Expressions of youth, joy, and vitality are hard to come by in the era of COVID-19, but a group of talented students has joined together to lead an ensemble of original performances by and for Denison people of color that celebrate these themes in their lives with the entire campus.
The result is HERE US, an exuberant, beautiful, and compelling work of poetry, spoken word, music, dance, and imagery. But don’t let this vivid and fluid creation lull you into thinking that everything flowed easily during its inception. Hours, days, weeks, and months of difficult work are represented in this 58-minute video, stitched together from 15 performances featuring more than 30 artists.
This summer, when Assistant Professor of Theatre Jim Dennen became interested in facilitating a series of performances written and performed by people of color at Denison, he contacted Yaz Simpson ‘23, a psychology major he had met at a Black Student Union event, to talk about possibilities.
“We decided early on that the project needed to be student-led in terms of creative and organizational decisions,” says Dennen.
“And we wanted to do a celebratory piece,” says Simpson, who became one of three lead facilitators. “We wanted to project a positive message — the flip side of all the trauma we had been experiencing. It was important to share the joy, youth, and vitality of our lives as people of color.”
Co-facilitator Cordero Estremera ‘23 was an early recruit to the production. A writer, rapper, lyricist, and poet, Estremera focused on childhood constructions of race and understandings of identity. “So often we hear each other’s truth but don’t actually listen. It’s time to listen,” he says.
Sky Calderón ‘21, writer, activist, religion major, and Black studies minor, became the third co-facilitator. She thinks critically about what experiences are amplified and who’s gone unheard at Denison. “In a culture where space feels dominated by white students, is the Denison student of color ever truly represented? Here Us offers us a chance to showcase the multidimensional experiences we live.”
Learning by doing
Great performances look effortless — but that comes with a lot of hard work. This was a work built from the ground up — and students gained a surprising number of skills as a result.
First, there was making a persuasive call for talent in the community. “We recruited through word of mouth,” says Estremera. “Five-minute conversations would turn into 20.” Eventually, they gathered more than 30 students and faculty members for the project.
Then each performance group had to create and frame their work and represent it via video. Most performances were filmed in Eisner Center’s Sharon Martin Theatre, which has built-in projectors, but others required quite a bit of technical problem-solving, including incorporating the work of a remote-learning student.
For example, one of Simpson’s pieces is a deceptively simple conversion among five friends “about hair, life, and being a college student.” However, the execution was anything but simple.
“We had to figure out if we could do it outside or inside, with masks and six feet apart,” says Simpson. She also had to answer technical questions like: Would the wind interfere with the sound if they filmed outside; if they filmed indoors, how could they be in close conversation with masks on and the six feet of distance necessary during COVID-19; and where were they going to place the mics in either case?
(The answers? Wind causes too much noise, masks with small lavalier mics work just fine, and using three cameras on tripods can capture everyone’s voice and expressions.)
“It took hours of planning, an hour and a half to set up, and 25 minutes of filming to capture those three minutes of conversation,” says Simpson, who also learned to record and edit the film during the process. “Now I’m seriously thinking of adding cinema to my psychology major.”
Getting to know one another more deeply through a common goal
Through the entire process, students and faculty learned about each other more holistically. Sitting next to someone in class, sharing meals together, even talking about shared passions doesn’t necessarily reveal capacity — and talent.
“A lot of people really surprised me,” says Simpson. “I knew they were capable — but I just didn’t know the depths.”