Amplifying voices (text)

Design and Arts Corps students partner with Eastlake Park to celebrate community

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Dontá McGilvery is dedicated to helping people find their voices and amplifying their voices.

“As an artist, I use my voice as a way to protest and for creating space for people of color who are heavily misrepresented and underrepresented across the board, but especially in theatre,” said McGilvery, who was honored with ASU’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Student Servant-Leadership Award.

One way the PhD theatre for youth student pushes his mission forward is through Sleeveless Acts Drama Company, which he founded with fellow student Claire Redfield. This spring they worked with Herberger Institute’s Design and Arts Corps initiative for the company’s latest project – a celebration of the Eastlake Park community in Phoenix. 

Working with Design and Arts Corps was a natural fit for McGilvery and Redfield. The Herberger Institute program places designers and artists from all disciplines in public life and empowers students to use their creative capacities to advance culture, strengthen democracy and address pressing challenges. 

When they started Sleeveless Acts in 2017, after winning an entrepreneurship grant from the Herberger Institute, their goal was to work with communities. 

“Community-based theatre is a unique avenue for public engagement,” McGilvery said. “It is a creative way of convening the community to discuss vital issues and celebrate important milestones.”

McGilvery said unlike town hall meetings or public debates, community-based theatre creates a platform where the many narratives of the community are represented on stage. 

“We had this idea of starting a theatre company that amplifies voices in marginalized communities, telling their stories using drama,” he said. “We tear away the sleeves that keep people’s history hidden.”

“As an artist, I use my voice as a way to protest and for creating space for people of color who are heavily misrepresented and underrepresented across the board, but especially in theatre.”

Dontá McGilvery, doctoral student, theatre for youth

McGilvery said this type of creative work allows community members a chance to hear one another’s opinions and charges the people to think more broadly about the point of view of one another. Community-based theatre also allows for the community to reflect on its hardships and triumphs, publicly acknowledge key individuals who have greatly impacted their community and collectively celebrate their achievements, he said. 

“This is exactly what our community-based theatre presentation ‘Celebration Eastlake’ was about – creating a platform for the community to celebrate the history, heritage and impact of Eastlake Park and acknowledge those individuals who have impacted the Eastlake community.” 

They collaborated with Design and Arts Corps under the mentorship of Stephani Etheridge Woodson, director of Design and Arts Corps, for the event. 

“This year marks 400 years since the first Africans were enslaved in Jamestown, Virginia,” Redfield said. “In recognition of this, Sleeveless Acts joined the Eastlake Park community in order to celebrate the history and heritage of this historic site that was once the only park where African Americans could go for recreation in Phoenix.” 

McGilvery and Redfield collected community stories from both elders and young people to launch an intergenerational and site-specific performance event. To gather stories from members of the community, Sleeveless Acts conducted two story circles in the community and conducted individual interviews. They worked with the center director of Eastlake Park to identify potential participants and with the drama ministry at First Institutional Baptist Church (where McGilvery serves as the head of the drama ministry) to both gather stories and devise the performance. They used the stories and interviews to shape a script and performed the show May 18 at the Eastlake Park to members of the community.

“We thought of this performance as a pilot for a longer project next year where we will conduct more story circles and have a much longer rehearsal process,” Redfield said.

The Arizona Republic, the largest newspaper in Arizona, published an in-depth feature story on the performance and McGilvery and Redfield’s work with Sleeveless Acts.  

McGilvery said the success Sleeveless Acts has experienced and the steps they took for the “Celebration Eastlake” event hinged on following the guidance of what they learned and practiced through Design and Arts Corps, including ethical practices when working in communities.

“Our participation in the Design and Arts Corps has not only given us directions on how to work within a community, like a loving guardian,” he said. “At many times the Design and Art Corps has held our hand and helped us take our first steps as a theatre company. As a company that is less than two years old, the need for support and guidance is huge – and thankfully, the Design and Arts Corps provides a blueprint to help us understand how to engage in community-based theatre.”