For more than 20 years, UC Santa Cruz’s African American Theater Arts Troupe has provided students of color with a place to find community in the performing arts. The actors visit local high schools to talk with younger students – some of whom have never considered going to college – about their college experience.
At Marina High School last spring, students sat inside their school cafeteria. With their books and backpacks strewn across the tables, they were encouraged to join in a performance by a group of student actors from UC Santa Cruz.
For most people, holding the attention of a room full of teenagers would be a daunting task. But UC Santa Cruz drama professor Don Williams, who leads the African-American Theater Arts Troupe, has decades of acting experience and can read a play.
Williams began by welcoming the high school students with a message of hope.
“If nobody else believes in you, we believe in you,” Williams said. “Each of you has a special gift within you. It’s up to you to find it. And many of my students, whom you are about to meet, have found their way, their vocation.”
What followed were the personal stories of young UC Santa Cruz student actors told in their own words. They were stories about how students navigated the daunting 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 considered going to college when they were growing up.
“My dad wasn’t checking out what my college application process was like,” she said.
Moore said her family taught her not to express her feelings, instead of holding them back. When she arrived at university, she felt overwhelmed, confused and sad. It was then that she turned to the theater.
“I feel like that’s the importance of black theater, that it’s a space where you can 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 lift others higher than ourselves,” Moore said. “I am able to uplift others and show them that they can do what we do too.”
Theater teacher Don Williams founded the African American Theater Arts Troupe in the early 1990s. He says it grew out of a desire to bring black students together on campus. Since then, more than a thousand black students have participated. Williams said the very first production was an immediate success.
Students of all majors are welcome to join. The troupe not only provides a sense of community for Black students on campus, but also celebrates Black playwrights. Often, this is the first time Black students have seen plays that explore life experiences they can relate to.
“Most college students (are) trying to figure out who they are and trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives,” Williams said.
The African American Theater Arts Troupe was so successful that Williams formed the Rainbow Theater, broadening the spotlight on African American, Asian American, and Latino cultures. Then he began taking groups on the road to local high schools, encouraging high schoolers to consider college. This year, her troupe visited Monterey High School, zoomed in with students at Seaside High, and held this workshop at Marina High.
The African American Theater Arts Troupe is open to students from all backgrounds. However, Williams says that if the play uses black actors, he will be loyal to the author.
He called the troupe “a smorgasbord of people”
“We survive because of the good people in this world, they come in all creeds, all walks in life, all colors,” Williams said. “And I know that for a fact.”
For the students of Marina High School, what they learned from Williams and her students could become the script for their own first act.