A couple weeks ago students David Guzman, Imara Glymph, Marley-Rose Liburd, and Florence Gill arranged a screening at Tishman of Caleen Sinnette Jennings play Queens Girl: Black in the Green Mountains. This play is set at Bennington College during the 70’s and detailed the real-life story of Calleen when she was a student here navigating her education and development as an artist at a time when she was one of only a handful of Black students on campus.
I sat down with Imara to talk about this exciting opportunity that she helped bring to our community through partnership and thoughtful facilitation with our drama faculty. I asked her first: How did you get involved in this project and how did it come to fruition?
Senior David Guzman was an usher at Everyman Theater, and sophomore Imara Glymph saw the second play in the trilogy–Queens Girl in Africa–at Atlas Theater while she was living in Washington D.C. Because the students knew each other and were both excited that the plays had affected them around the same time, both David and Imara emailed Dina Janis. And so began a “crazy emailing spree” to try to get the show screened on campus. It all came down to the funding. They were able to get in touch with 3 representatives of Everyman, Breonna McCoy, Victoria Donnelly, and Jenna Styes.
Imara and David got involved with the project in January, with Dina Janis signing on as their faculty advisor and working with Laura Walker and the President’s Working Group to bring the play to Bennington (or rather back to Bennington). They watched the play in February and then met the playwright, Caleen, in March. When David and Imara met Caleen, that was when Flo and Marley-Rose signed on. These students were suddenly a part of something much bigger than they had foreseen. They received facilitation training for a POC voice-driven panel which followed the screening of the play. Imara told me that the hope was to increase engagement within the Bennington community since only about 20 students attended the screening in Tishman. She was pleasantly surprised, then, to see the large turnout and the “tangible movement of relationship for the audience” during the essential conversation.
I asked Imara to tell me about her experience meeting with playwright Caleen, and she said that Caleen reaffirmed the passion of the project. She expressed being disheartened by the logistics of connecting with faculty and the administration to put on this larger-scale event. But Caleen “brought the heart and humanity to the endeavour” since she is a “eloquent and emotional person.” Imara went on to tell me about the personal experiences Calleen shared about her time at Bennington-something I was very interested in. She studied here during Bennington’s transition to becoming a coeducational institution. This transition occurred in Caleen’s second year, while she was living in Bingham (my house!) Imara shared how she related to Caleen’s experience of “deeply personal liminality” at Bennington and having to make roles for herself as a person of color. She said that Caleen was so hopeful and encouraged her to “[write][ outside the scope you find yourself in.”
Imara had met with Caleen just twice–one with the panelists and then again during essential conversation, but both times sharing their experiences and connection with the play were so powerful. “Each time we met we cried,” she said laughing.
The essential conversation was carefully facilitated to create a space in which it was “safe to be vulnerable.” Everyone in attendance, including myself, was deeply affected by both the commonalities as well as differences we each share at this institution in terms of identity and belonging. Imara said that Caleen was interested in making space for “our pain and for our hope.” Initiating these conversations is the first step toward progress. She expressed relief that big figures within the administration were present–Laura Walker mainly, but also drama faculty members like Michael Giannitti and Kirk Jackson. The event was “scripted” but Imara admitted that she and her other student facilitators still went off-book to speak from the heart.
Essential conversations are a great way to approach these topics of race, equity, and inclusion, and how we approach listening and responding to voices within our community that need to be heard. When I asked her where she thought we were in this pursuit of progress, Imara said that she is “excited and nervous.” There is still so much work to be done, but the support within our community that we saw at this event is encouraging, and it is my hope that events like these continue to receive the space and recognition they deserve so we can better serve the needs of our students and continue the pursuit of the progressive, constantly changing-education we came here to pursue.