Sharing intimate experiences with anyone is scary. Add about 30 strangers and Zoom to the equation, and that becomes a worst-nightmare scenario for many. Facing a Zoom screen with less than a quarter of the audience’s cameras turned on, the performers of the College of William and Mary’s Inside Out Theatre troupe shared their stories with the College community.
Wednesday, March 31 the Inside Out Theatre troupe premiered their show“Institutions,” which focused on elevating the experiences of students of color at a predominantly white institution. Inside Out Theatre’s performance was coordinated by Jason Dean Robinson ‘22.
The performers gave trigger warnings before each performance, which are repeated here for those that apply. Trigger warnings for parts of this article include explicit mentions of slavery, abuse, transphobia, racist violence in the United States, burnout and racism against Black and indigeneous communities.
Robinson started off the night with an original piece entitled “William & Mary’s Pet Fee” as a wake up call to remind the audience of the College’s all too recent history. Robinson said that in 1754, eight students paid 10 euros to the College so they could bring an enslaved person to campus.
“All I can think is you. It’s you, William and Mary, should be paying the damn fee,” Robinson said. “To her, for her cracked hands. To him, for his calloused palms. To them, for the bruising skin.”
Robinson emphasized the capitalistic tendencies of the College in how they ignored the humanity of countless enslaved individuals, reducing them to a commodity with disregard for how they were treated. Next, Aamir Mohammed ‘23 passionately recited Langston Hughes’s poem “Theme for English B.” Sabrien Abdelrahman ‘23 directly followed with her own remix, “Theme for English B: 2021 Edition.” She highlighted the challenging existence of being a Black student at a PWI.
Abdelrahman explained how Black students are expected to be both educator and student, and a spokesperson for all Black people, but only when asked. However, when they take on these roles, they must be calm and objective so that they will not be labeled as “aggressive” and dismissed.
“White supremacy is not a ghost in these halls,” Abdelrahman said. “It lives in our student body and committees. Equality, a play to perform, starring the right social justice buzzwords as characters.”
The next speaker was Bayley Leyshon ‘23. The date of this performance coincided with International Transgender Day of Visibility, and their piece emphasized the importance of supporting transgender people of color.
“You may stand on my shoulders, and I will strive with all five feet two inches of my body to lift you towards the sun, that it may shine on your face and bring a glorious day of reckoning, peace, warmth and light,” Leyshon said.
Continuing with the theme of changing the College to be a place where all students feel welcomed, valued and heard, Marina Pantner ‘22 called out the school for its failure to rename buildings and remove statues with racist history. She presented several examples, including William Booth Taliaferro, a Confederate general in the Civil War who has a freshman dormitory named after him. She also mentioned Benjamin Stoddert Ewell, another Confederate soldier who had a plantation house named Ewell Hall, the exact same name as our school’s home for the music department. Lastly, she brought up Thomas Jefferson, who has his own statue and dormitory named after him despite his many atrocious acts, including owning over 600 enslaved people. She described Jefferson’s overarching presence at the College, and remarked on the opposition to removing his statues.
“The man we all know well, so well that if his statues were taken down, we would immediately all cease to remember he existed apparently,” Pantner said.
Throughout her piece, Pantner implored the College to think about who’s history they really are concerned about erasing.
After Pantner, Leyshon performed another piece, this time discussing burnout and the importance of recognizing one’s humanity while still trying to be the best person they can be.
The next speaker was Wilhelmina Awan ‘23, performing an original piece titled “House of Horrors.” She addressed the extreme lack of diversity and representation in the entertainment industry, adding that most representation far too often falls into stereotypical categories.
Awan ended her piece with a goal for creating lasting change. Yet she described how she feels it’s nearly insurmountable for our society to achieve equality for all people. Especially referring to the College’s Fall 2019 play “Pride and Prejudice,” she shared how the College’s theatre program is biased to white students. Adding on other race issues the College has, like with building names and statues, she questioned how change could be made worldwide if it cannot even be made at our “progressive” school.
“So for now, me and my friends will live in our house of realities, not just made of Halloween horror stories, but so much more of the built-in racism from every day in institutions, in society and even our friends,” Awan said. “And this house just sits in our hearts, surrounded by the moat of tears we shed from it. So next time we think of blowing the house down, it’ll be a little farther away. A little harder to reach. So we don’t hurt ourselves again and again, trying to believe that racism doesn’t exist.”
The final speaker was Adithi Ramakrishnan ‘22 who rounded out the show with a message critiquing the “American heroes” the College so proudly honors.
Sharing each person’s individual experience in this type of format allows for the audience to truly feel a connection with each performer. This format has such potential to create change through so intimately shifting the stories and voices we commonly hear in our society.
Every person in our lives has some sort of an impact on us. In Hughes’s poem that Mohammed shared, it is emphasized how, in America especially, we all are a part of one another.
“As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me — although you’re older — and white — and somewhat more free,” Mohammed said. “This is my page for English B.”