New African American Theatre Program director connects humanity through performing arts
UofL alumni LaShondra Hood and Xavier Harris in The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. The Mountaintop was performed last year on campus and at the 2019 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, NC.
By Julie Heflin
It is part of what persuaded her to pursue a master’s of fine arts in performance at the University of Louisville, and now Sidney Edwards has come full circle to take on the role as director of the African American Theatre Program (AATP).
“In Louisville, I came into my own as a Black artist, learning about my history and people through wonderful resources connected to the AATP like the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage,” Edwards said.
During her graduate studies, Edwards also earned a graduate certificate in African American Theatre — the first and only certificate like it in the United States.
Edwards began her new role in August after working in Northeast Ohio as a performer, director’s assistant and dramaturg. She is passionate about arts education, having served as a teaching artist for Kentucky Shakespeare, Cleveland Play House, Baldwin Wallace University and the legendary Karamu House Theater, the oldest producing Black theatre in the country.
Her goal is to build a strong presence for the UofL African American Theatre Program, and expand the certificate program beyond UofL students to other members of the community and globally through online courses. She hopes eventually there will be scholarships available for individuals who want to pursue the certificate.
AATP raised approximately $1,000 from 10 donors during Raise Some L, the university’s annual day of giving held in October. The amount is significant because it shows that a highly focused program can inspire donors to support it. Plans are to build on this beginning and work to increase the support as graduates from the program increase.
“Black theatre artists and Black people in America could not always see ourselves truthfully represented, but Black theatre gives us a chance to see ourselves in the bigger picture, helping to validate and recognize us as important,” Edwards said. “When I see our stories being told, I have hope, and I hope others will see our humanity the same way I do.”
The AATP program stages works by new and established African American dramatists, developing a broad audience for African American theatre, and offering an in-depth curriculum that focuses on the theory and craft of acting, directing and designing for Black Theatre.
Like other disciplines, the COVID-19 pandemic has required Edwards to adapt, including the creation of virtual courses and recorded performances. She’s also applying theatre arts to address racial tension in the United States.
This semester, Edwards took AATP students to the Breonna Taylor memorial in downtown Louisville to read poetry. The expression was sent out to the community through Instagram Live. Additionally, Edwards says several students have been involved in protests and will express their thoughts and feelings through sketch writing and performance in a Spring 2021 production titled “#Hashtag.”
In an effort to further involve the community, AATP is hosting a MLK Day Artist Contest around the Martin Luther King, Jr., quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Edwards hopes to receive a variety of submissions ranging from poetry and dance to performance art and music. Cash awards will be given to first, second and third-place winners.
The arts, Edwards says, allow people to see themselves and others around them in an objective way, and understand that people have more in common than the things that keep them apart.
“At our core, we all feel sadness, happiness, joy – these are universal to our humanity,” she said. “If we can get to these truths, understand how to empathize and act accordingly, then we can make real change in the world.”