By Camisha L. Jones
Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, or Dr. T as she’s fondly known, is a tenured faculty member in the Department of Theatre at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has won numerous awards and honors for her role as founder and artistic director of The Conciliation Project. The mission of The Conciliation Project (TCP) is “to promote, through the use of theatre, dialogue on racism in America in order to repair its damaging legacy.”
Eleven years ago, while at Seattle Central Community College in Washington, Dr. T invited a class of students to use theatre to explore the connections between contemporary racist stereotypes and blackface minstrelsy born from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The class produced a play entitled uncle tom: deconstructed. The overwhelming response to the play and to the opportunity to discuss America’s racial history led to the founding of TCP 10 years ago.
This July, TCP will present uncle tom: deconstructed in Richmond. In August, Dr. T will travel with the TCP troupe to Scotland to present uncle tom at the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Festival, the largest arts festival in the world. This will be the first time TCP has performed a full-length production internationally.
Urban Views Weekly interviews Dr. T.
UVW: Why does The Conciliation Project use the word “conciliation” rather than “reconciliation” in its name?
Dr. T: Reconciliation is about reconnecting together and we feel like we have never been together so it’s not possible to re-“come together.” So, the first thing that we have to do is conciliate with one another. The basic definition of that is…to bring two parts that are separate and far off from one another closer together. That’s what our name means. We cannot pretend in this country that we are united when we are so dis-united.
What about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired you to create uncle tom: deconstructed?
I had been working on the methodology of the use of ritual poetic drama within the African continuum and theatre as a tool for social change. I decided I wanted to apply the work to a piece of literature.
I have always been fascinated by tokenism. The character of uncle tom was the token Black.
So, I had this class of people [I was teaching at Seattle Central Community College] and I said “we are going to create a play based off the deconstruction of uncle tom…”
One of the students raises his hand and goes, “Dr. T, how are we gonna do uncle tom deconstructed when there are no Black people in this class?”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the first minstrel shows ever created. That story became [a play]… that went around the country like wildfire. Uncle Tom troupes sprung up all around the country performing this novel and, of course, there were no Black people in [those casts]. So, I said: “We’re gonna do a minstrel show but we’re gonna do blackface and we’re gonna do whiteface….We’re gonna minstrelize everybody…” That’s where the idea came from. We couldn’t actually do Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We didn’t have any Black people in the class and the original Uncle Tom’s Cabin when it was created in theatre was a minstrel show. It made sense historically to do it that way.
I never capitalize uncle tom because it’s not a person. It’s a thing. uncle tom is a fairy tale which people do not realize. We have created this mystique of a man and we call him a man. uncle tom… is really the fantasy of Harriet Beecher Stowe. We have embraced him as a being and we have named people in our community [“uncle tom”].
What is the significance of performing uncle tom in Richmond, Virginia rather than in Seattle, Washington where it was created?
The first “uncle tom” troupe ever [to perform Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel]…performed here first. The biggest slave markets and commerce of human chattel happened here. I feel that when there is something systemic like that, you have to go to the root…in order to address the process of undoing it or of healing the damage that was done.
Why is dialogue included at the end of TCP performances?
We do the performance in order to have the dialogue. The dialogue is actually the more important thing. We definitely care about our performance because we spend an awful lot of time and energy and effort preparing it for the audience. The preparation in performance is like preparing the soil for planting. What we really want to plant are those seeds of dialogue and, hopefully, they will take root and grow. There is not a play that we do that does not include dialogue as a component. For uncle tom, in particular, it became very important for me that we talk because people are wearing blackface [in the production]. It’s very important for me to have a discussion after that.
How does theatre help in discussing racism?
We’re talking about some very difficult issues. We’re talking about some history that a lot of folks don’t know and a lot of folks don’t want to know. To use the art of theatre to help bring a sense of performance to that and to help bring a sense of entertainment to that helps people to chew on some stuff that’s hard to digest.
All of the pieces use music and poetry and dance as well because that helps to bring people in. Then, the dialogue helps us to speak honestly and truthfully about our feelings about what we witnessed.
What else would you like people to know about The Conciliation Project?
We are looking for people to join us. You don’t have to be an actor. We need people with all kinds of skills and even people who have just a major desire to see the work move forward and make change. We need everybody at the table because we’re all in this together as a nation.
Performances of uncle tom: deconstructed will be held on Thursday, July 28th through Saturday, July 30th at 8pm nightly at the Shafer Street Playhouse on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus (corner of Shafer Street and Franklin Street). TCP asks that guests pay what they can. For more info, call 804-477-6453 or visit http://theconciliationproject.org/.