Hands of a Black man playing a piano
Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: How Do the Arts Play a Role in Racial Justice? Georgetown Students, Faculty Are Finding Ways to Spark Change

On the fourth floor of Georgetown’s Lauinger Library is a new art exhibit.

Portraits of enslaved people, a quilt and a U.S. map made out of archival documents line a wall, each its own modern interpretation of Georgetown’s historical connection to slavery.

Students created the artwork as part of a capstone project for Professor Adam Rothman’s Facing Georgetown’s History class, imagining new ways to use archival materials and remind viewers that, scrawled on these century-old documents, are the names of real people who were enslaved.

On June 18, community members gathered at the exhibit for Juneteenth, on June 19, a day of celebration that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. June 19 also marks the day in 1838 when 272 enslaved men, women and children were sold by the Maryland Province of the Jesuits to plantations in Louisiana, proceeds of which benefitted Georgetown University.

“The art highlights the presence of the past and its legacies,” said Rothman, founding director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies. “Through art, the students have been able to transform the sources into something new that illuminates or transcends what has happened in the past.”

The exhibition is one of the latest ways faculty and students are confronting and sparking conversations about racial justice through art, from behind a piano on the Kennedy Center stage to plays in Puerto Rico.  

Four women on a stage. Two are wearing costumes for a play.
Anita Gonzalez, professor in the Department of Black Studies, and Robin Lenhardt, professor of law in the Georgetown University Law Center, with students in the production of “Bitter Flower.”

Performing Your Story

Professor Anita Gonzalez runs The Woodshed, a research center housed within Georgetown’s Racial Justice Institute that connects artists, scholars, thought leaders and activists to develop art, scholarship and public events around racial justice.

In between international research trips, writing opera, directing performances, hosting workshops and lecturing on cruise ships, Gonzalez teaches. And she begins every class the same way.

“I start every class with an exercise called Perform Your Identity,” she says. “You tell me who you are in one minute.”

A Black woman guides another Black woman in her movements for a musical.
Zora on My Mind Community Engagement uses a theatrical work to engage communities in discussions about Black women’s domestic work, employment and survival strategies.

“That’s a small-scale metaphor of how I see all of my work with The Woodshed and beyond,” she said. “It’s the stories that allow us to really see the experiences of people.”

In 2022, Gonzalez began presenting the musical she wrote inspired by her grandmother, Zora on My Mind, to communities of Black women. Afterward, audience members were invited to discuss the theatrical themes and examine their own experiences, just like in her class. It’s a form of storytelling that plays the experiences of a community back to them, she said.  

“My approach to racial justice is that people already have the mechanisms for survival and thriving within them, within different cultural communities,” she said. “We want to replicate the things that have helped people to survive and make it more visible through stories.”

It’s a tall order, but students have responded creatively, she says. Some have written a song; others have inspired a group dance or prayer. Afterward, students ask questions or talk about what moved them.

Ten people gathering in a room facing the camera.
The Perspectivas Negras artists-in-residence meet for their onboarding day in 2023 with collaborators from the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña and Universidad del Sagrado Corazón.

One of the latest projects Gonzalez is working on is Perspectivas Negras: Puerto Rican Activism, a new artistic residency program that Georgetown is partnering on with the Flamboyan Arts Fund, an initiative with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón and Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in Puerto Rico.

For the past year, three emerging artists have been exploring issues of racial, social and economic inequality in Puerto Rico through art. On Aug. 5, they will present their work at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC before debuting it in San Juan later that month. Georgetown community members will be invited to attend.

“People often wonder why I work with storytelling communities. For me, it’s all about trying to have people see alternative images of people in their daily lives that help us to understand the humanity of all individuals,” Gonzalez said. “That ties in with Georgetown’s mission, because we’re talking about hearing the whole person and respecting the lived experiences of the poor and all different kinds of disenfranchised people.”

Shining a Light on the Invisible

An older Black woman performing on a stage with a screen showing her face.
Mélisande Short-Colomb performs, Here I Am, a performance that weaves narrative, music and imagery together, at Gaston Hall in 2023. Photo by Art Pittman.

Several other community members have sought to make visible the often-untold stories of enslaved people for audiences today.

Mélisande Short-Colomb, a GU272 Descendant and community engagement associate at Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics, wrote and performed Here I Am, an experiential performance that explores her ancestors’ ties to enslavement.

In Here I Am, Short-Colomb weaves together narrative, music and imagery to celebrate her generations of grandmothers and explore her complicated relationship with the Society of Jesus, which enslaved and sold her ancestors in 1838. An original production of the Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics, Here I Am premiered at Georgetown in 2021 and at Loyola University Maryland in March, a performance Georgetown community members attended.

Carlos Simon playing a piano in Gaston Hall
Carlos Simon, an associate professor, rehearses his Requiem for the Enslaved in 2023 to mark the official launch of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies at Georgetown. Photo by Elman Studio.

Carlos Simon, an associate professor in the Performing Arts Department and composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center, also sought to understand Georgetown’s history with enslavement and honor the lives of the enslaved.

He worked with Marco Pavé, Georgetown’s hip-hop artist-in-residence, to infuse spoken word, hip-hop and African American spirituals into a Catholic liturgical music form. In 2022, his Requiem for the Enslaved was nominated for a Grammy. Last year, he performed it at Georgetown for the first time to inaugurate the launch of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies. In March, Simon sat behind a piano at the Kennedy Center to perform the tribute.

Adam Rothman speaking at a podium in Gaston Hall
Adam Rothman, founding director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, introduces the Requiem at the center’s official launch event in September 2023. Photo by Elman Studio.

“I wanted to show that music has the power of equalizing things. We’re all humans. We’re all made by God,” Simon said in an earlier interview. “This work takes the form of a spiritual experience, and I wanted to make clear that we’re honoring the enslaved.”

The storytelling style brings history to life in a way that historians cannot, Rothman said.

“Carlos has taken these documents, these scraps of paper that are hundreds of years old, and he’s quite literally made them sing — an incredible feat,” he said. “It’s a mode of storytelling that gives us access to history that historians like myself can’t really achieve.”

Impact on Racial Justice Today

As part of its mission, Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts aims to inspire students to find ways to spark social change and social justice through the arts. Its professors and leaders also play key roles in initiatives like the Racial Justice Institute, the Lab for Global Performance and Politics and the Prisons and Justice Initiative across Georgetown and in DC theater communities, offering opportunities and exposure for students.

“Faculty and students in the Department of Performing Arts all engage in difficult, pressing issues through scholarship and creative works. Perhaps that’s because we’re enmeshed in the art and political worlds of Washington, DC,” said Benjamin Harbert, professor of music and chair of the Department of Performing Arts. “This is not an ‘art for art’s sake’ department. … The performing arts create new spaces that can agitate and scramble set, unproductive ways of engaging and shed new light on seemingly intransigent issues. It’s why our department has so many co-sponsored events with other units across campus.”

Young women performing on stage while wearing dancing apparel.
Rams-Lyne Thomas (C’25) (center) performs A Return to Kiskeya, which she choreographed with Nakita Guiteau (SFS’24). Photo by Marina Gallozi.

Rams-Lyne Thomas (C’25), a junior and a dancer in the Black Movements Dance Theater at Georgetown, was drawn to Professor Gonzalez’s class, Black Performance as Social Protest, as it combined her interests in Black social protests and performance.

She found the class gave her a deeper understanding of the different ways protest can manifest through performance – and the impact it can have on audience members. 

“Social performance through social protests can be a lamentation for some people, a form of joy, a form of curiosity. It’s all different ways of emotions, but it’s being able to make other people ponder or even want to join in,” she said.

Thomas found her siren call for dance after seeing another dancer in motion – it made her think more about how she saw herself. Ultimately, she hopes audience members have the same takeaway.

“I hope it makes you want to get up and do something,” she said. “You’re left with something that makes you want to do more, whether that be in the arts or in whatever respective field that it is. It’s not a distraction. It’s a distraction from reality that ultimately sets you up to be greater in your reality.”

Professor Natsu Onoda Power, a professor and artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center, has a slightly different take on how the arts can inspire change. She believes that by attending a performance, change has already happened.

“If you come to a space and you watch and participate in something, you are transformed from how you came in,” she said. “I think that’s why theater is so special. Once you experience something, you cannot un-experience it. You have shared space with the performers on stage as well as audience members. So even if you do them reluctantly, you have done these things.

You are a different person from when you came in.”

For more information on upcoming events and performances, such as Perspectivas Negras, visit The Woodshed, Department of Performing Arts, and Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies.

Editor’s Note: The featured photo at the top of the article is by Elman Studio.