Award-winning playwright and American University Professor Caleen Sinnette Jennings will be the headlining performer at the Celebration of Leadership in Honor of Martin Luther King Jr. on campus Jan. 18.
Jennings will perform several pieces, including “Hands Up,” a nine-minute poem that explores the struggles of African Americans throughout history, including contemporary triumphs bookmarked by recent violence against black youths.
Jennings created the piece for a (Re)Acts event at the Forum Theatre in Washington, D.C., last winter following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The artistic director of the theater asked her to create something in two weeks. Jennings said the long-form poem came out in a day.
“I had been wanting to say something and to express myself about recent events and this gave me a reason,” she said. “I didn’t realize this stuff had been brewing inside of me.”
“Hands Up” begins with praying hands in Africa; hands that were later bound and brought to America; hands that nursed the babies of masters and hands that eventually broke free. Jennings looks at more modern hands, too, from Beyoncé’s ring-bearing hand to hand-held devices. She concludes with hands up, questioning whether society has come as far as we thought in terms of race relations.
Jennings, accompanied by cellist and composer Jodi Beder, performed the piece at (Re)Act alongside young hip hop artists and said she was surprised by the overwhelming reaction.
She has since performed it at colleges and high schools. American University filmed the performance earlier this year, and the video has struck a chord with audiences.
Surprised by the attention, Jennings said she hopes viewers ask themselves what they will do with their hands in light of recent racial tensions.
“Ask yourself the same question, ‘What am I going to do with my hands?’”
Jennings said action sometimes comes in the form of protests and fists up, other times in the form of soothing strokes. But idle hands, she said, aren’t acceptable.
While at Stephens, Jennings will also offer a master class on dramatic literature, performing a semi-autobiographical piece before challenging students to share their stories.
“When telling your own story, you do something very powerful—you empower yourself and your experience,” she said. “Everybody should write and tell their stories.”
For Jennings, telling her own story initially came out of necessity. After earning an M.F.A. and having been trained in classical theater, she discovered that in 1976 there were no roles that represented her as an educated middle-class woman.
The commercial market was telling African-American stories of people living in poverty and surviving the odds. They were important, Jennings said, but did not accurately reflect diversity within the African-American community.
Her husband challenged her to write her own material.
Fast forward 40 years, and Jennings has written, produced and published numerous plays and stories. She received the Heideman Award from Actors’ Theatre of Louisville for her play “Classyass,” produced at the 2002 Humana Festival. She is a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee for Outstanding New Play. She is also a founding member of The Welders, a Washington, D.C.-based playwrights’ collaborative.
She said she hopes to encourage Stephens women to listen and connect with one another.
“Sharing their stories is an important way to make connections and an important way to grow as human beings,” she said. “It’s an important way to start difficult conversations, and if they make a habit of finding a way to share their stories, I think that’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
The Celebration of Leadership in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King event is part of Diversity Week at Stephens, which will include programming and special events through Jan. 22.