It takes just four weeks to make a family—and a play

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Have you ever watched a bird gathering twigs to build a nest in the spring? Or a squirrel hoarding acorns as October’s brilliant colors fade into the gray chill of the approaching winter?

Either experience is a lot like seeing Denison’s Visiting Vail Artist Professor Dale Shields assemble nearly two dozen curious students to create an original play and a family of friends over just four short weeks.

Shields arrived in Granville during the second week of September, invited by Associate Provost Toni C. King and the Diversity Advisory Committee in the Provost’s Office. Actually, he’s been here before. In 2007, he directed “Fires in the Mirror” at Denison as a Vail guest resident artist and assistant professor of theatre.

​This time, in conjunction with the Spectrum Series theme “Migrations,” Shields worked with a group of students, representing a wide range of identities, discover how to write and perform their own migration narratives of living in America.

In their nightly workshops, they wrote down answers for Shield’s questions like “Who are you?,” “What do you want?” and “What is your objective for being in college?” He  took their answers and turned them into lines for the production.

The students listened to one another, found things to laugh about and very quickly became a community of fast friends who were able to share many private feelings with one another.

Shields titled the production “I, Too, Sing America!” from a piece written by American poet Langston Hughes.

Opening night, the cast gave two performances at the Black Box Theatre in Burke Recital Hall, with a “talkback” in between, featuring the cast members, Shields, and faculty members Ron Abrams (Art), Linda Krumholz (English), Stafford Berry (Dance), and visiting guest professor of black studies Yvonne Williams from the College of Wooster. A third performance was given the next evening, and all three drew standing ovations from packed audiences.

The stage was set with a quilt created by Cindi Turnbull (Theatre). During the first act, the audience heard the lines of Hughes’ poem , as the actors and actresses riveted the crowd with performances that were touching and inspiring. Later, they sang “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway play “Rent” and performed dance routines that rivaled “Chorus Line.” Tong Liu ’14 played “America the Beautiful” on the Erhu, his Chinese two-string fiddle, and was joined by a chorus of voices as audience members were moved to tears.

As the student cast members told their own stories of who they were, they passed along their joy in having become part of a new family and community along with their hope that the whole campus will continue the tradition. The whole process only took a month, but it was clear their migration had taken them to a new level.

Student members who made “I, Too, Sing America!” possible were: Stage Manager: Kristen Edwards ’15 (Dublin, Ohio), Assistant Director/Music Director: Jaime Weinfeld ’15 (Navarre, Ohio); Cast: Nancy Aguilar ’14 (Chicago), Sara Blike ’15 (North Canton, Ohio), Wiselene Dorceus ’15 (Lynn, Mass.); Daniel Fiorentini ’14 (Inglewood, Calif.), Brandon Hummons ’13 (Chicago, Ill.), Lennon D. Johnson ’14 (Boston, Mass.), Tong Liu ’14 (Chengdu, China), Keith Mullings, Jr., ’13 (Harlem, N.Y.), Keith Nolen ’13 (Boston, Mass.), Jasmine Passa ’15 (Arlington, Va.), Khari Riley ’15 (Chicago, Ill.), Najee Rollins ’15 (Baltimore, Md.); Autumn Stiles ’14 (Jersey City, N.J.), Quaanzale Thompson ’15 (Boston, Mass.), Myky Tran ’14 (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), Miwa Tsutsui ’14 (Tokyo, Japan); Xavier J. Vargas ’15 (Chicago, Ill.), Patrick White ’15 (Buffalo, N.Y.), Marquita K. Williams ’14 (Chicago, Ill.); Production Assistants: Baek Du Kim ’13 (Incheon City, South Korea), Assiata Berry ’15 (Boston, Mass.); Costume Deisgners: Niki Feehan ’14 (Bangor, Pa.), Tori Newman ’15 (Willard, Ohio); Program Cover Design: Gina Ezzone ’15 (Painesville, Ohio); Guest Vocal Director: Alexa Dorris ’12 (Indianapolis, Ind.)

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12:51 AM October 14, 2011

Mark Anthony wrote:

Fantastic video! and an even more fantastic production! :)

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1:55 PM October 14, 2011

Dale Shields wrote:

On behalf of the entire company of I, TOO SING AMERICA!, thank you for this wonderful article about our artistic and spirited journey! Denison University is a wonderful place full of questions and possibilities! I have enjoyed my space here! “It takes a Village.” – DRS -dd

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9:47 PM October 17, 2011

Carole Khan-White wrote:

Dale Shields is a marvelous teaching-director and I have had the pleasure and honor of producing his work at Columbus Stage Centre.

I am especially happy for the student-actors who had the opportunity to work with Mr. Shields to bring forth this wonderful collaboration. It is an experience they will never forget. They have made friends that they will have for the remainder of their lives.

Carole Khan-White
National Foundation for Multi-Cultural Literacy, Inc.
BlacstageNY

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9:49 PM October 17, 2011

Carole Khan-White wrote:

Correction re typo

BlackstageNY

http://www.blackstageny.8k.com

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11:50 PM October 18, 2011

Toni King wrote:

Thank you, Denison! Communities are diverse in many ways, but it takes time to truly speak to each other and to truly listen. These students have given us a glimpse into what it means to build on diversity as a strength. Kudos to Dale Shields for directing this revelatory journey. Bravo to the cast for their authenticity and courage!

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4:53 AM October 19, 2011

Alma C. Turner wrote:

Creative expressions broadens one’s view of diversity and oneness which creates greater understanding, acceptance and harmony. How great it would be to have this kind of exploration as an ongoing opportunity of students, staff and all participants.

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1:41 PM October 19, 2011

UniversityCommunications wrote:

A server error has resulted in the loss of some recent comments on TheDEN. To remedy the situation, we are reposting the comment below in its entirety. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. —Ed.

Autumn Stiles wrote:

Correction, it was more like 3 weeks. Definitely not a month!

But thanks for the article, video, and photos.

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5:38 PM October 23, 2011

Autumn Stiles wrote:

I’ve already commented once, but seeing our picture and story as the home page of the Denison website has just rekindled my immense passion for the entire process and performance that the faculty, my cast members, and I worked so tirelessly to bring to fruition. This was not simply a hastily thrown together hodge-podge of people trying to cause a stir and sing and shout a little. Rather, it was a rigorous artistic and academic endeavor that required immense focus, creativity, courage, camaraderie, gumption, and soul. I can hardly articulate how amazing of an experience this was, and it is something I hope that all Denison students might one day be able to envision, experience, and feel.In the process of becoming actors, writers, speakers, thinkers (all of the things Denison values!) we formed a family and network of professionals and students alike that can hopefully continue to create and inspire. It was a process both autonomy and unity, and without the balance of these two, this could not have happened. Thus, I would like to thank everyone who made it possible, from the Theater Department, to the cast and crew, to the President for his support and appearance on opening night, to every audience member that came, to Dr. King who loves her job and her students and treats both with an unmatched passion and precision, to the honorable Dale Shields whose creative vision made this all possible, and who taught us to express ourselves, so that we might better connect to others.

Sincerely!

- Autumn Stiles, cast of “I, Too, Sing America!”

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8:23 PM October 23, 2011

Jaime Weinfeld wrote:

Post Play interview
Written By: Usman Gul, with additional contribution by M.A.
It‟s Friday afternoon and with the fall study break only hours away, six individuals sat in Shepardson College Room awaiting a group interview only scheduled the night before. They had just spent the past three and a half weeks or so with their fellow cast members who were perhaps no more than just “acquaintances.” They may have been classmates or were involved in similar student organizations. They may live in the same residence hall or have seen each other at one point in the dining hall. Indeed, who they were three and a half weeks ago, it can be argued, places these individuals within relationship circles that extend beyond just being
acquaintances, students, or even cast members. After three and a half weeks of intensive
workshops and rehearsals, the cast and crew of Denison‟s I, Too, Sing America, directed by
visiting guest professor Dale Shields became nothing short of a family. Following three
successful performances last week in the Burke Black Box Theatre, and a final group dinner, CCCE staff writer Usman Gul had the good fortune of interviewing the cast members about their experience. The production was unique in that it became the perfect opportunity for
students to share their journeys, their struggles and their „stories‟ that many of them had never felt comfortable sharing before.
Wiselene Dorceus says that participating in the production and listening to some of the most heartfelt stories of fellow students had made her realize that everyone has interesting stories to share regardless of their background. Looking forward, Wiselene claims to have
become a lot more interested in learning about the stories that people bring with them but which hardly ever come out. “You don‟t really know someone until you know their history,” says Wiselene. For her, participating in the production had become a profound source of
introspection as she explored her past and re-examined her inner self in preparing responses to Director Dale Shields‟s prompts.
Myky Tran expressed similar feelings about her experience. Myky explains that she has never before shared stories of her past before because they were not pretty – until she participated in I, Too, Sing America. For her, fellow cast members provided a strong support group thereby creating an environment conducive to sharing personal stories. During rehearsals was the first time Myky old someone about her past; she had taken a risk and it was about to pay off – the person she shared with not only reciprocated but also became her best friend at Denison. “Looking forward, this will definitely change how I become involved in campus activities,” says Myky.
For Jasmine Passa, the best thing about the play was that they were not practicing a planned or predetermined script; the story evolved every day based on things that the students discovered about themselves; and they were all true. For Jasmine, she has become more likely to take an active interest in the past of people and make more of an effort to see people for who they really are rather than surrender to surface friendships.
Brandon Hummons, originally from Chicago, says that he has learned to not shy away from taking risks. In his own words, Brandon has “learned to not be afraid, to take risks, to step out of my comfort zone and open up to people without hesitating for the fear of judgment.” Brandon previously participated in a theatrical production during his first year at Denison and comparing that experience with I, Too, Sing America, he says: “in that play, or in most plays for that matter, you have to become a character. In I, Too, Sing America, we were the characters.” Brandon was also surprised to learn that other cast members from Chicago who came from similar backgrounds and looked very much like him in every way were similar from the outside but yet so very different from the inside.
Tong Liu, a cast member originally from China, learned that
American students sometimes think they do not have much to offer because they do not come from a different country but that, he thinks,
is not true as he learned in his interactions with fellow American cast members. For Tong, listening to people share their intimate stories helped him break his assumptions that people were generally cold, indifferent and impersonal. Tong was able to discuss with cast members this pressure he felt from the campus community to be an American or to at least act like one. “When I was on stage, I was being myself. Other times I was just trying to be an American and that‟s not who I am.” It was the first time Tong tried to fit in as himself and it worked really well.
Indeed, participating in the play contributed to the personal and
intellectual development of the cast members in ways that are unachievable within the classroom. Participating students have learned to express themselves without fear of judgment; they have become confident and focused risk-takers who refuse to hesitate needlessly. Most importantly, they have learned the importance of going beyond surface friendships and learning through their stories.

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8:44 PM October 23, 2011

Jaime Weinfeld wrote:

I have posted the Post Interview hosted by Usman Gul and Mark Anthony conducted the Friday after the opening of the production. This interview shows the true compassion and inspiration felt by not only the cast members interviewed but by all the cast members and crew involved in the production. A true family was created during this production. I would like to thank all those involved in the making this such a success; President Knobel for supporting us and coming out opening night, for Dr. King and all her inspiration and love, Mark Anthony for providing us food and helping spread the word through articles and interviews, Usman Gul as well, Brother Stafford for his choreography, The theater department for providing a fantastic space for us to work in, and All those who helped make this such a success. Including the cast and crew and last but not least Professor Dale Shields, whose witty statements, profound thoughts and endless work allowed us to reach within ourselves and create this production. A production that has sparked the beginnings of something great within us as well as on this campus. Thank you.

Jaime Weinfeld -Assistant Director “I, Too, Sing America”

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11:46 AM October 26, 2011

Cheryl McFarren wrote:

As someone who loves what live theatre can do to inspire community, create dialogue between strangers, and transform lives, I was proud to watch this courageous production take the stage. You embodied such powerful learning, cast, and took confident ownership of where you are in your journey of migration. Congratulations and best wishes to you all! Thanks to TheDEN for capturing this project so fully in your article and video.

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9:22 PM November 2, 2011

Kristen Edwards wrote:

This whole production was an amazing experience. Having been present for the entire process was truly wonderful. I loved watching the cast grow as individuals and then into a family. “I, too, sing America” changed the way that I think about people and my self as well. I believe that something magical happened during those few weeks, and I dearly hope that the magic shared by the ensemble begins to change the way that other students look at one another on this hill. I know that none of this would have been possible without the hard work of Dr. King, whose kind words and infectious energy inspired the cast and crew to greatness. I also want to thank President Knobel, Mark Anthony and the theatre department for all their help and support. And of course, the man behind the genius, Professor Dale Shields. From the beginning, he created an ensemble environment that promoted personal growth. Within a few days, there was already a family forming. Thank you Professor for all your wise words and fascinating lessons.

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9:30 PM November 6, 2011

Keith NOLEN wrote:

I am very thankful to have been a part of an experience such as this one. I would like to thank Denison for allowing us (the cast+Dale Sheilds+production team) to share the spotlight, tell a story, and have a wonderful 28 days. With the help of Denison, my “spark” for the theatre was rekindled! My faith/hope in Denison moving forward in times of despair has increased, and better yet, that we could show this through the Arts. My fellow cast members have given me the hope that change is possible and evident in this community because of our final product, I, Too, Sing America! Thanks to Denison for giving us the opportunity to strive and create change through the means of the Arts. This includes Dr. Toni King, Stafford Berry, Cynthia Turnbull, and others. Thanks to my cast members who I plan on keeping an everlasting bond, friendship, and love for. Finally, thank you to Dale Sheilds for bringing all elements that made this possible, together!

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