Penn Live Arts Blog

Engaging our communities with the Negro Ensemble Company

Posted March 22, 2023

February’s world premiere of Mecca is Burning, our commissioned play co-produced by our 22/23 season artist-in-residence, the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), was a resounding success. Through our residency activities, over 150 students at Penn and in Philadelphia schools received special insight into the development of new theatre. NEC Artistic Director Karen Brown visited theatre arts instructor Margit Edwards’ Movement for the Actor class with NEC actor Steven Peacock Jacoby. Speaking to a room of Penn students studying everything from engineering to economics, Brown and Peacock Jacoby emphasized the meaningful place theatre could occupy in students’ lives, regardless of their career paths. Brown told the story of involving her scientist father in production after production when she was starting out in the field. Because Edwards’ students were studying Ntozake Shange and the choreopoem, the theatre genre Shange created, Brown also talked about the ways in which reading and directing Shange had guided her career in theatre: “When I read [For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf] for the first time, there was no air,” she said. “The words just leapt off the page. It helped me to translate everything else that I ever did.”

Cris Eli Blak, one of four playwrights whose characters enliven the interwoven narratives of Mecca is Burning, visited with four 11th grade classes at Science Leadership Academy in Spring Garden, hosted by humanities teacher Joshua Block. After students shared experiences with the arts that changed the way they understood the world – ranging from Taylor Swift music videos to the Mona Lisa – Blak spoke about his unexpected journey from being a kid growing up in Houston, TX who “didn’t like theatre” to an in-demand playwright. Key among his motivations, he said, was to tell the stories of people “living the real American dream: the people who go to work before the sun comes up and come home after it goes down, and never complain.” Blak also participated in a conversation at the Kelly Writers House with Margit Edwards and in a post-show discussion after opening night.

NEC’s intensive performance schedule began with a Student Discovery show for the same Science Leadership Academy students. Margit Edwards returned after the opening evening performance to facilitate the post-show discussion for a rapt audience, many of whom seemed to see their own communities and experiences in the ones portrayed on stage.

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