Rechoreographing intercultural encounters: the power and limits of dramatic play in segregated communities

Elliot Leffler


This article examines an Applied Theatre project that was jointly launched by a black Baptist church and a reform synagogue in a US suburb to foster relationships among their members. The suburban community is quite segregated, so the emotional intimacy that develops between the members is striking. Equally significant, however, is the fact that the relationships that emerge do not outlast the programme itself. By investigating one encounter from the theatre project alongside participant interviews and other ethnographic observations from the community in which the project took place, this article argues that play theory can elucidate both the strengths and shortcomings of the project, and that Applied Theatre scholarship would benefit from greater attention to play theory.

The citizens of Evanston, IL, USA – an inner-ring suburb of Chicago – often speak proudly of how progressive their community is. They vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, their longest-serving mayor was an African American woman, and many of their churches fly rainbow flags outside their buildings, announcing their embrace of the lesbian, gay, bisex- ual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBT) community. Moreover, in comparison to many suburban communities in the USA, Evanston’s population is relatively diverse, boasting prominent African American and Latino communities, in addition to a small Asian American community, alongside its white majority. And yet, a close investigation of Evan- ston reveals that (like in so many other places) these racialised communities are highly segregated, not only living in separate residential neighbourhoods, but also patronising separate businesses, gathering in separate social groups, and attending separate churches.

A case in point: In March 2013, during a year of ethnographic field work that I conducted in Evanston, the local elementary schools scheduled a routine early dismissal day for a Teacher In-Service programme. Lincolnwood Elementary School decided that this would be a good occasion for their fifth grade girls to take a field trip to the local high school; it would provide them with an opportunity to learn about girls’ athletics before they begin their transition into middle school.1 The school advertised the optional trip with flyers, and they sent out permission forms to all the parents, but when the early dismissal bell rang, all the white girls left the school grounds. Only the black girls boarded the bus to the high school.

Lincolnwood Elementary serves two populations: the almost entirely white neighbourhood of North Evanston, where it is situated, and some of the families from the Fifth Ward – the historic centre of Evanston’s African American community. In the early- to mid-twentieth century, when legalised discrimination in mortgage practices ensured residential segregation, each neighbourhood in Evanston had its own school. School districts were frequently redrawn to preserve segregation, based on slight shifts in neighbourhood demographics. However, in the late 1960s, the city dismantled the Fifth Ward’s school in an effort integrate the city (Robinson 1996, 29–31). The Fifth Ward children now get scattered among all the other schools, diversifying the student body of each; it is common for every house on a Fifth Ward block to be assigned to different schools, while all the other neighbourhoods’ communities remain intact. On this particular after- noon, the girls from North Evanston had decided, with the help of their parents, that they would spend the afternoon at a café. Apparently, no one had thought to tell the girls from the Fifth Ward.

I learned about this field trip from a Fifth Ward resident whose daughter – whom I will call Cassandra – was among the black girls who boarded the bus that afternoon. Cassandra already leaves her neighbourhood friends every morning to attend school far from her home, but she felt particularly isolated on this afternoon, when the black girls felt like the white girls were shunning them. Her father, too, was upset. He did not suspect that the black girls were excluded from this outing because they were black, but rather, because they were outsiders to the neighbourhood. The white parents in North Evanston knew each other, and they helped their girls organise this alternative outing, without consider- ing whom they might be leaving out. Through small actions like these, Evanston’s citizens rearticulate the historical legacies of racial exclusion, even if they do so unwittingly and unknowingly.

For Evanston’s non-white residents, these acts of racial exclusion are painful reminders of the brutal history they have endured and the disparities that still separate them from their white counterparts. Together with some white allies, they look for ways to nurture meaningful change in their community – not only in peoples’ hearts and minds, but in peoples’ patterns of life, their spatial interrelationships. This desire for change is what brought me to Evanston in 2012. A black Baptist church and a (mostly white) Reform synagogue, who were partnering on a number of programmes and initiatives, asked me to co- facilitate a year-long Applied Theatre programme that would nurture relationships among the institutions and their members, disrupting the patterns of social segregation that permeate the suburban community.

Continue reading this article on the RiDE (Research in Drama Education) web page, or contact Elliot directly for more information about this research.