Code Switch 7 Takes On Race

Race needs to be talked about openly and immediately. That’s the straightforward message of Code Switch 7, a brand-new theater company founded by the American Repertory Theater’s (A.R.T.) seven African American students: Renee-Marie Brewster, Anthony Gaskins, Kelley Green, Faith O. Imafedon ’07, Richard Scott, Charles Settles, and Lindsay Strachan. Under the mentorship of Professor Robert Scanlan, they will be performing their debut show at 2pm on Sunday, February 7 at Club Oberon.

A multi-perspectival look at what it means for each one of them to be black, the show consists of completely original work that includes rap, gospel, and dance, as well as more traditional forms of theater—but above all, it’s intended as a cathartic entry to a dialogue with an audience that Code Switch 7 feel is long overdue.

“My first observation was that there was not a thing in common among these people apart from race,” remarks Scanlan on first meeting the students, Yet one of the main missions of Code Switch 7 is to evoke the individual—and highly personal—matter of dealing with racial issues. The common experience of being black at the A.R.T. provided them with an initial starting point. “It’s really isolating, because our class is very homogenous and we’re such a minority,” Brewster says.

This is where the idea of “code switching” comes in, a concept that forms one of the central building blocks of their upcoming performance. Code switching is a technical term used in vocal coaching that refers to switching between dialects. Here, the term applies to how people change the way they talk in various social environments. “This would specifically reference how your switch happens when you’re black and navigating different situations,” Strachan explains.

“In the case of being an African American, it’s like, how black am I allowed to be?” Scanlan asks. This is an issue that black actors constantly have to confront—the Sevens and Scanlan even joked about having a Black-O-Meter in their pieces that would register how ‘black’ a given piece is on a scale.

“When you’re being cast and getting ready for the industry, there is a clear divide, a clear difference, and race has a lot to do with it,” Settles explains. According to the group, the casting process is generally not racist, but being African American will inevitably cause an audience to perceive a character differently, even when the intent of the actor remains the same. As Green says, “We’re going to be faced with, ‘I’d love to do this show but I can’t,’ or, ‘I could totally do that role but I visually cannot.’”

In an industry dominated by the outside perception of an actor, Code Switch 7 envision themselves sparking a very personal conversation about being black in their original pieces. Some, like Settles, use music: he is incorporating part of a gospel song, “Trouble in My Way,” into his piece in order to talk about his own experience of black spirituality while growing up in Jersey City.

Others, like Imafidon, will deliver provocative and fun monologues. One of her pieces is centered on relationships and her fascination with biracial couples. “I was thinking about my body and black bodies,” Imafidon says. “I wanted to play with black fetishes by looking at them through a white person’s eyes, and then I thought, how about if I talk about my own fetish? How about if I talk about my white man fetish?”

The rise of Code Switch 7 is an experiment—not just in terms of their message, but also in terms of trying to get a budding theater company off the ground. Scanlan is outlining an infrastructure in which independent student theater companies with developed projects could begin to take off, benefiting from the expertise of the many producers and technicians running Harvard’s performance venues. Scanlan views the new Club Oberon space as one with great potential for Harvard theater troupes. He and the Sevens hope that their company will continue to write, invent, and perform long after they have left the A.R.T., providing a successful model for other aspiring companies to follow.

If the company’s debut performance shocks or offends, that’s also part of the process. “If you’re really excited, come,” Green says. “If you’re apprehensive about it, and you don’t really want to listen, and you don’t really want to share, come anyway, because some of us in the cast are feeling that way too. If you are kind of on the fence, come. See it. You’re going to be sharing the same experiences with us on stage.”

—Staff writer Sophie O. Duvernoy can be reached at sduvern@fas.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: February 9, 2010

An earlier version of the Feb. 9 arts article "Code Switch 7 Takes On Race" incorrectly stated that Code Switch 7 would be performing its debut show on Saturday, Feb. 7. The correct day is Sunday, Feb. 7.

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