Rehearsals have begun for the UO theatre department’s newest production, a virtual reading of “Personal History” by playwright Dominic Taylor.
The play follows the same African American couple as they navigate life in several different eras spanning nearly a century. Director Stanley Coleman said that “Personal History” is not only about race relations and identity politics, but it reflects on our nation’s history and social progression from the turn of the 19th century to the 20th. It takes place in three parts: the first in 1903, the second in 1953 and the final in 1996. The story is surreal in that the same cast of characters is present in all three eras without aging, but with shifts in class, social position and perspective.
One reason Coleman chose the script was because of its timeliness, he said. “Personal History” observes that the progression for the liberation of African Americans has not been a straight line pointing upward. He referenced the increased racial unrest in response to police brutality in the last year as connecting to this theme.
“I think that when we look back at our own history, we see that there is still quite a bit of racial discrimination and violence that's being perpetrated against People of Color,” Coleman said. “We're still fighting the same things that we have been fighting all of our lives.”
The play came to fruition when a friend in the UO theatre department approached Coleman to direct a play concerning diversity and race relations. Coleman brought the script of “Personal History” to the faculty of the theatre department and they enthusiastically accepted it. Since then, faculty and students in the department have taken on roles as actors, production managers, lighting managers and costumers.
Hudson Willett, a freshman majoring in journalism, is cast as Patrick Kinney, one of the two White male characters in the show. Willett said that this is the first time he has participated in a play since he performed Shakespeare in the fifth grade. He decided to audition after being placed in an introductory acting class last term as a part of his First-Year Interest Group. Though he doesn’t have much experience, he said that he is drawn to acting because of his love of movies.
“I think right now is an important time to address the issues shown in the play,” Willet said. “Hopefully it will shed some light on day-to-day struggles Black people and People of Color face.“
Coleman sees “Personal History” as related to his overall mission as a theatre director, which is to tell the stories of minorities who don’t normally get to see themselves represented onstage. In 2017, Coleman co-founded Minority Voices Theatre, which is now a companion to Eugene’s Very Little Theatre. After the show wraps up, Coleman hopes to direct a play about Nat Turner with MVT.
Though “Personal History” is very much about the history of race relations in the United States, Coleman says that it’s not just for African Americans.
“There is an incident in the last scene that plays out the idea of forgetting your history, forgetting who you are and where you come from,” Coleman said. “And I think that's not just for African Americans — I think that's for everybody. Once you forget where you come from, you sort of lose yourself, and you lose your identity.”
“Personal History” will be livestreamed next month, but specific dates are to be announced. You can find more information at blogs.uoregon.edu/theatre/.