Mitchell ’20 Dreams of Life on Stage to Assist Community

By Caitlin T. Burns | February 5, 2020

Justin Mitchell ’20

Bachelor of Arts in Theater Arts

Justin Mitchell ’20 came to Arcadia as a Business Administration major. On his first day of classes, he changed his major to Theater Arts. 

A shy student at Central High School, Mitchell had dreamed of getting on stage. However, when looking at colleges, he tamped down those dreams, with the help of family encouragement to pursue a business degree at another university. After touring Arcadia and meeting with Mark Wade, assistant professor and program director of Theater Arts, Mitchell felt a new direction.  

During his first performance in The Motherf**ker with the Hat, which ran in October 2018, Mitchell’s family was in the audience. At the end of the show, Mitchell felt great encouragement when his family told him, “You have something—continue to do it. We support you.” 

“My General Tubman” at the Arden Theatre

Harriet Tubman was known for her “spells,” or what historians and doctors would diagnose today as epilepsy. However, West Philadelphia-bred playwright Lorene Cary re-imagines those spells in her first play, My General Tubman. During one of her “spells,” Tubman travels ahead in time to a Philadelphia prison, where she tries to recruit inmates to help in the fight against slavery. 

Now, Mitchell is ready to launch his career as an actor in the Philadelphia area. He’s already landed an understudy role for the Arden Theatre Company’s production of My General Tubman, a world premiere play about the journey of Harriet Tubman and the impact she continues to have. The show opened on Jan. 25, and the run has been extended to March 15.

“I’m really humbled and excited to be given the opportunity to sit in the room with a bunch of professional actors and see them work,” Mitchell said about the performance rehearsals. “To see that process, and to see how Director James Ijames carved out the play, was great.”

In addition to My General Tubman, where Mitchell plays the narrator’s understudy, he’s also performing in Arcadia Theater’s rendition of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a witty and savage satire of the rise of Hitler recast into a fictional, small-time Chicago gangster’s takeover of the city’s greengrocery trade in the 1930s. Mitchell plays Emanuele Giri, the second-in-command gangster, in the production that opens on Thursday, Feb. 27 and runs through Sunday, March 8.

With rehearsals and his understudy role keeping him busy from Tuesday to Sunday, Mitchell said he’s focused on self-care to keep him going—especially as a senior who, amidst everything else, is also crafting his thesis play.

Based on his family’s own experience of grief and loss, Mitchell’s thesis is a performance about coping with death. Written as a dream play, the characters reflect on memories of an individual in the moments before their death and how they grieve for that person going forward. Mitchell credits Associate Professor of Theater Arts Kathryn Petersen for instilling the confidence in him to write this play. He said the experience has brought him closer to his mom, as they’ve started to talk about their own loss and how she had to cope while also raising four children.

“The biggest challenge for me was learning to be vulnerable, and especially vulnerable in front of people,” said Mitchell. “In my thesis meeting, I started crying about why I wanted to write this play and the meaning behind it. I’ve learned it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be vulnerable, and it’s okay to communicate those feelings to others.”

The cast and crew of “Arturo Ui.”

While Mitchell plans to continue acting in the Philadelphia area, he also has his eye on teaching. Growing up without the opportunity to develop his art, Mitchell wants to ensure that underserved children in Philadelphia have that same opportunity and hopes to one day open up a school for students to “express themselves and be themselves when it comes to the arts.”

“[Wade] has these little gems, and he one time said ‘Privilege allows people to dream,’” said Mitchell. “If you don’t grow up with a lot of privilege, that stops you in a way from dreaming and having the imagination that you need to have, especially as an artist. I realized when I first came here that was me—not growing up with a lot, I was realistic about how certain things would be. I didn’t allow myself to dream and to take the opportunities, but now, I can.”