Coming to Passage Theatre this summer, after my first year at Princeton University, I was exhausted. For the six months prior, my life had consisted of reading scholarship, writing a little bit, and then reading some more. My brain, at the beginning of June, resembled my bedhead: tangled, knotted, stubbornly inflexible, and completely indecipherable.
So, you can imagine, I was simply thrilled when I became Passage Theatre’s summer dramaturgy intern. That’s basically a fancy way of saying, “person-doing-historical-research-for-the-people-actually-creating-the-art.” In other words, I was resigning myself to spend another two months parsing through dense databases and old archives, hoping to come across information that was somehow relevant to one of Passage’s new projects, entitled Junior High #2.
Groan, right? More reading?
The project centers on the 1943-44 New Jersey Supreme Court Case, Hedgepeth-Williams v. Board of Education of the City of Trenton. It was the landmark case, I learned, that provoked the integration of schools throughout the state of New Jersey.
Okay, that was kinda cool.
My research would be compiled into a teaching guide given to eighth grade students who attend Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School, so named after its integral role in the court case. Those students would learn about racial justice and equal education through the lense of a beautiful, historic reckoning that was incited underneath the very ground on which they now stood. And, at the end of the curriculum, they’d produce a play about the Hedgepeth-Williams case.
Wow. Hmm. Maybe my work wasn’t just “more reading.”
As I dug into my research, I began to see the same phrases repeated behind my closed eyelids when I try to go to sleep: Trenton in the 1940s...Leon Hedgepeth...New Jersey Supreme Court...Spring Street. At first it was monotonous, but then I began to see something else, too. I began to visualize 13 year old children of color, wide-eyed, learning about how hard those before them had fought for their rights. I saw young students confronting their own experience with explicit and implicit racial bias.
I saw them, with the help of two magnificent theatremakers (Richard Bradford and David Lee White), tap into creative potential that they didn’t even know they had. And suddenly, I wasn’t just reading and researching. I was part of a much larger movement: I was helping to create visibility and educational opportunities for black and brown people. People who looked a little more like me.
And that was a magical thing.
My work at Passage is not another foray into a dull academia. It’s an experience that has already strengthened my mind, character, and passion for a unique kind of learning institution: a small theatre in Trenton that’s changing peoples’ lives.
Junior High #2, the Hedgepeth-Williams curriculum, will be implemented during the 2021-22 school year. And I. Can’t. Wait.