Students study political theater, then tell their own stories

It's all part of the "Plays That Change the World" workshop

Faulkner Fox

When Faulkner Fox planned her inaugural political-theater workshop for fall 2020, she didn’t predict an imminent summer of activism.

At first, she’d thought it would be an in-person class attending in-person theater, but then the coronavirus made that impossible. Months later, a second global phenomenon: The Black Lives Matter movement surged in response to murders like George Floyd’s, which Fox (and her students-to-be) experienced in real time. Fox hadn’t been anywhere. She hadn’t even been inside a grocery store, but then she was in the streets, marching for racial justice.

“When I met my students in fall 2020, this would not be theoretical,” Fox says. “Some of them actually would have participated in changing the world over the past summer.”

Writing and activism can stem from the same impulse, says Fox, a lecturing fellow of English, but penning a script is not the same as, say, registering people to vote. Yet she feels theater’s power. Books can be put down. Streaming TV can be paused. The uninterrupted directness of live theater sets it apart, she says.

Her “Plays That Change the World” workshop, which was offered for the second time this fall, introduces students to political theater, including the works of North Carolina playwrights Sonny Kelly and Mike Wiley, who were guest lecturers. Students write and workshop their own scripts, following their own sense of the political—not partisanship, but politics in a broader sense, which is more about power dynamics. Fox wants her students to feel empowered by articulating their view of the world through political theater.

“Politics is the transfer, metabolization, and application of power,” says Kelly. “It’s a moving target.”

Kelly is the playwright and performer behind The Talk, written after having to convey to his son—as countless Black parents have done—that one day elements of society would react to him as a threat. Kelly had written The Talk after the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray.

By fall 2020, when Kelly was a guest lecturer in “Plays That Change the World,” there had been five more years’ worth of Black people dead from racist or police violence. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were fresh in the playwright’s memory—same as the students’; same as Fox’s. The plays her class studies are intentionally provocative, but Fox also didn’t want to overwhelm her students. Some in the spring 2021 section, for instance, couldn’t handle Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over—which addresses police brutality—during the Derek Chauvin trial.

“All of us have experienced so much trauma that I didn’t want to add more,” Fox says. So she gave her students veto power, later letting the 2021 class vote on the plays they would study.

Fox established a supportive, constructive environment for her student playwrights. Scripts went through draft after draft; characters and scenes were added and scrapped. Throughout, Fox’s guiding advice was to be specific. If a writer of political theater can’t go into specifics about their chosen topic, it means they’re resistant in some way, making it the wrong topic for that time.

“Especially in a lot of fiction classes, there’s not really that focus on, ‘What are you trying to say?’ ” says senior Tommy Pratt, who took the course in 2020. “It’s sort of retro now. Going back to that in a more academic way in Faulkner’s class was really cool.”

Pratt, a creative writing minor, tends toward surreal or humorous fiction. He took “Plays That Change the World” to learn to tighten his prose. Pratt gets bogged down in descriptions, he says, and writing dialoguedriven scripts taught him to move a story forward with character actions. (Pratt’s play, by the way, featured a dysfunctional business partnership and a fictionalized Rudy Giuliani.)

Fox is an optimist. Humanity has been though dark times, she says, but people always stand up and take action. It’s all that’s ever changed anything before, she maintains. One tool she can give her students is political playwriting, and a broader definition of politics within which they can engage critical issues onstage.

“It’s important as a teacher of the arts that it’s their story,” Fox says. “It’s their voice.”

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