SIUE’s Theater and Dance Department continued its annual Black Theatre Workshop this year as a series of short films, focused on the nearby city of East St. Louis. The film was uploaded in three separate parts, and the full performance will be uploaded on March 14.
The series, named ‘ESTL,’ was produced as a collaborative piece along with SIUE’s Sociology Department and the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Center, meant to share real experiences of those who grew up in East St. Louis. The three short films are comprised of monologues based on real interviews, performed by students of the Theater and Dance Department.
Director of the films and SIUE alumnus Michael Watkins said he hopes this will help change public perceptions of East St. Louis. The city itself has a past of being plagued by racist violence, the effects of such being felt even a century later.
“I feel like overall, this kind of just says that East St. Louis is more than just a violent city. It’s a community that’s been hurt by so many factors,” Watkins said.
Sophomore theater performance major Troy Caldwell-Day of Detroit acted in one of the films and became involved with the production by being an URCA assistant to Associate Professor of Theater Performance Kathryn Bentley, who served as the production’s artistic director.
“Everyone that you saw or will see that acted in this series all wrote the pieces that they perform,” Caldwell-Day said. “My piece, or my monologue, whichever you want to call it, it is about a particular part of East St. Louis on its south side, known as Rush City, and it’s based off an interview with Eugene Redmond [a poet who worked in East St. Louis]. It was very similar to how that city resonated with me personally after researching about it, and hearing and talking about it.”
Caldwell-Day’s connection to Bentley was important, because she was raised in Rush City, like Redmond. Sophomore technical theater major Tylan Mitchell of St. Louis, who also acted in the project, said Bentley was an important mentor to him.
“She knew I had a passion for Black history, Black art and things of that nature,” Mitchell said. “So we would always have conversations about Black Theatre Workshop prior [to this].”
The production’s subject matter was relatable to many of the individuals involved. Watkins and Caldwell-Day both said they felt an understanding for residents of East St. Louis, coming from cities where Black populations are the majority. Caldwell-Day came from Detroit, and Watkins is from Chicago.
“It’s all stuff that resonates with us because Chicago and Detroit are two largely Black cities in America that don’t necessarily have the best reputation either,” Caldwell-Day said. “When people say, ‘Detroit’s a murder capital,’ I feel a certain way about that, and I imagine the people from East St. Louis feel the same way. Home is home, and [outsiders] only know what they do from the outside looking in.”
Watkins held a similar sentiment, and said this film may help change the national image of areas like East St. Louis.
“I’m from the south side [of Chicago], specifically, and the south side of Chicago kind of gets the same image that East St. Louis has,” Watkins said. “I want it to be seen as a more positive area, because there’s a lot that’s actually positive there. I mean, they’re all working together to help keep their own community up.”
The use of performing arts to broaden cultural awareness isn’t uncommon in the arts, but was especially integral to this production. Caldwell-Day said he had a lot of interest in doing projects like this in the future because he wants to help these areas to uplift their public image.
“I’d want to do more of these in the future, and I feel like projects like these are super, super important,” Caldwell-Day said. “Here’s what [the city] really is. Here’s the rich history behind it. Here’s this art and expression that has been inspired by the spirit and soul of that place. ”
All three of the short films are available on SIUE Theatre and Dance’s YouTube channel, and a showing of all three featuring a live talkback with the artists involved will be streamed there at 6 p.m.