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The African American Theater Arts Troupe creates community for students of color

UC Santa Cruz student actors perform at Marina High School. The actors share their personal university experiences to students who may have never considered going to college.
Doug McKnight
UC Santa Cruz student actors perform at Marina High School. The actors share their personal university experiences to students who may have never considered going to college.

For more than 20 years, the African American Theater Arts Troupe at UC Santa Cruz has provided a place for students of color to find community in the performing arts. The actors visit local high schools to speak with younger students — some of whom have never considered attending college — about their experience at a university.

At Marina High School last spring, students sat inside their school’s cafeteria. With their books and backpacks scattered about the tables, they were encouraged to join in a performance by a group of UC Santa Cruz student actors.

For most people, holding the attention of a room full of teenagers would be a daunting task. But UC Santa Cruz theater professor Don Williams, who directs the African American Theater Arts Troupe, has decades of theater experience and knows how to read a room.

Williams began by welcoming the high school students with a hopeful message.

“If nobody else believes in you, we believe in you,” Williams said. “Each one of you has a special gift inside you. It's up to you to find it. And a lot of my students, who you are getting ready to meet, they’ve found their path, their calling.”

What followed were the personal stories of the young UC Santa Cruz student actors told in their own words. They were stories of how the students navigated the intimidating world of a university, on a campus where Black students make up less than 5% of the student population.

Diamond Moore, a digital media and art student, said her family never discussed going to college when she was growing up.

“My dad was not checking in to see what my process for applying to colleges was like,” she said.

Moore said her family taught her not to express her feelings, instead to hold them in. When she first arrived at the university, she felt overwhelmed, confused and sad. That’s when she turned to theater.

I feel like that's the importance of Black theater, that it is a space for you to come and just be and express yourself,” she said.

By visiting local high schools, she hopes to inspire other students to overcome their fears and realize they can find support in groups like the African American Theater Arts Troupe.

“We have to uplift others higher than ourselves,” Moore said. “I am in a position to uplift others and show them that they can do what we are doing as well.”

Theater professor Don Williams founded the African American Theater Arts Troupe in the early ‘90s. He says it grew out of a desire to bring Black students together on campus. Since then, over a thousand Black students have participated. Williams said the very first production was an immediate success.

Students in all majors are invited to join. The troupe not only provides a sense of community for Black students on campus, it also celebrates Black playwrights. Often, it’s the first time Black students see plays that explore life experiences they can relate to.

“Most students (are) seeking to understand who they are and trying to find out what do they want to do with their life,” Williams said.

The African American Theater Arts Troupe was so successful, Williams formed Rainbow Theater, expanding the spotlight on African American, Asian American and Latino American cultures. Then he began taking the groups on the road to local high schools, encouraging high schoolers to consider college. This year, his troupe visited Monterey High School, zoomed with students at Seaside High and ran this workshop at Marina High.

The African American Theater Arts Troupe is open to students of all backgrounds. However, Williams says if the play calls for Black actors, he will be true to the author.

He called the troupe a “smorgasbord of people”

“We survive because of the good people in this world, they come in every creed, every, walk in life, every color,” Williams said. “And I know that for a fact.”

For the students of Marina High School, what they learned from Williams and his students could become the script for their very own first act.

Doug joined KAZU in 2004 as Development Director overseeing fundraising and grants. He was promoted to General Manager in 2009 and is currently retired and working part time in membership fundraising and news reporting at KAZU.