in America and its consequences.
“Because only from then can we actually do the work of dismantling things and building better structures,” Bouey said.
It takes inner work in hearts and minds, and actions, to uproot oppression and create an inclusive and equitable future in dance and everywhere else. Bouey is doing that work by working on their own healing, helping others to heal, providing a platform for healing and listening, envisioning a better future and helping to hold those with power accountable.
They summed up their vision during the second town hall in June. “The Dance Union is intentionally a space for dance artists to share their ideas, voice their concerns, demand change, resist and unite.”
Written by Makeda Easter, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times who covers the arts. When not writing, she can be found in a dance studio taking a class or in rehearsal for an upcoming show. She was previously a science writer for a supercomputing center at the University of Texas.
Multifaceted artist and performer joins ASU's School of Music, Dance and Theatre
September 9, 2020
As a new assistant professor in ASU's School of Music, Dance and Theatre, Rachel Finley hopes to increase the educational experiences of her students and to help them find their own voices.
“During my 20 years in the field, starting from my teen years and continuing into higher education, I never once had an instructor who shared my racial identity,” Finley said. “I strongly believe that having instructors of varied racial backgrounds enhances everyone in the room’s educational experience. So I decided to become what I did not see.” Rachel FinleyDownload Full Image
Finley, an award-winning spoken word artist, actor, director, playwright and voice and dialect coach, is teaching Acting Introduction and Acting I Fundamentals, both courses that explore the basic principles of acting, offer an opportunity to gain exposure to the art of acting from the performer’s perspective and look at how acting techniques can be useful even for those who choose not to become performers.
“We are thrilled to have attracted an artist of Rachel Finley’s caliber to our theater program,” said Heather Landes, director of the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “Finley’s wealth of diverse professional experiences, breadth of knowledge in acting methodologies, embodied approach to the craft and research interests in non-Eurocentric methodologies and African diasporic dialects both complement and enhance the theater offerings available to our students.”
Finley said she is excited to have ASU’s support in furthering her research on African diasporic dialects as well as performance practices, techniques and philosophies originating on the continent, and she said she is looking forward to developing courses that will bring this perspective on the art form to students.
“During my visit to ASU, I was very impressed by the emphasis placed on research, continued practice in the field and artistic growth as a means of enhancing the educational experiences of the students,” she said. “I have worked with institutions with massive budgets, and tiny theaters getting by on a hope and a prayer. Regardless of the budget, connection to the community is the driving force. I love creating self-generated work and helping other artists develop their own voices. This is what drove me to become a certified Fitzmaurice Voicework teacher and experienced Knight Thompson Speechwork teacher. I have a passion for detailed and respectful character accent work because it allows often marginalized and stereotyped communities to see more honest reflections of themselves.”
With a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University and a Master of Fine Arts from Florida Atlantic University, Finley’s professional directing career began in 2006 with Alliance Theatre Lab's production of Lee Blessing’s “Down the Road.” Since then, she has directed numerous productions both on stage and on camera, including her most recent productions “Venus” by Suzan-Lori Parks at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” by Ntozake Shange at the Pompano Beach Cultural Arts Center, and the pilot episode of “The Jaxons,” a family-friendly sitcom produced by Pinnacle Productions.
Finley continues to create new works. Her most recent one-woman performance piece, “American Bullet,” funded in part and developed in collaboration with GableStage, was released Sept. 4 on their digital platforms as part of the Engage @ Gablestage program.
Since the start of the pandemic, Finley has remained active, performing in several online “staged” readings, including Play Development Project’s "Touch the Moon" by Arianna Rose (appearing as Becca), and Mad Cow Theatre’s Science Play Festival in works by several playwrights (appearing as The Griot and Jen), among others. She has also directed “Judge Mablean Said” by Darius Daughtry via Zoom for New City Players. As a founding member of the poetry performance troupe Chaos Theory, Finley co-wrote“Unbroken,” the group’s full-length performance piece, which premiered at Mainstage Playhouse in 2016.
Acclaimed performer, author and social engagement artist joins ASU's School of Music, Dance and Theatre
September 8, 2020
Robert Farid Karimi wants to amplify the ways people tell stories, and as a new assistant professor in Arizona State University's School of Music, Dance and Theatre, Karimi hopes to do that through theater.
Karimi, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, has 25 years of experience as a creative developer and comedic storyteller, some of which were spent working with ASU on groundbreaking projects. A graduate of UCLA with an MFA from the USC Roski School of Art and Design, Karimi created programs in high schools in Chicago and Minneapolis and has worked with performers all over the world. Robert Farid KarimiDownload Full Image
Karimi worked for corporate clients like HBO (Def Poetry Jam), General Mills and the Kresge Foundation. They bring food, comedy and interactive storytelling to events as small as 25 and as large as 5,000. They also design game-performances, interactive immersive theater experiences and themed entertainment to engage players to share stories and discuss social issues that concern the various communities they visit.
“Teaching art, design, games, theater and performance is a part of my artistic practice,” Karimi said. “I think about how to engage people. Theater is the language I first used to think about that engagement.”
As a touring solo performer and spoken-word artist, Karimi was not only asked to perform, but also to attend workshops where they would share ideas, dialogue and all that encompasses acting beyond just skills.
“It made me think about theater as part of the life journey and how theater can be an asset to us no matter what path we take.”
This fall, Karimi is teaching Acting I to theater students and plans on wearing all of the hats they feel a theater professor should wear.
“At a point you realize you are not only teaching them to be on stage, you are also teaching them to be in front of a camera, and how to publicly speak, etc. How to bridge their various lives.”
Karimi hopes to bring this spirit and to “be a spark to someone.”
“We are so pleased that Robert Farid Karimi has joined us,” said Heather Landes, director of the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “Karimi’s 25 years of experience as a creative storyteller and actor and their work engaging community in conversations addressing social issues through interactive experiences aligns well with ASU’s mission of responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities we serve.”
Karimi was first invited to teach as a guest artist at ASU to engage communities with their Creative Capital supported work, The Peoples Cook Project. The culinary engagement project combines humor, cross-cultural exchange and food where participants’ stories, recipes and cultures are the focus of artistic nourishment. As the revolutionary cook Mero Cocinero, Karimi’s alter-ego for the project, Karimi has cooked for such luminaries as DJ Peanut Butter Wolf, poet Jose Montoya, Yuri Kochiyama, Michele Serros and hip-hop superstar MF Doom, as well as for over 60,000 people in the last 11 years.
In 2012, with a team of researchers from the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts and the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, Karimi focused on the relationship between creativity, theatrical performance and changes in dietary attitudes and beliefs. They worked with nutrition students and health workers to see if creative activities enhance nutrition education skills. PBS produced a short documentary on their residency at ASU.
Before the pandemic, Karimi was working on a board game examining police brutality and had planned to produce and direct “Swimming Pool Party,” an interactive game-performance they premiered in Los Angeles in 2019. It takes place in a futuristic land where people are separated by those who can swim and those who cannot. The premise: to get audiences focused on the inequitable amount of communities of color that do not know how to swim. They still hope to attempt this project virtually, seeing the roadblocks as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.
Karimi hopes to continue their work on interdisciplinary game-performance and playfulness in socially engaged art, and shares that they would “also like to introduce the campus to a group of interdisciplinary cross-cultural thinkers, performers and doers that use the theater vocabulary to create their work and create global social change.”
Dance student presents virtual performance of 'Her Brown Body is Glory' for Juneteenth celebration
June 17, 2020
In celebration of this upcoming Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day, in honor of the day that emancipated the last of the enslaved African Americans in the United States — Arizona State University graduate dance student Hannah Victoria Thomas will present a virtual showing of her work “Her Brown Body is Glory.”
The performance originally premiered in November 2019 as part of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre’s Emerging Artist series. The cast of "Her Brown Body is Glory."Download Full Image
“The main reason for this was to create a space where black women can come together to dance, talk and heal,” Thomas said of her thesis project when the show premiered last fall.
“The impact this thesis made in my life, the lives of women in my cast and the audiences that weekend has been immeasurable,” she says now. “I’m very honored.”
She hopes the work will continue to have an impact by sharing it on Facebook Live this Friday.
“The world is in a learning posture about racism and black stories in America,” Thomas said. “I knew now would be a wise time to give one of many perspectives of trauma, racism and the black woman narrative through dance. On one hand, the black woman is the most disrespected, unprotected and neglected in America. On the other hand, we have been the most resilient, innovative and glorious despite every curve ball thrown at us. My hope is for people to learn something new, reflect and sit with it and let it change the way they perceive the resilience of every black woman they come in contact with.”
Virtual showing of “Her Brown Body is Glory”
Friday, June 19, at 7:30 p.m. via Facebook Live
To watch: Respond “Going” to the event or show up to the Facebook Page at the time of the performance.
Frozen in time: A film student's creative response to the pandemic
May 27, 2020
As a new member of Herberger Institute Professor Daniel Bernard Roumain’s DBR Lab, ASU film student Keegan Carlson was looking forward to performing with the lab at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, New York, this spring. When plans for that culminating performance came to a halt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carlson found himself, like so many other students, socially distancing and “meeting” with his fellow lab members over Zoom.
One day, on a bike ride through downtown Phoenix with his boyfriend, Carlson was drawn to a group of life-size sculpted figures by artist John Waddell outside Herberger Theater. Filmmaker Keegan Carlson.Download Full Image
“The statues of the dancers frozen in time spoke to me,” Carlson said.
“After I pieced together the film, I immediately wanted Daniel to be a part of it,” Carlson said. “Every week since we’ve been in quarantine, we’ve been talking about this whole coronavirus thing in class. And Daniel is an incredible composer.”
Roumain was impressed by Carlson’s work.
“I think this is a good example of an ASU student responding to the most urgent and critical needs facing our communities, with grace within their creative practice,” Roumain said.
A Phoenix-based filmmaker in his final year at ASU, Carlson plans to graduate in December with a degree in film and media production with an emphasis on directing. In 2018, he won best director for his film “Lemonade” at the Scottsdale Short Film Festival and was an official selection for the Phoenix Film Festival.
“Humanity in Us” is the first time Carlson has collaborated with Roumain directly.
“Working with Daniel has been more than anything inspiring,” Carlson said. “He has such a way of motivating and validating us as artists. He has a great way of making us feel like all the work we are doing is so important. That motivation alone has helped tremendously, let alone all his real-life experience and knowledge that he’s sharing with all the lab members. It’s been really great learning the business side of putting on a show, learning about Daniel’s professional career and how he got there.”
Video courtesy Keegan Carlson
Carlson said that the powerful message in his film is “elevated by the extremely emotional and moving score.”
“I hope that this film is a message and a reminder for people to really think about how they treat other people during this time,” Carlson said. “I hope it moves you to hold your hand out to people in need and share and be compassionate.”
ASU costume shop creates hundreds of masks during national crisis
May 5, 2020
ASU’s costume shop may be closed, but its staff and students are still hard at work — making masks instead of costumes.
When the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to the U.S., Arizona State University's School of Film, Dance and Theatre costume shop coordinator Cari Smith was hard at work with her team of designers, stitchers, cutters and drapers on costumes for the school’s production of “The Crucible,” originally set to premiere in March 2020. With the virus forcing the shop to close its doors and the show now canceled, the nearly completed costumes for the production were moved into storage. Banner nurses wearing masks made by ASU's costume shop. Photo courtesy Cari SmithDownload Full Image
Unsure of the next step for herself and her team, Smith said that things “didn’t feel purposeful,” and other members of the crew said they felt the same way.
“I felt a bit lost — we all did,” costume shop assistant Lois Myers said. “I wondered what I would even be doing being that my job as part-time staff did not hold any responsibilities that weren’t directly connected to hands-on needs of shows, shop or students.”
But Myers, Smith and the rest of the team soon found purpose.
They shifted their focus from creating costumes to creating masks for hospitals to provide to their staff in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We began initially to help the School of Health,” Smith said, “but when the word got out that we were making them, a dear friend who is a nurse with the Banner Estrella oncology team asked me personally for masks. I jumped at the opportunity. We had a mission.”
“I work in a COVID ICU at Banner,” said Heather Brandt, a nurse and longtime friend of Smith’s. “We are required to wear approved PPE for all patient care, but are required to mask at all times in the hospital. Additionally, the nondirect patient care staff are in need of masks. This includes ancillary staff that we work with daily to coordinate patient care such as medical certified translators, registered dieticians, culinary teams, etc. The nursing staff looks forward to getting a break from our PPE masks because they can be quite painful to wear continuously. Having homemade masks allows us to conserve PPE for the required masking coming in and out of the hospital and also on breaks.”
Banner nurses wearing masks made by ASU's costume shop.
Photo courtesy Cari Smith
Masks built by ASU's costume shop.
Photo courtesy Lois Myers
At-home mask working station.
Photo courtesy Alexa Marron
Masks built by ASU's costume shop.
Photo courtesy Lois Myers
The shop quickly changed course and got to work, first sharing word about the masks through social media and giving them to friends and family. Smith has a small workspace in which some student workers and employees, with CDC recommended safety measures in place, gathered materials and began to work on the masks. Other workers, including student Niamh Murphy, made masks at home using their own fabrics.
“I am very lucky to have a stash of fabric and my own sewing machine at home,” Murphy said, “so luckily the transition was very natural to be working from home sewing.”
She and other team members used personal materials initially, and then began using donated materials, which were necessary once Banner hospitals began accepting the masks.
“My setup for making masks isn’t the most ideal, but it works well,” student Alexa Marron said. “I set up on the kitchen island with my sewing machine, tools and materials. Behind me in the hall is the ironing board and iron prepped and ready. And then, scattered about are various pattern pieces and piles of in-progress masks. I thank my three roommates for being so accommodating.”
The shift wasn’t all that easy for the costume shop workers, as most individuals involved were highly accustomed to the in-person, closely-knit surroundings of the atelier.
“Within the shop itself, the biggest change was no longer seeing the people I work with nearly every day,” student Emil Mendoza said. “We’re more of a family than typical coworkers, especially because of how much emotion art brings out during performance and production. I miss them most of all.”
While he misses his community, he is glad to be able to help during these unpreceded times.
“Not everyone knows how to sew, and honestly sometimes I’ve felt judged for having the skill, due to associations with femininity,” he said, “But now it’s very important! Not only is sewing therapeutic for me, I know every mask is going to someone who needs it.”
At this time, the team has made over 300 masks that have gone to local hospitals as well as other hospitals across the country, and 200 more have gone to essential workers in need of protective masks. The shop continues every day to get masks to as many people as it can, free of charge.
“The costume shop masks were by far the best constructed we have seen (at Banner),” Brandt said. “(Smith) has been so generous and responsive, and I cannot possibly thank her and the costume shop enough.”
“I hope that with this project we make a difference, even if it is a tiny one,” Marron said. “I also hope that we can show the university and the world how important skills like sewing are and that programs like the ones at (the School of Film, Dance and Theatre) are incredibly important and useful.”
Herberger Institute students to premiere work on Facebook Live
May 4, 2020
Seven Arizona State University artists will showcase new works as part of ASU Gammage’s Digital Connections Facebook live series on Wednesday, May 6.
Composer and storyteller Cole Travis, dance artist and writer Maggie Waller, poet and performing artists Philip Scruggs aka “Wyld Tha Bard,” dancer and artist My-Linh Le, conductor and producer Michelle Di Russo and filmmaker Keegan Carlson will join their faculty mentor and Herberger Institute Professor Daniel Bernard Roumain to present a collection of new work that includes music, spoken word, movement and film. Download Full Image
They developed the work as part of DBR Lab, which Roumain has described as “a class, collective and experience” in which contributors, working side by side with Roumain, design projects that are developed and presented within an academic year. The students have been developing their independent projects since the fall semester and were originally scheduled to perform at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on April 17. The performance was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the group responded to the challenge of having to present their work online.
“Adapting my honors thesis performance to the digital platform was not a choice, but a necessity,” said Waller. “Technology does not stop us from telling stories, from connecting with one another, from seeing one another. The stories needed to be told and the dances needed to be danced. People were craving being in space together, and I knew my responsibility was to create and hold that space. So, my dancers and I went to work, and through the process we discovered so much deep knowledge about ourselves, about intimacy and about community."
They adapted their projects into a 60-minute livestream presentation, hosted by ASU Gammage on Facebook Live as part of Gammage’s Digital Connections series. The presentation will stream at noon Wednesday, May 6, on the ASU Gammage Facebook page.
“We are grateful to ASU Gammage for their support of these emerging artists by giving them a platform to share their work,” Roumain said.
Michael Reed, senior director of programs and organizational initiatives at ASU Gammage, said they are excited to be working with DBR Lab.
“Daniel Bernard Roumain has been an integral partner with ASU Gammage for 20 years in bringing to life our mission of connecting communities,” Reed said. “We are delighted to be partnering with (the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts) and Dr. Roumain again along with his extraordinary DBR Performance Lab students as we engage the future together with innovation and the deeply human language of artists. The lab’s livestream performance on ASU Gammage’s Digital Connections platform will move ASU Gammage forward in our livestreaming efforts though a dynamic, next level multidisciplinary broadcast more sophisticated in its melding of artists' expression and streaming media than anything we have done to date.”
Following the presentation, Roumain will moderate a post-performance discussion with the contributors.
DBR Lab Artists
Phillip Scruggs, known on stage as Wyld Tha Bard, is a poet and hip hop/roots performing artist and a graduate student studying social justice in the School of Social Transformation in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He studies the role the performing arts have on raising social, cultural and political consciousness and is currently working on an album alongside Phoenix-based producer Bobby2083 to be released later this year. “Bring it Back 2 God” is his original spoken word performance that invokes a call to action for all humanity to remember what being alive is all about.
My-Linh Le is a graduate dance student in the School of FIlm, Dance and Theatre and a director, choreographer and dancer whose work revolves around the intersecting socio-political themes of the environmental crisis, racial inequality and the destructive effects of colonialism and capitalism. She practiced environmental law as an attorney while starting and developing the urban dance theater project known as Mud Water, which has been covered by national news media from NPR to PBS. As a competitive freestyle dancer, she represents one of the oldest competitive popping crews, "Playboyz Incorporated," and has danced for artists ranging from Sanford Biggers to Kendrick Lamar. "Me Love You Long Time" is about the machine-like endurance and work ethic of Vietnamese mothers — more than a reclamation of the line that demeaned and dehumanized Asian women, particularly Vietnamese women, for decades, the piece is also a look at the rage within.
Maggie Waller is a dancer, choreographer and teaching artist who is heavily involved in the local hip hop community in Phoenix. She is an undergraduate student in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre and recently premiered her thesis presentation "Reclamation," which explored the individual and collective narrative of apology in women and how dance could be the mechanism by which women find joy, power and liberation. She is a Fulbright Summer Institute Participant and a recipient of the Joan Frazer Memorial Award for Judaism and the Arts. Her work "nature/nurture" is a movement exploration of what it means to pause, to come back to our roots of finding the answers in nature during a time of uncertainty, grief and loss.
Cole Travis is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, storyteller and self-proclaimed obsessive creator. Travis is a communication student in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. They run the queer storytelling show “Say What?! Storytelling and Standup,” satirize consumerism and capitalism with the fictional propaganda band InfiniCorp and create improvisational music with the help of collaborative audiences as Opus Loops. "Work for Me" is a reflection of the physical limitations and rules we all must accept about our bodies, as well as their own personal experience with body dissatisfaction and chronic pain.
Keegan Carlson is a Phoenix-based filmmaker in his final year at Arizona State University. He has an interest in the human connection and relationships and aims to produce unique character-driven stories filled with detailed art direction and visual essence. In 2018, he won best director for his film “Lemonade” at the Scottsdale Short Film Festival and was an official selection for the Phoenix Film Festival. In the short film “Cone 10,” written and directed by Carlson, a struggling artist desperate for creative motivation accepts the advice of a close friend to take a dose of synthetic creativity.
Michelle Di Russo is currently assistant conductor of the Phoenix Youth Symphony and a doctoral candidate in orchestral conducting in the School of Music, where she serves as assistant conductor for the ASU Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles. Dedicated to the music of our time, she has participated as a fellow in the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own” workshop and Cortona Sessions for New Music in Italy. “Intersección” explores the point where being an artist, dancer, performer and conductor meet while reflecting on the introspective journey of how restriction and isolation can lead to rebirth.
DBR Lab is managed by Herberger Institute alumna Malena Grosz and works in close collaboration with SOZO Artists. The program is currently in residence at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. Throughout the creative process, DBR Lab members meet and have creative conversations with established artists and art professionals in the field including luminaries such as Emily Berry of B3W Dance, Helga Davis, Ron K Brown, Martha Gonzalez, members of Anda Union, Skyler Badenoch (CEO of the Hope for Haiti Foundation), Michael Reed and many more.