Equity through Arts: Justice Theater Project

The following is an interview with Melissa Zeph (MZ), managing director and Deb Royals (D), artistic director, of The Justice Theater Project conducted by Meg Buckingham (M), senior marketing & communications officer for the Foundation.  

M: can you tell me a little more about The Justice Theater Project, and why our readers should care about your mission?

D: Of course. Our mission is to use the performing arts to bring to the fore of public attention the needs of the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. The Company originally began as the Art for Justice Ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Raleigh. We were doing projects like writing letters to men on NC Death Row, providing dance to women at Raleigh Correction Center for Women, and we also taught creative writing at Raleigh Rescue Mission. We turned that writing into performance, and the people who were a part of the ministry supported that work when it was shown to the public.

In 2003, members were at a prayer service commemorating Sept. 11th, and the ministry was providing dance as part of the service. At the end of the service, the priest spoke of the execution of Henry Hunt, and asked that he was kept in people’s prayers. It was at that moment that we decided to find a production that could bring people together in a dialogue around the death penalty here in NC.

Shortly after, we performed “A Lesson before Dying” from the famous Ernest Gains book, and had people speak after the performance to encourage a dialogue about this social concern. 900 people attended that performance, and participated in the dialogue. It wasn’t just the community of this church – it was people from all over. What we realized was that people wanted to learn more, to talk more, about the death penalty in North Carolina. At the second performance, Allan Gell spoke, who had been exonerated from death row, because he wanted to talk to the audience at about what it’s like – that some of the people are first time offenders who were addicted to something, who created a heinous crime to get money for drugs, and now that they are clean, they are calm and they are still human beings. Some of these people are even believed to be not guilty. At the end, a gentleman stood up and said, “You’re telling me that I need to have a place in my heart for these animals?” He replied, “They were all children at some time, and along the way, something broke.”

The important lesson here is that if you can weave this programming around performance, people will open up. They want to talk about issues like the death penalty, immigration, mental health, race, poverty, and healthcare. Every season is very intentional – and people come time and time again, some who know us and some who don’t – for this education and discussion.

MZ: I think it’s important to note that we pick a topic of social concern each year, so we can go deeper and deeper into the conversation and leap into action from there. We give free admission to so many people in need, we turn no one away. Many have never experienced live theater, and that’s such an important form of expression.

M: Do you think that your partnership with the Foundation this year has helped you make a greater impact?

D: This particular year, we received a grant and created a partnership with the Foundation, and it really was wonderful, because it led to broader collaboration and communication with the other arts groups. In addition to that, it was a wonderful dialogue, listening and realizing that we are all in the same boat.

We were also able to do marketing analysis of our patrons, look at the configurations and demographics, and how you move someone from a one-time visitor to a repeat participant, which has been really helpful to us for the future.

MZ: This isn’t the first time we’ve received funding, and one of the beautiful things we have been able to do was our work at the summer camps at some of the most impoverished areas of the Triangle, and we received funding for our camp for healthy eating at the Emily K Center, as well as the Safety Club camp at Passage Home, the historically black community center (the Raleigh Safety and Community Club). That funding went directly to support us to go in and service that community with performances and yoga, and dance, and children can attend for free.

M: So, if I’m passionate about programs like yours, and want to get involved, how do I do that?

D: If you come to us and are passionate about our issues, we’ll incorporate you – you can work on a set, be on a committee, and join our board. The beauty of that is that the people who are involved are the ones who care the most.

MZ: We have a reputation in the community for creating a family with our actors. They get weary of “look at me” theater, and this is a platform for professionals and advocates to work together to talk about an issue of greater importance. We embrace that.

M:  Go ahead and get on your soapbox for a moment. What would you say is the single biggest issue that you would like our readers to learn more, get passionate, about?  

D: I’d say that people need to educate themselves in regards to their politics right now, and make sure they are educated once election time rolls around. There are a lot of issues on the table, and we all need to be educated.  I’d also like to make sure I state that bigotry isn’t regarded to race. It’s shocking and saddening when I find bigotry among voices of power, and I’m glad we can contribute a voice, and that we have an open platform to do that.

MZ: I’d say that our performances bring people together to heal. We help people heal after tragedies, and I want people to look in other ways – ways like this – to educate and lighten themselves when they need that extra help. It’s important for self-preservation.

As a participant in the New Realities Triangle Regional Initiative Justice Theater Project accomplishments include a stronger definition of their core mission; the establishment of new collaborations and connections with the other nine arts group participants; a deeper look into audience composition; a better understanding of the obstacles each group is facing with funding, marketing, Board participation and staffing; a new way of analyzing and compiling patron data; a “forced” opportunity for company evaluation and introspection.