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SOU students' 'Black to the Future' event postponed

UPDATE 10:45 Thursday: Organizers announced "Black to the Future" is postponed due to COVID-19 precautions Thursday morning.

Seated sideways across a chair Tuesday in the basement of Southern Oregon’s Stevenson Union, Jennifer Riddick leaned back and lifted her legs in the air, waiting.

“You may trod me in the very dirt,” the voice of poet and writer Maya Angelou rolled forth from Riddick’s portable speaker. The sound launched the 22-year-old dancer into a series of smooth movements to the rhythm of her words. “But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

The three-part modern dance performance Riddick was rehearsing took her about six hours to choreograph and design. Thursday night, she’ll perform it in front of what could be her biggest audience ever, at the Black to the Future showcase arranged by leaders of SOU’s Black Student Union, with support from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“It’s rare that I get to showcase my blackness at the school and throughout ... the community,” Riddick said. “So, getting to choreograph a piece that’s very close to my heart that also represents black culture I think is going to be a great way for the community to acknowledge my blackness and see my talent and my power through my dancing.”

The event, conceived of and produced mainly by BSU President Bathscheba Duronvil, is described as “the colliding of art and history” on OSF’s ticket-purchasing landing page. For an hour and 45 minutes Thursday starting at 6 p.m., black students and community members will explore slices of black history through song, dance, poetry and speeches to a community audience in OSF’s Thomas Theatre.

Similar themes emerge in the performers’ answers when asked what has driven them to put in the hours of preparation.

“Our lives are more than just our skin,” said Tiara Primus, a senior who will be performing two spoken-word poems. “I’m hoping to show the skeptics in the audience that hey, I’m a human, too.”

One of her poems is from a time when she felt lost in life, and the other when she had found a sense of herself again.

“These same thoughts that you were thinking five years ago on your bathroom floor, sobbing into your knees, I was thinking that, too,” she said. “I have lived a life and you have lived a life and you need to stop assuming who I am based off of how I look.”

Duronvil put it briefly: “We’re up there for the reason of just liberating ourselves,” she said.

By reviewing historical narratives in their performances, the students will display the dichotomies that they continue to navigate in their racial identities today: pain and victory, silence and speech, endurance and disruption.

The showcase comes as many students of color at SOU are voicing frustrations over university administration’s handling of racist attacks that became widely public in recent weeks.

The main incident in question, when an unidentified person scrawled the n-word across a black resident assistant’s dorm room door in mid-January, drew outrage from students in the BSU and other student unions. Students expressed that they didn’t feel SOU Housing or central administration addressed it in a public fashion, affording them awareness and assuring them that hatred wouldn’t be swept under the rug.

Conversations with administrators, including SOU President Linda Schott, haven’t left BSU leadership encouraged, according to its president.

“I’m sick and tired,” Duronvil said. “I’ve cried all my tears. I just want to get done with this term.”

Following meetings with student leaders, Schott said the feedback has catalyzed a review of protocols and practices involved with responding to incidents like the racist vandalism.

“While we did advise residents of the dorm and some others of this incident, in the future we will expand that to other stakeholders who need to know and can assist us in responding to these events,” she said in an email Wednesday. “We will need to continue ensuring the privacy and protection of the victims in these case, but we can and will provide greater and more timely notification to key stakeholders who need to know who can assist us in preventing these crimes and identifying perpetrators.”

Schott expressed her sorrow over the incidents that have occurred and said she is “personally committed to making their experiences better.”

Duronvil said students will continue to keep looking out for university response.

“We expect change,” she said.

After what she called “a really crazy couple of weeks,” the showcase is something to look forward to.

It’s also the culmination of months of work. As a criminal justice major, Duronvil had never produced a show before, though she used to dream of directing movies as a child.

“I appreciate theater a lot more,” the sophomore said. “I’ve been sweating. It’s a lot of work.”

But she didn’t go it alone. Early in the process, before she had any real idea of what the event she wanted to create would include, she reached out to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for help, at the end of the 2019 season.

Staff at the nonprofit, especially its people of color, had wanted to increase its connections with SOU student unions, said Whitney Reed, creative manager of cultivation for OSF.

“(Duronvil is) teaching us a reminder of where we came from — how our job is so intertwined not only with this art we’re making, but this radical inclusiveness,” Reed said. “I’m so happy we have the opportunity to work with her.”

With help from other staff, including Interim Producer Donya K. Washington, Assistant Producer Jasmine Hall and Interim Director of Equity Sharifa Johka, the production grew to its current lineup of eight performers.

In addition to providing the theater space, even at the beginning of its own season, the organization also helped with marketing and handling the box office.

Tickets, which are available at bit.ly/2W4VSTX, are free, though donations will be accepted. They’ll go directly to the Black Student Union to help fund activities such as bringing speakers to campus and sending students to leadership conferences.

Reed said she and other staff hope the event will repeat, and that such collaborations will keep pushing the local culture to welcome people from all backgrounds.

“How do we want to be experienced when people come here?” she asked. “It’s about what all of us are doing. The positives should outweigh the negatives in this city. And that takes work.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Southern Oregon University student Jennifer Riddick is a performer in the Black Student Union's "Black to the Future" showcase. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch