In early March, the Black Box Theatre in Burke Hall was packed as Denison students, faculty, staff, and community members showed up to watch a moving production of “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God,” a 2001 play penned by noted Canadian playwright Djanet Sears. We sat down with the co-directors, Cheryl McFarren, assistant professor of theatre, and Stafford Berry, assistant professor of dance, to discuss the show and the adventure the pair embarked upon together.
TheDEN: For those who aren’t familiar with the play, tell us about it.
McFarren: The protagonist’s daughter has died, she’s estranged from her husband, and they are divorcing. She also realizes that her father is dying. In all of this, she has turned away from the faith of her youth and doesn’t know the God that she has been taught to know. And so the play examines what it is that keeps us alive when we want to die. Where do we find strength in times of turmoil? The play is also about her father, his group of cronies, their desire to end racism by saving and repossessing racist artifacts. He has one last heist he wants to pull off before he goes and that is to reclaim a jacket that is important to his family. It is a remnant from the war of 1812 and has been stuck away in a vault in a museum.
Berry: The play is also about community and valuing tradition, about valuing the idea of “ancestorism.” In African philosophy, this means we value our ancestors as more than just people who have died. Their energy continues on after they transition out of the physical form. Value is placed on wisdom and in being an elder in a way that may not be valued in a Western sense.
TheDEN: How did you decide to co-direct?
McFarren: Stafford and I have been looking for a project for no fewer than four years—since we first met, really. In fact, I took Stafford’s African I class, and it really affirmed for me that we would just have a blast working together. There is much that I learn from him. We fancy ourselves brother and sister.
TheDEN: What about the play made you realize it would be one that you wanted to do together?
Berry: Cheryl sent me an email after she read it. It is often difficult to communicate a specific emotion through email or through language, but that email spoke to me. There were things in the play that she knew I would connect with, and she was absolutely right.
McFarren: It might have been an easier thing to put together if I asked Stafford to come over and choreograph for us. But that is not what I wanted. Or what we wanted for our adventure together. We wanted to be co-directors because it was very important to value dance and theatre on the same level, especially in a play that features a chorus of ancestors, as this one does.
TheDEN: Talk to us about the creative process.
Berry: We were doing multiple tasks simultaneously, but we were also in the moment determining and figuring out and negotiating how we would work together. We talked a lot in advance, so we did that kind of groundwork—talking about the play and ideas we had and ways that we saw it developing. And we also created a code language to use if there was some sort of struggle that we didn’t want to play out in front of the students.
McFarren: I learned a lot about teaching acting from Stafford. There was a moment when he was challenging one of the performers. I tend to sit back and take notes and approach them afterwards, but Stafford was right on it, and he was shouting out notes. The actor was a little ruffled by it in the moment, but it made so much sense. And it caused a breakthrough for the performance. It was really great to learn about my own style and ways in which I might grow as a person and as a teacher from watching Stafford work.
Berry: Interestingly enough, the same thing happened to me. I am used to directing or choreographing from a very specific perspective—as a dancer—but I had to switch gears and think about the choreography of bodies, not for the sake of dance by itself, but as an additional element that moves the story forward for the sake of the show. When I was struggling, Cheryl was up and moving to “pick up the ball.”
McFarren: It was really energizing. And the students’ experiential learning was enhanced by having two of us together, because normally all that thinking goes on in your own head, but we were conferring about it, and they were watching us do that, and I think that was constructive for them.
TheDEN: The play is traditionally done with an African-American cast, but your cast was culturally diverse. What went into that decision?
McFarren: When we advertised the play, I said to Stafford, “Do we need to say that we only want to see African-American kids? Do we want to say that?” and he said, “Why would we say that?” We thought, let’s see who self-selects for this play. Word of mouth brought in many African-American students who were looking to perform. But we had some students who were not black, and we found roles for them, too. It’s been this wonderful opportunity to learn from each other and to celebrate our differences. I think that sometimes in terms of diversity, we try to be blind to the ways that we are different. But in fact, it is much more fun if I can really appreciate where you come from and learn something about you that I might not know. I knew that in working with Stafford my work would be better, richer, and deeper, and my experience would be less onerous. But I didn’t need Stafford to do this play. He is not my “African-American resource person.” I understood the characters and the story that was being told on a very personal level, even if it wasn’t about my culture. We are both very invested in helping these young people grow and develop voices that are uniquely their own. They have something great to say to the world. That’s why we’re here. And it was rewarding to teach them to keep trudging on in the face of “don’t wanna,” “don’t have an idea,” “don’t have energy,” “haven’t eaten,” “need to rest,” “got finals”; that there’s an integrity in doing as much as you can without completely blowing your circuitry; that we are never going to demand more of you than we would expect of ourselves.