The glaring sun and 85-degree heat did not stop the nearly 40 people who came to see “Blackademics,” one of the latest productions from UF Performing Arts Driveway Theatre Project Saturday.
The outdoor performance took place on a sweltering Saturday afternoon at the A. Quinn Jones Museum and Cultural Center patio. It was free to attend as a way to engage the Gainesville community in theater performances.
This is one of several Black History Month events the Jones Center hosted in February. Museum director Carol Richardson saw this as a good opportunity to introduce an affordable way the community can watch a theater performance.
“This is our gift back to our community to enjoy quality live theater,” Richardson said.
Blackademics is a one-act satire play written by playwright Idris Goodwin in 2012. The play centers around two Black women in academia and serves as a commentary toward colorism, racial stereotypes and socioeconomic backgrounds. It portrays these messages through its bold dialogue and whimsical humor.
The play began with the character Ann — a professor at an elite liberal arts college — walking into a cafe and waiting for her friend Rachelle, a professor at the state university. Their server, a white woman named Georgia, makes backhanded compliments and subtle racist comments toward the women.
Soon, the audience learns that this is no ordinary cafe. Georgia refuses to simply give the two a table, chairs, water, utensils and even food. Instead, she makes them compete for it by determining who is more successful or more knowledgeable through debates and heated discussions.
Underlying feelings of jealousy, disapproval and pride start showing up in both Ann and Rachelle as they debate on privilege with colorism, the “post-racial America” theory, American universities’ unjust treatment of Black professors and several other thought-provoking topics. Many of these tropes were presented in a humorous or satirical way.
Audience members laughed and hollered during comedic parts and fell into a pin drop silence during the intense, emotional portions. Everyone listened intently as several controversial topics started being unpacked within the nearly 90-minute performance.
When the performance came to an end, the audience roared into a round of applause. Several people went up to the cast members and director to compliment them on their performance and share their thoughts on the play.
Kayleigh Williams and her husband, John, traveled more than half an hour to Gainesville from Keystone Heights to see the play. Their friend Lola Bond, the actress who played Rachelle, invited them.
Williams, a 35-year-old assistant principal at Keystone Heights Elementary School, believes Black History Month events and performances are especially crucial for the youth in the community.
“I think it’s important for our young students, anybody in the community, to really understand the importance of [Black history],” Williams said.
The director of the play, 69-year-old Cristina Palacio, shared some insight on the message behind the play.
“This stood out to me as an absurd comedy,” Palacio said. “The first time you read it, it’s puzzling.”
Palacio spoke about how the play brings an unconventional take on colorism, where the lighter skinned woman has an inferiority complex because she is not perceived as “Black enough” to teach African American literature by her university.
The play also alludes to how issues with race and racism were no longer prominent after Former President Barack Obama was inaugurated. It was as if having a Black president got rid of all the race-related issues in America, Palacio said.
“I hope people go away thinking about some of the issues,” Palacio said.
The DTP’s producer and education coordinator of UF Performing Arts, Derek Wohlust, spoke about the mission of the DTP — to bring easy access to theater performances to less populated or economically disadvantaged areas of Florida.
“It’s University of Florida Performing Arts’ effort to bring art into places where people have their barriers. Economic, physical, distance, things like that,” Wohlust said. “So, bringing the art into communities or literally driveways.”
Anybody can be a host and it’s completely free to attend, Wohlust explained. All expenses are funded by private donations. Performances are kept small-scale and shown in places like houses, community centers and local libraries.
Wohlust acted as the manager for the “Blackademics” production as well as the sound technician at Saturday’s performance.
The three actresses of the play also shared their thoughts on their interpretations of their characters and the messages of the play.
The actress who played Ann, Amanda Edwards, was pleasantly surprised when she first read the script.
“I read it not knowing what it was about, thinking ‘We’re gonna teach some history’ and being overjoyed that it was the complete opposite of what I thought it was,” Edwards said.
Edwards spoke about how Ann was initially winning the “competition” in the cafe because she had received tenure at her institution yet still felt inferior to Rachelle because the existing power structure makes it impossible for her, a dark-skinned woman, to truly win.
The actress behind Georgia, Cindy Weldon Lasley, was casted a mere two weeks before the performance. The previous actress had tested positive for COVID-19. Lasley was eager to play Georgia after reading the script for the first time.
“It’s meaty, it’s thick,” Lasley said. “There are so many layers to it with all the characters and the interactions.”
Lola Bond, the actress who played Rachelle, felt a personal connection to her character. In the play, Rachelle was not completely accepted as a Black woman because of her lighter skin tone. As a biracial person herself, Bond understood those sentiments.
“I do identify as Black, but you look at me and I pass,” Bond said. “Not being ethnic enough has come up in my world more than once, so it’s something that’s important to me.”
Siri Blumberg, a 45-year-old UF Health Information Technology project coordinator, came to watch the play and ran into Carol Richardson, a longtime friend. She then volunteered to help people sign in and find seats.
“I think these [performances] bring communities together,” Blumberg said. “It’s Black History Month. People must remember and support.”
Contact Erina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ErinaAnwar_ .
Erina is a second-year journalism student and reports on East Gainesville for The Alligator. Originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Erina grew up in Fort Lauderdale and is excited to discover new stories in Gainesville. When she’s not writing, she enjoys exploring local restaurants and watching Korean dramas.