Students perform scenes from four plays.
Students perform scenes from four plays.

Drew students act out civil rights struggles, as scholars provide context.

February 2018 – “It’s not a riot, it’s a rebellion … People are so tired of waiting for things to get better … Black men are dying.”

Those lines, from a play set during the civil rights uprisings of the late 1960s, were from one of four scenes performed by Drew University students and alumni at Fires of Rebellion, a mixture of theatre and talks that took place recently at the Thomas H. Kean Black Box Theatre. The performances set the stage for a production of Down Neck at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, an original play by Pia Wilson that explores the lives of three families around the 1967 Newark Rebellion.

Echoes of the past could be found in the present as Fires of Rebellion began, set against a backdrop of photos of past civil rights struggles, with a recording of current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions referring to America’s “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”

Junius Williams

The scenes spanned generations—from Nat Turner’s slave revolt in 1831 and the tumult in Newark and Detroit 50 years ago to Los Angeles in 1992. They were followed by remarks from renowned Newark scholars and longtime married couple, Junius Williams and Antoinette Ellis-Williams.

During the ’67 uprising, Junius Williams was a second-year law student at Yale and an activist and civil rights organizer in Newark. “From the rebellion came a new sense of identity, a new sense of power, a new sense of organizing,” said Williams, noting community input in configuring a site for the state medical school in the Central Ward and the election of the city’s first black mayor.

Antoinette Ellis-Williams
Antoinette Ellis-Williams

Ellis-Williams, for her part, said the arts are “incredibly important” in understanding rebellion. “Vision and hope have to go hand-in-hand,” she added. “Make sure your art is fierce, make sure you stay authentic.”

The talk and performances launched The Rodney M. Gilbert Memorial Salon & Lecture Series, named for a longtime Drew theatre professor and arts leader in Newark. Previously, the series was known as the EOS Theatre Salon. Alumnus Andrew Binger C’13 helped organize the event, which was presented by the Educational Opportunity Scholars ProgramDepartment of Theatre and Dance and Drew Freedom School Initiative.

Cristina Martinez directed the performances, which were also inspired by Gilbert, who died in November. “I started this because of Rodney. He was my mentor from the beginning,” said Martinez, C’19, a theatre arts major from Los Angeles. “I felt it was my time to step up. So, I stepped up.”