Introducing Awele: Assistant Dramaturg, The War of the Roses

Interview by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg
Awele Makeba’s very being illuminates a room. She glows with humane warmth and light. Awele is a professional actor and storyteller, and a drama teacher at Skyline High in Oakland. Almost all of Skyline’s students are bused up the hill from the Oakland flats to a school that overlooks the San Francisco Bay and the glittering cities below. Awele often digs into her own pocket for change to buy her students tickets to see professional theater, and sometimes needs to help out with supplies, food, and transportation—challenges that don’t face middle-class families in the Orinda Hills nearby. Awele also gives her students inspiration and skills to perform great theater—these kids shine! They’ve performed in theaters and festivals around the Bay Area as well as at the High School Theatre Fest in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2017. Their light is ignited and sustained by the dedication of a great teacher.

Awele also gifts her talents to Cal Shakes. This summer, we partnered with Awele and the Oakland Unified School District so she could join us on an externship, which allows her to observe dramaturgy, production, and directing. She spends what time her school duties permit her with us in production: and on school days, she does her own “homework” after school is out, working on research on a shared google doc that helps us in the rehearsal hall. Here she speaks with dramaturg Philippa Kelly.

Philippa Kelly: First off, Awele, where does your passion come from? 
Awele Makeba: I began as a four year-old dancing and continued in ballet, had piano lessons at 12, adding tapdance and modern dance in high school, and then was accepted into a conservatory of theater arts. So I’ve always been immersed in music and dance and theater. It wasn’t until high school that I experienced theater as an actual class. And it helped shape my belief in what theater can do, how it can change lives. For real. And how storytelling on stage can be a transformational experience.  I was invited to Russia before the walls came down—a five city tour over three weeks—as a storyteller performing in schools, pioneer centers, museums. 
PK: You’ve done some amazing productions with your students, including the award-winning Prospect High: Brooklyn by Robert Daniel Sullivan. What is it like to have students in the audience watching YOU on stage?
AM:  Having students in the audience is a pretty awesome experience. The first time this happened was my first year at Skyline I performed in a play xtigone, by Nambi E. Kelley, which was a hip hop adaptation of Antigone. I bussed the students over to the theater, and no one knew I was actually performing in the play. I came out on stage and I could hear students in the audience saying “Oh My God, Miss Awele‘s in the play! Miss Awele‘s in the play!” They were so excited. And this gave them the belief that they could be on stage too. They stayed for the talkback, and, because they’d studied the play, they were able to give wonderful jewels of feedback. I love to help my students get to performances, and sometimes this entails getting together $500-$700 to charter a bus or to purchase BART tickets for my students! But I think it’s so important for my students to go to the theater and see people who look like them and speak like them. This is a great gift that they get at Cal Shakes through its student matinee program that sponsors all my students. I will never forget when they saw Othello directed by Eric Ting. It was a transformative experience for them, and they received a stunning gift from Clive and his team of a pre-post show engagement with superb teaching artists.
PK: what appeals to you about dramaturgy?
AM: Before I knew the terms, “Dramaturg” and “Dramaturgy,” I had always been a dramaturg of sorts but just didn’t know it. I have always been a lay historian and a lover of it, because my father brought it into my life. I saw that history is not always accurate. I had my father, and other people in my life, who helped me to see that in studying history and challenging master narratives, we can be change agents in society.  Being able to help students to see beyond and behind master narratives and to be able to do my research on this—what a gift. My research for my Master’s thesis was focused on Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith—two young teens who were arrested before Rosa Parks’ case. There was already an ordinance in place that if there was a spare seat elsewhere in the bus, a person of color did not have to move. So in a sense the mythology behind Rosa Parks’ case presents an exhausted working woman who could barely stand on her feet, but behind this is a flagrant denial of an ordinance was a denial of a social movement of people, change agents who had been taking action against segregation, a system of structural racism, sanctioned by the government, and the mere fact that Ms. Parks very much like Fannie Lou Hamer, was sick and tired of being tired. These women spurred a boycott of the busses, many of them walking to work for 361 days to make the point and force the bus system to change the rules if they wanted to stay in business. So that was the issue that ignited my Master’s thesis and I made a performance piece about it.
PK: When finances look appalling, things look grim, what keeps you shining? 
AM: What keeps me shining? Knowing that the power of storytelling on stage is huge. I believe through and through in the power of storytelling, and I love the thought of times when people would sit around a campfire and tell stories. I draw on this model in my classroom (though of course without throwing logs on fires.) Bringing in music and lighting when we can afford it is wonderful, often through the generosity of colleagues. I took my students to perform in Scotland at the Festival two years ago. We still have $15,000 to raise, and have put up a go fund me campaign, which people have been donating to. And I’m hoping that with my Go Fund Me campaignmatch my $200, if 15 people contributed $200 and invited 4 friends to contribute with them, this would help us tremendously.

 

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