Epic Theatre Ensemble’s mission is to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change by 1) inspiring NYC students to be creative and engaged citizens; 2) presenting compelling topics that transform the way people think; and 3) collaborating with artists, students, and community leaders to produce plays about key issues. Led by Executive Director Ron Russell and Co-Artistic Directors Melissa Friedman and James Wallert, Epic focuses on transforming the lives of young people and building deep collaborations with community partners to produce bold theatrical work that reimagines the critical role art must play in the fight for social justice.
PRRAC Legal Fellow Darryn Mumphery conducted the following interview with three of the student creators/actors (Beck Dilisima Vickers, Qianah Harvey) and actors in the latest Epic production, Between the Lines, about the impact of segregation, redlining, and the relation between housing and education.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. A short excerpt from the play Between the Lines is on the following page.
Darryn Mumphery (PRRAC): First, I want to say I have read the most recent version of the script, and I loved it. I love that you guys mentioned Zillow because it’s very important that we note how technology bolsters government-sanctioned segregation – and not just in housing, so that is my favorite part of the script. I also appreciate that there is so much texture to it. It isn’t just long streams of dialogue; there are so many different layers – great job!
My first question is: How did you deepen your understanding of the link between housing and school segregation to author this piece? What were your resources? What inspired your learning?
Beck: We did interviews with people who work in education – particularly as administrators – and people who work in real estate.
We then gathered all the information from those interviews we conducted through Zoom, so we had complete transcripts. We went through the transcripts, highlighted what stood out to us the most, and then compiled it to help us create scripts. So it was all pretty cool.
Darryn Mumphery: Yeah, that is pretty cool. In that learning process, what were some highlights for you guys?
Dilisima Vickers: Definitely, redlining. I’ve heard the term before, but I hadn’t looked into it in depth. So, once they brought up the topic of redlining and the connection between housing policy and educational segregation, I went down a rabbit hole.
What was redlining? What happened specifically? It is something that I started to think about a lot in personal terms. It’s so crazy how something like that can happen and keep affecting us; but, it’s not common knowledge at all – especially for kids our age.
Beck: I agree with the Dilisima. When I think about redlining, I am struck by how recently it occurred. It’s really interesting because we don’t learn much about this type of stuff in school. I didn’t even know what the term redlining meant until we did this program in the summer.
It’s sad. Why do I have to go to an outside source to learn about our history? Now I can see how redlining and zip codes connect with my life and education. Unfortunately, some people live in “bad neighborhoods,” which determines their future. So I think that needs to change through more awareness of this. Allowing people to know what we have learned can help make a real change.
Darryn Mumphery: Is there anything about this process of learning and writing that was especially difficult for you to either carry out or hear about?
Qianah Harvey: This was heartbreaking – the history, knowing that people had to live like this and that we didn’t learn about it in school.
Beck: When I learned about it, I felt like I wanted to cry. The first day we watched a video called “Segregated by Design,” it broke down how segregation and redlining worked [through the use of an inforgraphic] cartoon. Because it was in cartoon form, I understood it better, and it had a bit of a severe effect on me.
I already knew about the Civil Rights Act and the Civil Rights Movement because we learn about all of that (but mainly in February as part of Black History Month). But learning about these issues, it’s all messed up on a deeper level. I kept asking myself: Why does society determine my capacity and capability based on my skin color? Why did all this happen to people just because they were Black? It didn’t make any sense to me. It triggered me a bit.
Darryn Mumphery: If it triggered you, you can say it triggered you straight up. It’s triggering information. You all are dealing with information that people don’t get in elementary, middle, or even high school sometimes. So it’s okay for it to trigger you. It’s okay to feel like that.
My next question: How would you describe the process of writing the script, including the level of collaboration and the internal brainstorming and discussions?
Dilisima Vickers: Firstly, we finished the interviews and research and then made a chart describing the different people and their involvement in the situations – like realtors, parents, students, and government officials. We then decided to take two of these parties, like a student and a teacher or a realtor and a parent, and we created scenes based on that. We made the scenes absurd, which means that it is kind of weird, but it makes sense and [resonates with the audience] like poetry.
It was a mix of situations and mediums to help people understand the message we were trying to send with this play. We were focused on getting our message across about integration and how housing policy has affected the way public schools are in our nation.
Darryn Mumphery: What interview and part of the research were your favorites? “Favorite” can mean you felt it was the best or had the most significant impact on you and what you contributed to this script.
Dilisima Vickers: We interviewed this woman who is a professor. She talked about how in the 70s, she lived in Las Vegas, Nevada, when there was a desegregation order. During the desegregation order, a lot of White parents started pulling their kids out of public schools and putting them in charter schools because they didn’t want their kids to go to “bad schools.” Even though in a sense, it didn’t have much to do with schools, it stuck with me when I wrote the script – I think people call it “White flight.”
Qianah Harvey: My favorite interview was the one we did with the Board of PRRAC. When we were asking questions, almost all of them answered each question. One board member told us how redlining contributed to segregation, and another described how redlining is a different name for official segregation. That was really powerful to hear.
Darryn Mumphery: What is the biggest lesson this entire process has taught you? As writers, what do you want your audience to walk away feeling after they watch this?
Qianah Harvey: This was a learning experience. It required a lot of young people to take a deeper look at what happened and get a sense of history. After viewing the play, I want the audience to feel how this really happened to real people. I want them to be shocked. I want it to be memorable.
Beck: I think this has taught me to not take things at face value – always research more instead of just believing what other people say – and be curious and ask more questions because you never know what you’ll find out.
Dilisima Vickers: The main theme within the play is about the implications of what’s a “good school,” what’s a “bad school,” what’s a “good neighborhood,” what’s a “bad neighborhood.”
While researching this topic, it became obvious that these terms are very racially charged. For example, when I got my high school application form, I went on GreatSchools.org, and my school had a low rating as if it’s a “bad school.” So even though I had never been to or heard of the school, I took this rating at face value.
But after this summer, I learned there are implications behind these words and reasons why these schools are called “bad,” even though they’re not “bad schools.” I don’t think my school is a “bad school,” but these people did, and that’s what I want people to take away from the show. Hopefully, after seeing this history, they know to question what they’re being told and be aware of our past and how it affects us today.
Beck: After people see our play, I want them to know more about how things are currently and how the past shapes our present. I want them to think about how they can present ideas to help better our system to politicians and people in power. History doesn’t have to repeat itself. I think with this we’re going to change a lot of things. I’m proud we did it, and I’m proud of it. ▀