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Durham director is fighting systemic racism with theater

Jenny Justice, the artistic director of Hamlet Project in Durham, does vocal exercises with students in the E.K. Powe Elementary School  auditorium. 

Jenny Justice, the artistic director of Hamlet Project in Durham, does vocal exercises with students in the E.K. Powe Elementary School auditorium. 

Managing Editor

She wants to combat what she sees as a declining appreciation of the arts in education and fight systems of oppressive poverty and racism. She believes deeply in the powers of learning and language. She speaks wistfully about Shakespeare.

And for the next five years, she’ll be teaching her students to do the same.

A five-year time period likely means more to preteens than it does to their elders. It represents about half their life. It’s the length of time they spend in elementary school and more time than they’ll spend in high school.

For 12-year-old Micah Hall, it’s the amount of time he’ll spend learning to play the lead role in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” an acting endeavor he took on with as much seriousness as excitement.

“I like how I can be a completely different person for a while — like going into a different world,” he said.

He’s never done anything like this before — and neither has Justice, the artistic director of Hamlet Project Durham.

The project, part of the Durham Regional Theatre, aims to create new educational opportunities for children and transform racial patterns of poverty through a production that will have been six years in the making by the time it’s performed in 2020.

Justice is compiling a diverse cast — one that’s currently 50 percent black — and she’s translated all of her instructional materials into Spanish in the hopes of including students who are often underrepresented in similar programs.

The idea for the project came to her three years ago, when she saw Micah perform.

“He was 8 at the time, and I heard him do one scene on stage and said, ‘I’m going to direct him as Hamlet one day,’” she said.

There are currently 10 students — ages 7 through 12 — who’ve committed to the project. Justice hopes to expand that core group in both the acting and technical theater tracks.

She hopes to involve 100 students in total.

“She really does seek out to make it multicultural and multinational, and I really like that,” said Amy Reed, whose 10-year-old daughter, Alana, is performing in the play.

Reed says she’s seen Alana develop her confidence and creativity through acting, and she’s inspired by the energy of the rehearsals.

‘That ever I was born to set it right’

Justice says the Hamlet project is the summation of her life of learning and professional work.

In 2010, she founded the Durham Regional Theatre to be a community theater that promotes diversity.

“I’ve had this definition of how to overturn racism for 30 or 40 years, and we’ve been building our company based on this definition,” she said. “Because I’m a white woman leading an intentionally multiracial organization, we have to have clear definitions of terms. We can’t just say we’re nice people and everybody’s welcome because that doesn’t work.”

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George Noblit, a UNC professor who studies art and education, said it’s hard to know if an achievement gap exists in arts education because tests don’t measure art achievement.

But he said minority students tend to be more limited in their access to the arts.

“To the extent to which schools are not equally funded — and in North Carolina they’re not — it’s more likely that low-income students — and since there’s a correlation between income and race in North Carolina — low-income, minority students are less likely to have access to the arts,” Noblit said.

Mary Casey, director of K-12 arts education for Durham Public Schools, said in an email the school system values art, and she’s witnessed the impact it can have on children, including its role in closing the racial achievement gap.

“Through the arts and extracurricular activities, the students make strong connections to their teachers and find a sense of belonging which aids in keeping students in school while engaged in a positive activity,” Casey said.

While all students participate in art programs in school, she said she’s noticed a gap in access for low-income students, who might be unable to participate in extracurricular activities if working parents can’t provide transportation or if the program is too expensive.

Justice was aware of those barriers when she started Hamlet Project Durham.

“One of the destabilizing things about poverty is: How do you get transportation to places, what do you do to get home when your mom and dad both have to be working? And we’ll start setting those things up,” she said. “It’ll become our responsibility to help supply support structures.”

The initial Introduction to Hamlet class costs $125, but Justice said it’s the theater’s policy to never deny participation because of lack of financial resources.

“To be intentionally multiracial in this country, which is systemically racist, you have to be financially accessible, so we have an unlimited scholarship promise,” she said. “No one is ever turned away.”

‘The play’s the thing’

Justice fell in love with “Hamlet” when she was 12. It was the first play she acted in professionally. She’s seen every production possible.

“I’ve been obsessed with the play my whole life,” she said.

She’s trying to pass that obsession on to her students, whose questions during rehearsal — “How do four lines become a sentence?,” “How is he both wise and selfish?” — reveal they’re wrestling with the words and their meaning.

“My goal for you is that you will fall in love with the words of Shakespeare this spring,” Justice tells them.

She instructs them to breathe in, speak in a full voice and pronounce the words out loud. They write down an unfamiliar few — harrow, discretion, ecstasy — in word journals they’re required to keep for the purpose of looking up and writing down definitions.

On the inside cover of her journal, Alana has written, “5 years of Hamlet.” She’s determined to fill it.

“If each day I’m going to write five words,” 7-year-old Moriah Hall muses, attempting to count the words she’ll learn in the next five years. “I have to do some math.”

David Baker, a UNC English professor, has spent years studying the depth and complexity of those words.

“If you listen to Shakespeare’s words, after awhile they start to explain themselves to you. But you have to listen closely. This is what actors do all the time, of course,” he said by email. “That’s what I think is so admirable about the Hamlet Project Durham. Over the course of five years, these young actors will really get to know the text.”

That’s the plan, but Justice isn’t modeling her project on something that’s been done.

“I made this up,” she said, laughing. “When I started thinking about it, I could see it. I could see it in front of me as a visible structure. I’ve got a whole web of the curriculum.”

Her curriculum includes vocabulary, fencing, stagecraft, costume design and makeup, among many other things.

And the play lends itself to a variety of lessons.

“‘Hamlet’ is also about working through complexities in religion, complexities in ethnicity, complications of what counts for history and what doesn’t, about government and rule, about emotional excesses, revenge, forgiveness,” said UNC English professor Mary Floyd-Wilson. “There are lots of things, I think, in the play that people today can find correspondences with their own struggles and their own life.”

Justice has recruited professors from universities in the Triangle to serve as advisers on the project, and she plans to spend the spring and summer recruiting more participants.

“With this intro class, I’ve got something to point to. And it’ll help me do my outreach,” she said.

Baker said “Hamlet” includes the consistently relevant themes of identity, change and political legitimacy.

“This has some obvious parallels with the politics of our own time,” Baker said. “They’ve given themselves five years to learn what ‘Hamlet’ has to tell us about our world. I’m looking forward to 2020.”