Theatre Alums, Professors, and Students Align for an Unforgettable Production

April 28, 2021

By: Teresa K. Morrison

The creative team, from left: J’aime Morrison (image courtesy of J’aime Morrison); Sean Hill (image by MAUS Photography); Anthony Valadez (image by Larry Hirshowitz); Doug Kaback (image by Lee Choo)

Syzygy is a term used in astronomy to describe a straight lens-like configuration of three or more celestial bodies in a gravitational system, such as when the sun, moon, and earth perfectly align to produce a lunar eclipse. These events, while rare, are also inevitable, demonstrating rhythms of cosmic connectivity between disparate forces across space and time. The concept has been embraced as an apt metaphor for an original new CSUN theatre production harnessing forces of interdisciplinary collaboration, generations of students, experimental theatre methods, and the healing powers of personal expression to engage in timely meditations on social justice, brutality, and inequity. 

SYZYGY: The BLK Light Mixtape, a digital-theatre production that premiered April 29, has indeed evolved from the alignment of many more behind-the-curtain forces. Its genesis dates back nearly 20 years, when Doug Kaback, then a newly arrived Theatre lecturer, encountered undergrad and force-of-nature Anthony Valadez. Readers will recognize Valadez today as a host and DJ on Morning Becomes Eclectic, the flagship drive-time alternative music program on the Los Angeles–based National Public Radio affiliate station KCRW. But back in 2002, Valadez was at CSUN, hosting a radio show on campus station KCSN while studying in his junior year for a degree in theatre and theatre arts management. During that time he found himself inspired by Sophocles’ circa–440 BC Greek tragedy Antigone to create a theatre piece called Blasting Holes in the Night. The original genre-bending play, innovatively scored by Valadez’s turntable scratching, paired hip-hop styling with classical Greek chorus–inspired interludes to speak to universal themes of loss, grief, and an unrequited yearning for justice. The work addressed youth culture in a vital way while shining light on inequities in the U.S. prison industrial complex.

Kaback brought Valadez’s work to the attention of Jerry Abbitt, who was the Theatre department chair at that time. He suggested that the professor parlay his passion for the project into a hip-hop theatre “experimental topics” course to workshop and produce the play with students. Kaback says he felt a bit out of his depth with hip-hop, but he and Abbitt trusted students to bring their own experience and affinities to the table. The course and production exceeded expectations. Over the next several semesters Blasting Holes in the Night toured the Los Angeles area under the direction of Kaback, with stops at Lincoln Park’s Plaza de la Raza, Hollywood’s Ivar Theatre, and of course CSUN’s Little Theatre. Fellow professor Peter Grego then approached Valadez about adapting the play for a smaller cast and submitting it as CSUN’s official entry for the Third Shanghai Experimental Theatre Festival. Blasting Holes would thus make its international debut in China in Fall 2004.

Flash forward to Fall 2020, when current Theatre department chair Ah-Jeong Kim approached Kaback about the possibility of working with the social justice–themed photographic archives of CSUN’s Tom and Ethel Bradley Center, perhaps to craft a class that could speak to the national moment. The public had risen up in summer 2020 in response to unjustified police brutality against Black Americans, with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor adding fuel to long-simmering fires of racial animus and injustice in the United States. When CSUN classes resumed that fall, the Theatre department organized a forum inviting discussion of social justice issues in the performing arts. Ideas emerged out of those talks to mount a theatre production addressing state-codified racism and inequities faced by students of color, and catalytic fuel arrived via CSUN’s Diversity & Equity Innovation Grants (DEIG). CSUN had recently launched the campus-wide $500,000 DEIG initiative to support new programming promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, and social justice among students, faculty, staff, and community members. The imagined theatre project was a perfect fit, and a grant was awarded.

As Kaback began to suss out the dynamics of a new theater work that could address institutionalized racism and police brutality in a contemporary way, he solicited participation by Anthony Valadez and Sean Hill, a fellow CSUN Theatre alum who starred in Blasting Holes throughout its run nearly two decades ago. Hill, who was so enamored of his experience performing Blasting Holes in Shanghai that he spent a subsequent eight months studying and performing theatre in Beijing, has since established himself as an acclaimed spoken word poet and public speaker. Hill and Valadez both signed on to the idea of collaborating on a totally new production with CSUN students in 2021, and at the beginning of the spring semester they went to work conceiving the piece with Kaback and fellow Theatre professor J’aime Morrison. Morrison was a natural choice to co-direct with Kaback given her expertise in devised theatre, a creative method chosen for this project in which a script evolves from collaborative, exploratory ensemble workshops. In devised theatre, ideas emerge directly from participants as they discuss lived experiences, and those disparate stories are woven into a script that honors individual voices within an arcing narrative. It also happens that Morrison teaches Antigone every semester, always with a contemporary twist. “Antigone is a protest play,” Morrison notes. “It speaks to our moment.”

SYZYGY performers, from left: Anna Holmes, Sara Beaudin, Marcos Pereyra, Noah Gephart Canada (production screen captures by William Kwon)

Nine students signed on to the production. To guide them through complex emotions during workshop sessions, Morrison and Kaback brought in psychotherapist and theatre artist Hector Aristizábal, a master in Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques. In general practice, TO blurs lines between audience and actor through happenings calibrated to promote social and political change and healing among oppressed populations. Unlike devised theatre, TO is typically not focused on developing a script for a formal performance, yet its sensibilities resonate strongly with Morrison and Kaback’s devised theatre project. As they workshopped ideas with Valadez and Hill to weave participants’ stories into a coherent script, Aristizábal helped students to channel their lived trauma toward artistic expression and cathartic healing. Morrison notes the challenges of working with such delicate content and says that devised theatre ensembles often workshop narratives and content for a year or more before attempting to stage a production. This group of creatives had only one semester to develop trust among the ensemble; evolve and contextualize their narratives; settle on a storytelling structure and script; and mount a production. And they had to do it all remotely: The ensemble conducted workshops via Zoom, students individually filmed themselves, and AV editors transitioned the disparate components into a seamless whole. Morrison highlights the decentralized imperative common to both devised theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed and notes the difficulty of achieving that egalitarian ethos in a virtual space that, if left unchecked, tends to promote hierarchies among professors and students. “We’re pushing boundaries to their limits,” Morrison says. “We’re trusting in the theatrical process and each other.”

Despite the enormous challenges and tight timeline, Kaback and Morrison have doubled down on the project’s ambitious scope, weaving in historical elements to speak both to the entrenched global dynamics of racial oppression and the resilience of individuals and cultures in the face of inequities and violence. Per the initial idea to work with CSUN’s photographic collections, Kaback and Morrison teamed with Bradley Center director José Luis Benavides and researchers Marta Valier and Guillermo Marquez to curate a selection of Richard Cross photos from the institution’s “Border Studies” archives documenting the village of San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia. The UNESCO Intangible Heritage site was settled sometime in the late 16th century by a group of Africans who had escaped enslavement as they were being trafficked through the nearby port of Cartagena, a hub of the slave trade for the colonial Americas. Benkos Biohó, born to a royal family in what is now Guinea-Bissau, proved a formidable leader and secured freedom and sovereignty for himself and hundreds of other would-be slaves before he was captured and executed in betrayal of a treaty with the local government. The village gained sovereignty by royal decree in 1713 and continues today with arts and customs strongly inflected by the traditions of its African forebears, and it is that community that Richard Cross documented in the 1970s with a realistic, unidealized, and non-paternalistic gaze. 

The historical figure Benkos Biohó emerges as an omniscient narrator character in the 2021 production of SYZYGY: The BLK Light Mixtape. Sean Hill, who cowrote the play and whose Afro-Colombian roots resonate with those of San Basilio de Palenque, embodies Biohó as a cosmic DJ unbounded by time or space. As Biohó, Hill transitions between students’ stories via turntable-scratched segues by master music mixer Anthony Valadez, recalling the innovative Greek chorus sequences in his student work Blasting Holes. The individual stories act as narrative threads weaving and aligning to form a tapestry of traumas and challenges faced by people of color. The students’ contemporary struggles with racism coalesce with historical references to tell a larger story of institutionalized white supremacy in the service of colonial empire building. The nine students take turns in the spotlight relating personal stories, placing an exclamation point at the end of a spring semester spent workshopping narratives and engaging body mapping to locate sites of trauma and create expressive movements to accentuate their monologues. Morrison spoke of one workshop session in which the students deployed flashlights at home, shining beams of light on the ceiling, alternately conjuring police searchlights and orbs, heavenly bodies. Nine students, nine planets, aligned in common cause.

“What’s happening is amazing,” Kaback muses. “We’ve established a real family of artists over the course of these workshops. Now it’s time to offer audiences a coherent, cohesive theatre experience.” 

SYZYGY: The BLK Light Mixtape runs April 29 – May 2.