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Rites and Reason Theatre returns to in-person programming

Members reflect on theater’s upcoming relocation, archival project

<p>Dylan Lewis’s ’22 “Small Planet,” which includes some musical numbers and intricate blocking, follows the story of five black femmes with the mission of making a new world. &nbsp;</p>
<p>Courtesy of Kathy Moyer</p>

Dylan Lewis’s ’22 “Small Planet,” which includes some musical numbers and intricate blocking, follows the story of five black femmes with the mission of making a new world.  

Courtesy of Kathy Moyer

On March 2, a Wednesday evening no different from any other, a scream echoed through the halls of Churchill House, the home of the Rites and Reason Theatre. The scream came from the George Houston Bass Performing Arts Space, referred to as the BassPAS by the theater’s staff. 

Eight actors stood in a circle on the theater’s stage, surrounded by the high black walls of the BassPAS. Members of the technical crew sat scattered throughout the audience. They took a collective deep breath and began rehearsal with an opening dance performance.

Rites and Reason, a theater within the Africana Studies Department that produces creative works connected to the African Diaspora, returned to in-person programming in November 2021 for the first time in two years, according to Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74, associate professor of Africana Studies and Theater Arts and Performance Studies. 

In December 2019, a portion of the BassPAS ceiling collapsed, which closed the theater space indefinitely for renovations, The Herald previously reported.

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Today, the BassPAS is back to its full functionality. The theater’s staff and students are working on a production of “Small Planet,” a play written by Dylan Lewis ’22, which will be performed from March 11 to 13. 

The theater has produced multiple performances on a “limited basis” since the collapsed ceiling was repaired and electrical upgrades to the space were completed in the fall, said Kathy Moyer, stage and production manager at the Department of Africana Studies and Rites and Reason Theatre.

But according to Moyer, “those were just staged readings, … they haven’t been anything like this (upcoming) performance.” Lewis’ play combines a staged reading with more intricate blocking, including numerous dance numbers, Moyer said. 

“Small Planet” is about “five Black femmes on a spaceship. Their mission? Make a new world, but how?,” according to the play’s description.

Lewis “wanted to set a play with Black women and the notion of creating a new world with a category of people who are constantly oppressed,” said Terry-Morgan.

“These women find a way to overcome,” added Morgan, who also works as the artistic director of the theater.

“I think it’s really important to see Black joy, and this play is full of it,” Ania Briscoe ’23, stage manager for “Small Planet,” wrote in an email to The Herald. 

“It’s important to witness, especailly for Black femmes, other Black femmes having a space for themselves where they can … feel comfortable to talk about their issues in institutions that have made them feel unsane and to have fun,” Briscoe added. “We want Black femmes to find some peace within this play.”

Because Rites and Reason has not been able to put on a student-written production in several years, Terry-Morgan wanted to offer Lewis the opportunity to stage her play.

Lewis is “such a phenomenal thinker, artist and organizer,” Terry-Morgan said. 

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She is a “self-generative artist” who refuses to wait for others' validation and instead works to “organize people and make things happen,” he added.

Briscoe emphasized how important it was for her to support Lewis’ project. “It was honestly so inspiring to me to meet someone with a similar identity who also wanted to be a playwright,” Briscoe wrote. “I love working on projects that center Black voices and pieces that are for a Black audience because American theater often neglects (this) very important work.”

Lewis’s play is being directed by Ifa Bayeza, distinguished visiting professor and artist-in-resident at the University. 

Bayeza “taught here, so she knows the process, and she’s experienced,” Terry-Morgan said. “This play really needed a Black woman at the head. … This is an opportunity where elders can pass on knowledge to the younger” generation.

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Rites and Reason has previously worked with Bayeza in a similar capacity to Lewis, Terry-Morgan said. The theater helped Bayeza develop three of her plays, including “Welcome to Wandaland,” “String Theory” and part of The Till Trilogy.

Rites and Reason supports its writers through a “script development process” where they are encouraged to put on unfinished performances to gauge public reactions, Terry-Morgan said. “It’s a very long-term process, and this is just one step along that way.”

“Not many theaters in the nation have a development process, which is what makes Rites and Reason so unique, especially for Black writers,” Terry-Morgan added. “We offer instruction and guidance and experience. … Our niche is to develop new works.”

“We try, especially with our students, to apply all of the technical equipment and human resources that we have at our disposal to help that person grow,” he added.

While being back in the physical theater space has allowed Rites and Reason to offer students these opportunities, BassPAS’s reopening has also posed challenges.

“It’s nice because it’s a familiar space and experience, but sometimes you get back into it and you have to readjust. We’re working with people who’ve never worked in the space,” Terry-Morgan said. “Going back into the space is like ‘Oh, we’re back home,’ but we’ve got all these challenges.”

“I think it’s been really hard in some ways because we expect to come back and be ready to jump into things but we cannot really ignore that we’ve been living our lives so differently for the past year and a half,” Briscoe wrote. “There has been some re-thinking of how we move around in the theater space.”

The theater’s staff is simultaneously in the midst of relocating from Churchill House in preparation for the renovations that are estimated to take place between June 2022 and August 2023, according to Terry-Morgan.

“During our time of displacement, our offices will be located in Andrews House, with classes and Rites and Reason Theatre programming relocated to other locations on campus,” Moyer wrote in an email to The Herald. “We hope to take some of the programming into the community.”

“Think about the end of the school year, about the work (students) have to do to just (move) out of (their) dorm room. … We have three floors, and every spot is covered with something,” Terry-Morgan said. “It’s not just our offices. We have to relocate all of our equipment.”

The Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Arts has offered support by allocating the Rites and Reason theater performance spaces, including the Fishman Studio, Terry-Morgan said.

“The Granoff is what we call a clean space. Rites and Reason … is a messy space. That means you can paint the floor, the walls, you can hammer. … You can’t do that at the Granoff,” Terry-Morgan added. “But I see this as an opportunity because the strength of the Granoff is technology, lightning, computer technology. … We will try to find the works that fit that space.”

Terry-Morgan is also collaborating with the John Hay Library to create an online research archive that will encompass Rites and Reason’s history over the last five decades.

“It’s a meticulous and laborious process, but you have to have patience,” Terry-Morgan said. “My goal is to make sure that the system of archiving is in place so (that for) whoever comes after me, … the whole process is laid out.”

While there are discussions of putting on smaller performances throughout the rest of the semester, Moyer expects to turn her full attention to the relocation and archival project by the end of the academic year.

Terry-Morgan remains optimistic despite the disruptions. “Out of chaos,” he said, “comes the opportunity to learn something new and to adapt.”


Alex Nadirashvili

Alex Nadirashvili is the managing editor of multimedia and social media for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. As a former University News editor, he covered faculty, higher education and student life, though his proudest legacy is The Brown Daily Herald TikTok account.



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