On Oct. 26, the Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance Department opened their second production of the season, “…And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi.” Directed by guest artist Christopher Burris and choreographed by Samuel Antonio Reyes, the show used poetic prose as well as music and dance to tell the story of a Black man who was lynched, but was given a second chance at life as a woman named Demeter, played by Amira Jackson ‘24. She uses the time she has to search for her daughter, and learns of the scandals and hardships that her family has undergone along the way.
The audience was automatically transported into the world of the war-time South upon walking into the intimate Studio Theatre, you were walking along the Mississippi River. “I thought it was visually stunning,” says Arden McHugh ‘25. The entirety of the black box was decorated by the story; ropes hanging from the ceiling, a mailbox on audience risers and a splintering house towering over the landscape. Designed by Assistant Professor of Scenic Design You-Shin Chen, the scenery immerses the audience into the history taking place on-stage before the story even begins. Audience member Hannah Scarlatoiu ‘26 appreciated the smallness of the space. “They really force the audience to physically be a part of the experience. The set design and use of space by the actors really pushed that concept. I couldn’t imagine the show being done any other way.”
When the lights went down, the audience was unsure of what to expect. “Both from my own personal perspective and from speaking with friends, I was nervous going into the show and seeing the large list of content warnings about how heavy and difficult to process the show was going to be,” says Shira Holtz ‘24.
Each character had their own internal conflict that connected to the overall story of the Verse family. The audience is taken through a world of war, violence, love and hate, grappling with identity, religion, power and ownership. There was a lot to be learned through this production about American history, Black struggles and how we as a college choose to use theater to represent the stories of different marginalized voices.
Rachelle Montilus ‘24, who played Miss Ssippi, an ethereal personification of the Mississippi River, shared her thoughts on what the show and her character meant to her in this context. “As a half-Black, half-Asian woman, playing identity on-stage has always been tough for me since I started acting,” she remarks. “With this show, I was given the opportunity to rediscover what playing race on-stage means to me, and how I can both be myself while also letting my experiences leak into a character. Playing race on-stage is difficult, and I often find myself asking the question of ‘whose skin am I wearing?,’ but finding the intersection between myself and Miss Ssippi allowed me to find a lot of joy in it! Over the course of the difficult weeks, I was able to fall in love with my character, which gave me a lot of the motivation to get through long days.”
The show seemed to be well-received by audience members, despite the initial intimidation of its content. Scarlatoiu stated, “Being a place that’s meant to educate the upcoming generation of art makers, it’s Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance’s job to show what theatre can be; it makes us think, reflect and experience. It’s their job to show us the importance of facing history and politics through theatre.”
There seems to be a common theme of identity exploration amongst the department shows this semester. The previous show, Caridad Svich’s “Labyrinth of Desire,” aimed to highlight queer expression and gender exploration. An emphasis has been placed by the department on bringing otherwise marginalized voices to the forefront of the stage.
“I hope that ‘…And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi,’ with a large student of color leaning cast, is able to give a taste of the talent in the Black community here at Muhlenberg. At a PWI [Predominantly White Institution], uplifting Black voices doesn’t just mean telling Black Stories–that’s too easy– it also means allowing Black performers to tell stories that speak to them and their experiences,” Montilus continued.
It is important to question whether or not there is a line to be drawn when putting on productions that evoke students to explore not only identity but emotional trauma as well as the unfiltered hatred which is embedded in our society. Although portrayed through fictional stories such as this, the play ultimately implores the real world to acknowledge that American history was built on the back of marginalized people, particularly enslaved Black people. Holtz comments, “I do think that we do a lot of shows that ask students of color to grapple with their identity and specifically ask them to portray that grappling on-stage. I can’t imagine that would be easy to have to do in rehearsals every day and in front of an audience. Particularly knowing that we are a PWI, and seeing cast lists over the years, it seems that we are asking the same students to take on this challenge, and that is something that I think the department should keep in mind when selecting their shows.” It is important that students are provided with the proper resources when stepping into roles as challenging as the ones seen on the stage this weekend but are encouraged and comfortable in utilizing those resources with a team of informed and equipped individuals.
Annamaria Fernandez ‘24, who played Free Girl, commented, “I think when I was a part of [the] season selection I was under the impression that there would be a larger integration and use of resources like [Assistant Professor of Psychology and Africana Studies] Dr. Preddie, the counseling center, Allie Fanelli who was our intimacy coordinator and things of that sort (which were [only] brought in after faculty and staff were made aware of the lack of resources).”
Fernandez added, “When you’re working on a departmental show, especially one like this with content that could potentially harm the audience or production crew (including actors), you go in with the expectations that all of those resources for support will be there from the beginning. And they just weren’t. Moral of the story: the department—emphasis on department, as theatre and dance should not function separately—the department seems to think hiring Black artists is the only work. But that’s just a small piece of it.”
When choosing shows of such strong magnitude, it is important to consider what Muhlenberg has to offer. This does not solely refer to counseling, intimacy coordinators, fight captains, etc.- but refers to having the bodies needed to tell a story such as this, and being able to facilitate a community which is all inclusive for all bodies.
“There was a large assumption made that everyone in the room came from the same background of Blackness,” according to Jackson. “There weren’t just African-Americans in the room. There were Afro-Latinos, Afro-Asians– and yet there was this assumption made that everyone was familiar with African-American culture and history, which wasn’t the case. [The space] did not leave room for these multiple Afro-identities to figure out how and where they fit into their character.” Jackson reiterates that “…And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” required the building of a community that celebrates diverse identities and intersectionality that was not quite present in the rehearsal process.
“I think that the play talks about the power that we have in making decisions, and the choices that we have in life,” remarks Jackson. “I don’t think that we as actors or we as students or people had enough time to converse about the content of the show or the space to have these important conversations.”
This is not to say that this environment is impossible to achieve, but it is definitely a point that the department must strive for when selecting productions with content that explores identity.
“It was a beautiful play. The language and the script and the story being told is important for everyone to hear. It recognizes that the solving of racism does not just require Black people protesting in the streets, but racism is something that is affecting both parties. Although racism was a white creation, white people and Black people have to work together to fix racism,” Jackson comments.
The college strives to acknowledge these histories and struggles, but many students believe that the department should handle processes with more care, in order to make sure the correct message and information is sent.
“I hope that this production opens the doors to new areas of growth in the campus community and theatre department, allowing for more and safer spaces for Black artists to create on the main stage. This show was different from other shows in the past as the leading cast was comprised of mostly Black actors. This provided a supportive environment and unity among the cast like I’ve never felt before,” Montilius remarks. “Many of the struggles we faced during this process, we faced together, and Robyn Watson (director of co-curricular for the theatre and dance department) was there for us every step of the way. Robyn and our choreographer Sammy took great care to make us feel seen and cared for in the rehearsal room and on-stage as actors, and off-stage as people and students. I learned a lot of lessons from doing ‘…And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi,’ the most outstanding being the importance of support systems in the arts. Support systems, allyship, collaboration and safety will never be something that I compromise on in creative spaces ever again.”