Theater Arts’ Trailblazers Blazes New Trails in Antiracist Discourse at Arcadia University

By Jonathan Weppel | March 27, 2023

The Theater Arts Department at Arcadia University recently ran six showings of The Trailblazers, “groundbreaking plays by remarkable women,” in the Spruance Art Center Feb. 16-19, 2023. Each showing ran approximately 90 minutes and offered attendees four one-act plays to showcase the efforts of the incredible students, faculty, and directors who had been working toward this success. The Trailblazers featured Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Plumes, Maria Irene Fornes’s Springtime, Alice Gerstenberg’s Overtones, and Alice Childress’s Florence, all of which lived up to their billing: groundbreaking and remarkable. 

The production’s bookend plays, Plumes and Florence, are of particular interest to the antiracist movement advocated through the University’s Center for Antiracist Scholarship, Advocacy, and Action (CASAA). In these important works, Johnson and Childress capture problematic absences of compassion and consideration that have their most frequent and damaging effects on people of color.  

In Plumes, a Black mother named Charity anticipates a tragic outcome for her sick child and calls attention to her overwhelming concern that medical attention will bring her family nothing but financial ruin. The doctor can provide no assurance that the ambiguous surgery he is proposing will result in a positive outcome. Furthermore, he never sees the mother’s vulnerability because their financial situations are opposite. He only chastises Charity for questioning his advice and for neglecting to meet his eager desire to operate. The play thus highlights the racialized power dynamics at work in the United States as well as notions of gendered racism that impact Black women often in their search for care.

Florence is set in a Jim-Crow-South train station, where Momma waits for passage north to meet her Broadway-aspiring daughter. There she meets Mrs. Carter, who is all too eager to brag about her progressive nature—from her side of the segregated room. Their conversation reveals that Mrs. Carter has connections in showbusiness. In response, Momma tries to find in-roads for her daughter. The audience is led to believe, same as Momma, that Mrs. Carter is going to share a connection; however, once Mrs. Carter reveals that her connection is surely in need of a maid, all air is removed from the room. It becomes clear there is no way to be seen or heard by Mrs. Carter, whose view of Black women is restricted to the domestic sphere.

At the center of both of these plays is a failure to look beyond a glance. In both situations, aid is offered from a place of condescension. The human soul is left unseen because it is hidden by a difference of skin. Unfortunately, interactions like these persist well beyond the past in which they were written or the moments they were intended to capture. Today, we might label such encounters as “micro-aggressions.” Unfortunately, this term has the tendency to minimize the pain, especially for those not plagued by regular or systemic occurrences; however, when the detrimental effects of recurring negative stress are considered, a significant violence is revealed. 

So that we might do better together, telling stories of persistent pain is an important function of the arts and the humanities. Arcadia’s Theater Arts Department is certainly doing its part, and the Center for Antiracist Scholarship, Advocacy, and Action would like to commend all of those involved and all of those who attended for ensuring such painful stories receive their time in the spotlight.