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ABCS Summit Credit: Yolanda Chen , Yolanda Chen

How do you translate a person’s life — filled with discrimination and racial tension — into a play or a work of spoken art? A relatively new Penn course gives students the opportunity to answer that question.

“Writing Out Loud” — an Academically Based Community Service or ABCS course — is prompting Penn students to write original theater pieces based on relationships they form with West Philadelphia residents. In the classroom and during community discussions, Penn students and West Philadelphia residents reflect together on the plays of August Wilson, a playwright whose work captures experiences of 20th century African Americans.

Spearheaded by Penn alumni Suzana Berger and Penn professor Herman Beavers , the course uses Wilson’s plays as context to give Penn students a better understanding of West Philadelphia. To attract interested community members to the program, Berger forged a partnership with the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance or WPCA — a local organization that promotes arts and culture.

“The issues of race and class in Wilson’s plays make them an ideal jumping-off point for a conversation between us community members and the Penn students,” said Bernadette Tanksley , one of four WPCA members who now attends the course after participating in the partnership last year. “The life experience we can bring to the students allows for mind-expanding, broader reflection to give a fuller picture.”

While the Penn students strongly benefit from community members’ insights, the course is structured so that “students do not take from the community without giving anything back,” Beavers said.

In the final project of the course, Penn students write an original monologue based on Wilson’s plays and the first-hand experiences shared by WPCA members. The monologues, which are performed by professional actors at the end of the semester, represent the students’ efforts to turn the community members’ personal accounts into powerful works of art.

“There were stories about racial interactions and conflicts in my life that I had the opportunity to share with the students, and I got to see them then crystallize these moments into a really meaningful presentation,” Tanksley said.

During the first version of the course last fall, around 50 community members came to the performances and discussions of the students’ work. This semester’s performance will take place on Dec. 14.

“What makes this course different from a lot of other Penn courses working in West Philadelphia is that we aren’t trying to go in and fix problems in the community,” Beavers said. “We don’t see this population as broken; instead, we see it as a treasure of stories we can access through this partnership.”

In tackling themes of race and class in both a historical and modern context, the course creates a classroom environment “where multiple generations are represented and where each of these diverse stories can mix with Wilson’s plays,” Berger said.

In planning for the course’s future development, Berger hopes to add West Philadelphia high school students to the discussion. Including another generation “would deepen the partnership by bringing in even more perspectives,” Berger said.

By growing the partnership, Berger and Beavers hope to continue enhancing the learning experiences of both the students and the community members.

“When you bring the community and the students together," said WPCA Executive Director Frances Aulston, "in a substantial, educational program, it will have a successful, lasting impact."

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