Muhlenberg Trans Advocacy Coalition welcomes Nigel Semaj to their stage

A discussion about breaking gender norms in the performing arts

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Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg College Office of Communications | Visiting professor Nigel Semaj smiling for the camera.

On Feb. 25 the Muhlenberg Trans Advocacy Coalition (MTAC) hosted a workshop with Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance/Directing Nigel Semaj. The workshop focused on Semaj’s expercience at ‘Berg and their artistic expression as Black and genderqueer in both education and the arts. At Muhlenberg, Semaj directed “Call Me by Any Other Name… Just as Sweet” and is currently teaching “Dramatic Text and Action,” “History of Queer Performance” and “Directing: Process in Production.” They are also involved in the theatre and dance department’s project “Unconquered.” “Unconquered” premieres Friday, Mar. 4, and is the work of Fredrick Earl Mosley, choreographer and activist. 

“You can do anything. If I can stand up here and be a professor after ending my very first semester of college with a .579 GPA, you can do anything.”

-Nigel Semaj

At the workshop, the MTAC asked Semaj a variety of questions, from gender expression in the arts to the story behind doing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Students also were able to ask their own questions about adaptations and directing.  Semaj revealed that they love classical plays, because “I can take it and make it whatever I want it to be. But also there is something really deep inside of them that is really important. I love Shakespeare, I love the Greeks. I love those plays, and growing up and doing theatre, I was like, ‘I am not inside of it at all. I don’t see myself within them at all.’ And so at one point during my undergraduate and graduate school careers, I was like, ‘I want to start inserting Black and brown [performers] into these texts.’”

During the event, Semaj also talked a lot about their experience in theater and their journey getting to where they are now. They explained how they started their college career majoring in education with a low grade point average (GPA) and then once they began doing theatre, they soared in college. 

Attendee Giovanni Merrifield ‘23 expressed that Semaj’s story was relatable. “I feel that many people begin college, and get into a field that ‘they’re supposed to do’ because their parents and/or society tells them to do so, which often leads to unhappiness or failure or both. I felt that when Nigel spoke about this, it made me realize that there are other people like me who thought they had everything figured [out], but then realized that they wanted to pursue their passion.” 

Semaj told attendees, “You can do anything. If I can stand up here and be a professor after ending my very first semester of college with a .579 GPA, you can do anything.”

When talking about how they got into directing, Semaj described a time in high school where they were in a school play and when casting issues arose, the situation was handled poorly, and they thought to themselves, “I could do a better job at directing.” This kind of perspective allowed them to write and direct a play freshman year of college, despite lack of funding. 

At the end of the event, students asked Semaj questions regarding imposter syndrome, the research that goes into doing an adaptation and how to break gender norms in plays. 

“…it was/is great to see someone with similar/same identities at Muhlenberg to show the world that they too can do anything despite what society says about them.”

-Giovanni Merrifield ’23

After the workshop, Merrifield expressed, “I think the talk went very well. I feel that it was very low-key and relaxed, but very informative.” He also commented, “I’d just like to add that there’s not a lot of Black representation on campus, let alone Black, queer and non-cisgender professors on this campus, so it was/is great to see someone with similar/same identities at Muhlenberg to show the world that they too can do anything despite what society says about them.”

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