The women of Face Off Theatre create a space for the works they want to see staged in Kalamazoo


 
Second Wave is taking an occasional look at theaters in Kalamazoo that include, explicitly or implied, "acts of engaged citizenship" in their spaces. 

No one else in the theater world of Kalamazoo was doing it, so the women behind the Face Off Theatre Company did it for themselves.

"We just morphed together and everyone who had the same communal conscious was like, we need to do this for ourselves, to start something together, to have a platform. Like-minds coming together at the right time," Face Off co-founder Bianca Washington says.

In 2015, a group of black women -- directors, playwrights, actors, who came out of the academic world of Western Michigan University's theater department, noted that Kalamazoo's theater scene would sprinkle people of color into productions, and occasionally stage stories based on the black experience, yet they "saw that there was a gap," Washington says. 

"We had a unique situation of having a bunch of women of color who were graduates of Western, who were staying in Kalamazoo," co-founder and current artistic director Marissa Herrington says. "We came together to try to figure out, OK, what kind of work do we want to see in Kalamazoo, as women who are artists of color, what do we want to see?" 

They took the leap and formed the company under the roof of the Black Arts and Cultural Center's Epic Center office. "Let's make it, let's make that theater," Herrington says they agreed.

As Face Off prepares to launch its fifth season, Second Wave met with the nine-person company. 

Why does Kalamazoo, or the theater world in general, need a company like Face Off?

Washington says, "There weren't a lot of platforms for us to tell our stories, the kind of stories that we wanted to tell. "

"Can I toot you guys' horn?" asks Earlene McMichael, marketing and social media director/playwright/actor. "It's not only that you had that idea, but you all had the background to do so."

"I'm going to toot Western Michigan Theatre's horn, that it's a diamond in the rough," Herrington says. 

WMU helps students develop in all aspects of theater, to develop on stage as an actor, as well as a director, playwright and how to do the business behind the art, she says. "It's a very special place. We are trained to do the real work of theater, we are trained to create, and I think that is a unique balance.... All of us together with that same training is what propelled us to have the courage to create this theater company."

WMU, as well as Kalamazoo College, stage diverse productions. But is it fair to say that, outside of the academic world, established community and equity theaters, that are looking to sell tickets to the general public, sometimes rely on old familiar titles that can be, to put it bluntly, pretty white?

"We are in a very diverse country, a very diverse city, so there is room for everyone. There's room for different types of voices. There's a place for a more-entertaining type of theater because there's a different type of audience member. So there are audience members who want to go see theater or go to the movies and want to be entertained," Herrington responds.

"And then you have people who want to be challenged. They want to think, they want to feel, they want to talk about it, they want to engage. So for us, what we saw as a need for our community was a space for a theater where audience members can engage, to walk away and go 'huh, what did I just see? How can I apply that to life?' Or, 'how can I process this?'"

Herrington continues, "It is engagement, it is activism, and we moved into that activism role especially in the last few years, producing work to respond to what's going on in the country."

Engagement

In February of last year, Face Off collaborated with the WMU Department of Theatre in "Black Lives, Black Words," where readings, poetry, and music, most by area writers and performers, dealt with the question, "Do black lives matter?"

The event is why Kai Harris, working for her Ph.D. in fiction at WMU, joined Face Off as production manager, she says. She'd come out of Belmont University in Nashville with a masters in creative writing and had been in Kalamazoo for just a year at the time. "That was my first time being in a space where I just felt free to say some things that had been in me and on me to say." 

She shared her poetry and essays. Afterward, there was a talkback with the audience. 

"I had not seen that before," she says. "It was so powerful to me, just sitting in that space and all kinds of people were talking and sharing and collaborating and feeling; people got emotional, people who I didn't think cared cared a lot," she says.

"It was so gratifying and so important that literally just afterward, and I didn't know Marissa at all at that point, I said 'I want to be involved in this.'" She laughs. "I didn't even know what that meant, what it was going to mean in my life." Harris saw the kind of engagement that a theater community can spark, and knew, "I have to be involved in that."

There are talkbacks after every Face Off show. "We saw the need and importance of community engagement. It's part of the culture of our company," Harrington says.

Washington says she hears from audiences, "'I'm so glad that I saw this. I'm so glad that you put this play up. This show had a lot of things that I was thinking and feeling, now I can express them through watching this piece.' "

Washington remembers directing Tarell Alvin McCraney's "The Brothers Size," in October, 2017, where "those talkbacks were really significant because of the representation of males, and the black males in the room also had a platform to express."

Face Off's second show, Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," sparked the most reaction, Herrington says. It speculates what Martin Luther King went through the night before he was assassinated. "It's a very controversial show because of that content. You get to see Dr. King in a very human way," she says. 

They partnered with Kalamazoo College to put it on the Balch Theatre stage, January 2016. "Their theater space was packed to the brim with people from the community, and those talkbacks were phenomenal. Because people were reflecting; 'let's look back at what he was fighting for in his life, and now let's fast forward to now, where are we now, have things changed, can we have more of an impact' -- those were really intense conversations." 

Theater in divisive times

Where are we, now? Stresses and conflicts between people seem to be enflamed in the Trump era -- how is Face Off facing this?

Avery Kenyatta, a new company apprentice, says, "Black people have been living in strife since forever, so we've had a lot to say for a very long time." 

"Yeah, it is getting worse with Trump," he says, but adds that they need to continue "Addressing things with truth, and clarity."

He recalls "Black Lives, Black Words," where, as a WMU student he directed a piece written by McMichael. The event was all about "telling it like it is, not buttering it up or sugarcoating," he says.

McMichael says, "What was amazing about that experience -- You're talking about divisive times? -- is how open people's minds were and ears were to hear some of these hard truths that were being said on the stage." 

There was a full house for the event, some sat on the floor to be there, McMichael says, "and when you looked at that audience, a lot of them didn't even look like us. There were a lot of white people who came out to see that, and that was really an amazing experience."

Connecting theater with community 

Betty Lenzy, the new volunteer coordinator for Face Off, has lived in the area for 27 years, teaching drama to middle and high school students. 

She talked to a friend recently, Lenzy says, "she was asking about the participation of the community, in the community of theater. I'm going to honestly say this -- my concern, just like her concern, was that we don't get a lot of participation from African Americans in our community. So, she was saying, 'I wonder why that is?'"

She wasn't sure how to answer her friend's question. "For me, I think that what Face Off Theatre is doing is bringing the African American community into the community of theater. Maybe because we haven't seen a presence before, maybe that's why people were not coming out? I don't know," she says.

"But when I found out about Face Off Theatre, I was like 'Yeah, buddy! This is good!' And that it was a company of young African American women, I was just tickled about that. So I'm now raising the flag and telling everybody, you gotta come."

The diversifying future of Face Off

Lenzy says, "our youth is our future." Face Off has held school-break workshops with local kids interested in drama. "This is huge," she says, "just the interest these kids have. It's a platform, it's a way to express what you're feeling and what you're thinking, to get people to hear what's in your heart. That's a huge thing."

"In my role as artistic director, I feel like I'm burdened with thinking about sustainability and relevance, and it's one of those things, like Bianca said, you speak into existence. Because it's scary to start from the ground up, it's terrifying," Herrington says. 

McMichael makes the point that company members are also active in other theaters, such as the Kalamazoo Civic and All Ears Theatre. "So that they're not limited in doing just things that deal with people of color. People are turning to them to utilize their skills, and turning to our company for those types of things."

Is the Kalamazoo theater scene getting better at telling more-diverse stories, with diverse casts? 

"I would say definitely it is, for the better," Herrington says. "We were able to see from the very beginning what the theater landscape was for Kalamazoo, and how it is now. I've seen an improvement in the offerings across the board in Kalamazoo. And to be honest that is a great thing! If it took our existence for everyone to open their eyes and go, huh! We should do more of that!"

The Face Off Theatre Company as pictured above:
Face Off Theatre Company, from left, Avery Vonn Kenyatta, General Company Member (actor, director); Christie Coleman, Community Outreach Coordinator (actor, singer); Kai Harris, Production Manager (actor, director, playwright); Earlene McMichael, Brand Marketing and Social Media Manager (actor, playwright); Marissa Harrington, Co-Founder and Artistic Director (actor, director); Betty Lenzy, Volunteer Coordinator (actor); Bianca Washington, Co-Founder and Youth Programs Director (actor, director); Shea-Lin Shobowale-Benson, Stage Manager (actor, playwright); Micealaya ("Mickey") Moses, Co-Founder, Company Dramaturg and Season Planning/New Play Development Director (playwright). Photo by Mark Wedel

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.
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