Exploring topics such as race, gender, sexuality, and mental health, members of the Freedom Players — an ensemble formed out of Wayne State University’s Black Theater and Dance Program — went no holds barred this month when they performed their honest and original play, I Am, at the Scotland-based Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The trip marked the first time WSU students have attended the month-long, city-wide celebration, and their play was one of more than 50,000 performances showcased during the festival’s run.
Following their experience across the Atlantic Ocean, Hour Detroit spoke with Billicia Hines, artistic director of the Black Theatre and Dance Collective at WSU, about the decision to attend this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, how it felt to bring their heartfelt work to an international audience, and the unforgettable impression this experience has had on the young Freedom Players.
Hour Detroit: How did I Am come together, and how did it end up at the Fringe?
Billica Hines: While looking for ways to build up the Black Theatre and Dance Collective, RAS Mikey Courtney — [the director of choreography within the Freedom Players, who has a doctorate in Arts Practice] — and I came up with the idea to create a piece for the ensemble based on the idea of liberation. During that same time, our chair, John Wolf, let us know we had help from the department with funding for the Freedom Players to be able to go to the International College Theatre Festival of the Edinburgh Fringe. I was unaware that because of the department’s great work in the past, we’ve been asked almost every year. That excited us. The word liberation is a very universal theme that all countries connect to. We found that after we delved deeper into rehearsals, students had a greater sense of what liberation meant to them and what issues are truly going on in their lives: identity, gender, race, sexuality, privilege, and all the intersectionalities of those things.
What challenges did your students face while performing for an international audience?
One of the biggest challenges was our tech day consisted of just two hours, so we didn’t have the opportunity to have a real run-through of the show in the space. We had it organized, and they were on it. I was really proud of them about that. And then coming in on the opening show, never really before running in that space, they were on it. Every day they improved. They were able to see what it’s like to be a professional. In college, you have all this extra time to sit around and contemplate, but in the professional world, you have to be on immediately. And they stepped up to that challenge.
How did the Fringe receive I Am?
Our show stood out within the festival because it had a strong social justice theme and because it delved into so many issues, things people are uncomfortable talking about. We discussed topics that are going on right now. One of our students who is Latina American was discussing that people stereotype her as not being American, but she was born in Florida. Going back to Peru, she’s an outsider, but then being in America, where she was born and raised, white people don’t look at her as American. She doesn’t know where she goes. People could connect because the subject matter of immigration touched many of them.
What was this overall experience like for your students?
Many of the students had never been out of the country. One had never been on a plane. We attended the [Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo performances] that encompasses military groups from all over the world; that was beautiful. A lot of kids had never seen anything like that. I think overall, just being in another country with an ensemble, they grew stronger together, and it showed because they were more connected through the show. Being appreciative of being in one of the largest international festivals, seeing what other shows had to offer, and talking to people from all over the world — I think that touched them more than just one specific thing.
How will this experience affect your programming in the future?
Well, now we have international experience, which is great within itself. We want to keep touring I Am because the dynamics will change. Two students in the ensemble have graduated, and we want to continue on this idea of liberation with new students and bringing in new stories. We haven’t delved into talking about religion, and especially in this area, talking about Muslim versus Christianity, or Judaism or whatnot, what does liberation mean? We want to flesh out new ideas and it’s always dependent on the students who are part of the ensemble.