Penumbra Theatre invites students to celebrate difference

Penumbra Theatre teaching artist Eric Sharp leads Southwest High School students in a race dialogue workshop. Penumbra’s workshops are designed to increase awareness, and to give young people the tools to talk about race respectfully. Credit: Photo by Margie O'Loughlin

Two classes of science students gathered in the wrestling gym at Southwest High School. They had recently seen an exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?” at the Science Museum of Minnesota with their teacher Sharon Meierhofer. The students left their shoes at the door, took a seat on the wrestling mats and waited for the morning’s workshop to begin.

Any class that visits the race exhibit can participate in a follow-up experience like Meierhofer arranged for her students. It’s made possible by a partnership with Penumbra Theatre and the Science Museum, with generous funding from the Knight Foundation.

Actor and teaching artist Eric Sharp opened the workshop by explaining the work of Penumbra Theatre. A corner stone of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, the theatre has been producing plays and musicals that illuminate the human condition through the lens of the African American experience for nearly 40 years.

In addition to performances, a big part of Penumbra’s mission is education in the community. The actors and educators approach the issue of racism with the fundamental belief that everyone sees racial differences. Seeing isn’t the problem, in fact, it’s a big part of the solution. At Penumbra, they call this differentiation the first of the “Four D’s.”

To underscore this, Sharp asked his students to describe what they had seen at the race exhibit. One student volunteered: “I remember listening to one-minute recordings of voices, and then being asked to choose from four pictures of people from different ethnicities. Whom did I think the voices belonged to? I was hardly ever right.”

Another student said: “I liked the part where we compared our fingerprints to pictures of hundreds of others people’s fingerprints. There was no way to predict fingerprint patterns based on race.”

Sharp agreed and said that using race as a tool to separate us from one another is “fabricated.”

“It’s very important to understand that we all came from the same place: the African continent, and that our genetic differences are quite superficial. This is where the other three “D’s” come in,” he said. “If difference is perceived negatively, the person with the negative perception devalues, dehumanizes and can ultimately destroy the person over whom power is exerted.”

He said at Penumbra, the goal is to have people celebrate difference and get out of their comfort zones.

The next exercise created plenty of discomfort for students, but it got them talking afterward.

Sharp asked them to pair up, stand about 3 feet apart and engage in uninterrupted eye contact for 60 seconds. Sharp’s point was that we need to learn to see each other, and to be accountable for our reactions.

As historian Robin D.G. Kelley was quoted as saying in the race exhibit: “Racism isn’t about the way you look, it’s about the meaning other people assign to the way you look.”

The workshop ended with Sharp challenging students to become, in his words, “up-standers, not just bystanders.”

He encouraged them to look into to people’s eyes in order to have meaningful conservations about race and difference.

Stephanie Walseth, director of inquiry at Penumbra Theatre, said the race dialogue workshops are intended to get the ball rolling for participants to start thinking differently about how to approach interactions with people different from them.

“No one expects to end the destructiveness of racism in a class period, but our teaching artists can get kids to start seeing and hearing each other differently,” she said. “These workshops are a way for participants to use theatre to problem solve and to model new behavior. The process recognizes each person as they are, and invites everyone to be part of the dialogue.” 

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FYI …
For more information about Penumbra Theatre’s race workshops, go to www.penumbratheatre.org or contact Stephanie Walseth at Stephanie.walseth@penumbrathreatre.org.