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EmbraceRace

A conversation with teens who explore racism with their art

For two decades New York's Epic Theatre Ensemble has drawn on the insights and talents of young people, mostly students of color, to "create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change." We'll be joined by one of Epic's artistic directors, Jim Wallert, and two of its artists, Taylor Bolan and Nakkia Smalls, to watch samples of their work and to hear their reflections on it. By the end of our time together, it will be clear that young people of color aren't simply "acted on" by the institutions and systems they move within, but also are incisive critics and agents of change within those systems.

We watch a few short video productions and talk with the creators along the way. Also check out the related resources that follow this transcript.

EmbraceRace: For two decades, New York's Epic Theatre Ensemble has drawn on the insights and talented young people, mostly students of color, to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change. Our three guests are all affiliated with Epic.

Taylor Bolan 360 x 360 px

EmbraceRace: For two decades, New York's Epic Theatre Ensemble has drawn on the insights and talented young people, mostly students of color, to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change. Our three guests are all affiliated with Epic.

Our first guest is Taylor Bolan who's a 17 year old student currently specializing in Theater at Wadleigh Secondary School for the Visual and Performing Arts. She's been a part of the Epic Theatre ensemble community since 9th grade. And with them, Taylor's been able to perform at various venues; partake in screenwriting, directing, and acting workshops; and use her considerable talents to call attention to overlooked issues. Taylor, it's great to have you here.

Taylor Bolan: It's great to be here.

Nakkia Smalls 360 x 360 px 1

EmbraceRace: Nakkia Smalls is currently a senior at the University of Buffalo. She participated in Epic NEXT throughout her high school career, during which time she performed in Laundry City, Building Blocks, Measure for Measure, Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. Nakkia has served as an apprentice artist with Epic NEXT for the last two years. Nakkia, good to see you. Thanks so much.

Nakkia Smalls: Thank you so much for having me.

James Wallert

EmbraceRace: And Jim Wallert, who's an actor and director. He's a co-founder and co-director of the Epic Theatre Ensemble. Epic's artists challenge the institutional status quo by making theater radically accessible, engaging thousands of students and first time audiences in the transformative process of telling their own stories and learning to deeply empathize with those of others. James is the author of a forthcoming book, Citizen Artists: A Guide to Helping Young People Make Plays that Change the World. So psyched to have you all here.

Taylor, I'll start with you if that's all right, how did you came to be involved in Epic and what drives you to create the pieces you've created?

Taylor Bolan: Okay, so how I became a part of Epic is actually an interesting story because Epic tends to partner with certain schools. And my school in particular was not a part of their partnership, but one of the directors, Melissa Friedman came to my school one day and she was helping out my theater teacher. And after a session we had with her, she was amazing. But after a session we had with her, I walked up to her and I was like, "Hey, I want to be more involved. How do I do that?" And through there, she was like, "Actually, there's this program called Epic that I'm the founder of and whatnot." And that's kind of how our relationship started. So I came to Epic not being a part of the partner schools that some of my other peers were in, but I just felt like I brought another viewpoint to the table in terms of where my school is located, who's at my school and whatnot.

So towards the second part of the question about what pushes me to create the things that I make. Honestly, I'd have to say it's the events going on around me. In terms of all of the works that I've been extremely passionate about, has to do with the current times, but I influence comedy into it, not to make it more digestible, but in a sense to kind of lure the audience into like, "Oh, this is funny, but here's the deeper meaning of what's going on around you." And I was always told that art can either be a call to action or a distraction, and both are equal in their values and their worth in society. But I tend to move towards the call to action part, just to bring light to the injustices that are going on, the social injustices, environmental injustices, just to bring light and to start a conversation.

I was always told that art can either be a call to action or a distraction, and both are equal in their values and their worth in society. But I tend to move towards the call to action part, just to bring light to the injustices that are going on, the social injustices, environmental injustices, just to bring light and to start a conversation.

Taylor Bolan

EmbraceRace: So, Taylor, this is, you'll forgive me even for saying this, but I really wish I were as poised as you are when I was 27, much less 17. It's kind of crazy.

Taylor Bolan: Thank you.

EmbraceRace: And I also want to lift up that you've been involved in Epic, as I said in reading your bio since 9th grade.

Taylor Bolan: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: So that's a strong move from a 9th grader. "How do I get involved in this?" That's sweet. Good for you.

Taylor Bolan: Yeah. Thank you.

EmbraceRace: Nakkia, I would love to hear a little bit about your story.

Nakkia Smalls: Hi. So I came into contact with Epic NEXT during their workshopping. So there was this program, formally called Shakespeare Remix and Melissa Friedman, one of the founders, came to my school with one of her teaching artists. And they were going through Hamlet, that year's production of Shakespeare Remix. And there was a question, a dramaturgical question about, I think it was the placement or the entrance or something of that nature. And I was the only one that created a response. And Melissa thought the response was so good, and she was like, "Wow, this makes so much sense for this scene and this scene!" And then from then, she just kind of tried to push me to join Epic NEXT. And I did the following year for Taming of the Shrew. And yeah, so from that point on, I was in the Epic community. I was from Epic Remix to Epic NEXT every summer. And it was a wonderful experience. And from that on, I've literally been in the Epic family. So that's how I came to know Epic.

And what drives me to create the pieces, I think for me, it's my passions. So I love to talk to people and I love to speak to people, but I also understand that a lot of topics and issues are very hard to conceptualize in average settings. And I think the beautiful thing about art is that any setting can be appropriate for theater. And I think theater has an amazing ability to take any environment and make it a theatrical environment where people can watch something. And I think that helps people really understand and comprehend some of the biggest and controversial issues in our society. And with that, I have a strong, strong, strong passion for social justice. I think there's a lot of understanding between individuals that need to go on. And I think theater is the place to hold that. I think in the theater space, throughout the theater mechanisms and all the places that it reaches, I think theater just has this intense ability to change the world. So yeah, that's what drives me.

Theater has an amazing ability to take any environment and make it a theatrical environment where people can watch something. And I think that helps people really understand and comprehend some of the biggest and controversial issues in our society... I think theater just has this intense ability to change the world.

Nakkia Smalls

EmbraceRace: Wow. I really feel like people who haven't been through the Epic program might not necessarily see theater as something that can live everywhere and be accessible and all of that. So that's really fantastic.

I also love just the social change implications of art that you're underlining. And I feel like, this obviously is way to sort of blunt, but I feel like there sort of are two kinds of people in the world, people who really do believe in their heart of hearts about the social justice implications. And in fact, I mean, there are people who say that is the driver in plays, in books, in all sorts of artistic expression. And then there are other people who really see it mostly as entertainment, as aesthetics, as don't really appreciate.

Jim, you can start us out because you, of course, are one of the founders, 20 years ago. Tell us what was going through your head. What happened there?

James Wallert: Well, yeah, thanks so much for having us. Yeah, we founded Epic 20 years ago on the belief that the participation in theater is essential practice for participation in democracy. And that hypothesis was put to the test right away. Our first day of operations was September 11th, 2001. We moved into our offices, painted them, got everything ready to go that Sunday and sort of the Monday was off. And then we were off and running on Tuesday and immediately after 9/11, there was a thought that a lot of theaters in town were saying, were closing their doors and saying, "This isn't a moment for folks to be getting together in the theaters." And there wasn't really a plan in place for educators for how to talk to their students.

They'd been in classes for three days at that point. A lot of the teachers didn't know their kids names. And that was really the test. If we really think that theater is capable of bringing people together to have a shared experience and to be able to engage in civic dialogue, and that dialogue is a catalyst for change, this was the moment to do it. And my colleagues and I organized a group of teaching artists to go in on the 13th and work with young folks to be able to sort of process the images that they had seen through poetry, as opposed to sort of the images they were seeing on television and be able to process those feelings together, and to have conversations about what they were experiencing throughout the city.

And so, yeah. So that was sort of how we began our work, really that idea, and we've continued that idea that participating in theater, that making works of art, that artists are essential workers, that we're able to pose questions in a very particularly engaging way, that bring people together in dialogue. And that artists can provide a really essential lens through which to view history and try to make sense of it.

EmbraceRace: That's such a wonderfully provocative in the best possible sense of the word, statement that theater is democracy or theater can be certainly the kind of theater that you do can be democracy promoting, at this time when so many people are questioning, are really, literally concerned about the state of our democracy. So thinking about the work that you do and what role, especially at scale it might have.

Someone wrote in about Theatre of the Oppressed. Did that movement influence your thinking of the founding of Epic, that theater could be for everybody?

James Wallert: Yeah, absolutely. Augusto Boal who did a lot of those techniques, using sort of legislative theater practice, bringing people together to talk about contemporary sociopolitical issues or policy issues, being able to kind of bring decision makers into a room with citizens and to kind of process this stuff together on one shared platform on stage was incredibly influential. And a lot of the work that we make through Epic, or all of the work that we make through Epic NEXT, are commissions. So different organizations will commission the young people that we work with to create a piece on a particular topic. Primarily over the first several years of the work, it's been about education policy, although we're starting to branch out from that.

So, for example, an organization called New York Appleseed that does work around looking at the issue of school segregation. They've commissioned several pieces from our ensemble to kind of look at that, break it down from a nonpartisan, non-prescriptive point of view. Really the goal is to create a conversation and to create a piece of art in which multiple points of views are represented. And in which ideally any audience member should be able to find their perspective represented somewhere in the piece. And that that really is the prelude to a larger conversation about what educational justice looks like. Why in New York City, the schools are more segregated today than they were before Brown versus Board of Education?

So what does separate but equal mean to us in 2021, when that's the fact and New York state has the most segregated schools in the union. And so, yeah, we've found that when audiences see young people expressing their truths, when they've done incredible research on these pieces and they're presenting this work with extreme empathy and extreme appreciation from multiple points of view, and they see their own point of view reflected in there, they can see sort of, can feel kind of seen and heard and see that level of bravery. When we then engage in a conversation, it elevates the dialogue. So a lot of times we go into communities where they've had really terrible conversations, awful, hateful conversations around questions, around school segregation or culturally responsive sustaining education, pedagogy. And we found that when these young folks bring their work in and facilitate the conversations, it elevates the level of dialogue. It's like we've watched these young people be empathetic and respectful, and eloquent and powerful and truthful. We better do the same, and engage with this material in the same way, so.

When these young folks bring their work in and facilitate the conversations, it elevates the level of dialogue. It's like we've watched these young people be empathetic and respectful, and eloquent and powerful and truthful. We better do the same, and engage with this material in the same way.

James Wallert

EmbraceRace: Yeah. Taylor and Nakkia, we see you smiling. We know we're talking about you, right. Being powerful and eloquent and passionate. I want to pick up though, Jim, on your point about, a lot of these pieces, most, maybe all the pieces are commissioned.

Can you give us an example of a piece that you were in and the process of it? You've both clearly been involved in a number of pieces. So there's a piece that's commissioned.

How then do you, and Nakkia of course come on in, how do you get involved in a given piece, and what is your contribution? What does that look like?

Taylor Bolan: So for me personally, when it comes to a commissioned film and getting involved in films that are commissioned and how I choose to bring myself into it. Because in all of my art pieces, even if it's commissioned, even if it's an idea by someone else, I have to bring myself into my work. So someone who might commission an idea to me is just like a broad idea at times. So for example, with the film that's going to be shown today, I was commissioned to talk about colorblind casting. And that's that's how usually is. They're like, "We want you to look into this topic." And then you do a week or less than of research, really, really delving into the topic. Like the goods and the bads, the negatives, how it's affected different types of people and whatnot.

And that's how you get the main crux of your information for your film. Because for my films personally, it has to be factual, what I'm saying, right? It has to be backed up. If you look deeper into it, it's like my film is backed up by evidence. So you have that part of looking into it. And then you do the talking part, the communicating with the people who have been a part of the topic. So that comes from interviews with different types of people and whatnot. And seeing their point of views on how they dealt with certain things. And I feel as though that may be one of my favorite parts, getting to interview the people who have actually been a part of said discussion. Because then it's not only my voice in my film. It's everyone else. Right.

And from that point on, you then have to work on the logistics of the script, how you're going to piece this together. And I always say, I always bring comedy into mind. So I'm always looking at it from the point of view as, "How can I make this funny?" And I ask that question first and foremost. I set things up with sometimes the weirdest characters. And I just let my creativity run. Sometimes I'll play multiple different characters. I'll play characters who don't even look like the person that I actually am, the person I'm trying to portray.

I just put on different types of creative hats and I get my family involved, other people around me involved like, "Hey, let's do this." And I'm Taylor. So they'll say yes. And we shoot. And sometimes it's very strenuous work, but the payoff is so immaculate. It's amazing getting to show people the stuff that you worked on, and getting to display to them the work you put behind it, in a sense. So that's how I always approach all of my films with the process of research, and then interviewing the people who are involved with the topic. And then when it comes to writing the script, I ask the question of how can I make this funny? I write the script, we act in it, we film, I edit. So I learn all those different things.

EmbraceRace: Jim, you mentioned that a lot of the pieces are literally composed of snippets of what your interviewees tell you, right? And so the fact-finding and the interviewing part portion of it, I take it not all, but a lot. And I'm also picking up on when you said earlier today, you're trying to be nonpartisan. That anyone in the audience should be able to hear some piece that resonates with them, right. That may represent their perspective on some perhaps controversial issue.

Nakkia, how do you actually find the people to interview though? And if they know that their words might be echoed in the pieces that you create, I just wonder what kind of response you get. Does that cause some apprehension?

Nakkia Smalls: Well, so one of the wonderful things, and I think I view the dramaturgical work of getting the commissioned piece and interview research as a little bootcamp. And what I mean by that is that like Taylor mentioned, it's a strenuous process. But we get people to interview. Mostly Jim. Jim just gets a bunch of people to interview. And some people are from direct organizations that might deal with some of the commissioned topics. Some people who are participants have a job in that area, or have kids that experience different aspects of that area. And because our interviews are anonymous. So anybody that volunteers to do an interview, their name, identity will never be released. There's never a pressure to not speak frankly, quite frankly, other than the fact that you're sitting in front of kids and you're being interviewed.

So the things that people say are just legitimately their feelings, and I think that's where the bipartisan effect comes from. Because of the fact that they're not tied to our art process at all, besides their words. Their identity is not tied to what we create and how we interpret it. And I think Epic and Jim specifically does a great job at saying, "These students are going to take your words and they're going to do their due diligence. And whatever their due diligence is, you actually don't have control over that." So in this aspect that you might think that the interview is like, "Okay, it's all cool, it's little dandy." We might as students feel like, "Actually I don't like the way you said this," right. And we get to take that and run with it, and write it however we may write it. And I think that's so wonderful about the commissions that we deal with.

We're not tied to explaining or represent the idea in one specific facet. However we feel that we need to get our voices across. However the people who are in the commission-making process, our views on it is what we represent. We never represent the ideas specifically of whoever wants us to create the piece. I think it's actually wonderful when we have post-show discussions, where people realize, "Oh yeah, I'm the one that said that thing." And you can tell how we represent it in our piece, if they actually even claim that they said it or not.

There's multiple times where it's like, people might have said some controversial things. And they will never unmute or raise a hand and say, "That was me," because they didn't think it would've been interpreted like that. And I think that's another great thing about what we do at Epic. We do a lot of research. So there's the underpinnings of the underpinnings of the underpinnings. So we have a surface level of what that means, but what does that mean historically? Does that mean conceptually? What does that mean theatrically? What implications do these conversations have?

We're not tied to explaining or represent the idea in one specific facet. However we feel that we need to get our voices across. However the people who are in the commission-making process, our views on it is what we represent. We never represent the ideas specifically of whoever wants us to create the piece.

Nakkia Smalls

EmbraceRace: Thank you. This is a great moment to watch our first piece.

Through Our Lens, written and directed by Taylor Bolan of Epic Theater Ensemble

EmbraceRace: Taylor, so I assume some of those words are yours, right? Tell us a little bit about this piece and how this came to be. You told us a bit about interviewing and the commission that's for colorblind casting.

Taylor Bolan: Okay. So this commission was given to me by an actor by the name of Jacob Ming-Trent. He's a Black male actor. And honestly, originally, of course I had heard of colorblind casting, but because of my age and my responsibilities at the moment, it's not as if I've been in the room, like a casting room, very so often. So when I was commissioned with the topic of colorblind casting, I really had to dig deep into exactly what it was and what the circumstances surrounding it were.

And from my understanding through my research, it's supposed to be helpful. It's supposed to influence diversity and whatnot. With the term colorblind casting, it's like this character is not reserved for a particular race or whatnot. It's anyone can come and audition for this role. But through my interviewing of other people, I had an interesting question that came up. Because in all of my interviews, I asked the same questions. And I delved in depending on what the person said. But one particular question in general raised some interesting concerns, and that's, "Has anyone ever been in a room with a Black casting director? Or an Asian casting director, or a casting director that's considered a minority?"

And every time I asked that people were like, "Actually it's crazy you'd mentioned that. I didn't notice that before. I never had one of those." So it became a conversation about how as people, we tend to gravitate towards those who are just like us. Or who are more similar to us. So I started think about colorblind casting in terms of possibly when it comes to the casting directors all being the exact same race, or the exact same group of people. They're going to naturally in a sense, gravitate to people who are just like them. Which may be why we lack diversity in our films. And through further interviewing and researching a major part. One of my favorite parts of the film is towards the end, where I had said that the problem with colorblind casting is that it's not intentful.

It's like it lacks the intention of, "Okay, we're going to add diversity." Because colorblind casting almost makes it way too broad to the point where you can end up with an entire cast that's not diverse. And it's more so rather, "Okay. That was a nice step, but we see that it's not as effective. So what do we do now?" And I think it might have been Jacob, I'm not entirely sure, but oh no. It was definitely one of the interviewers who had said something about, "We need to be intentful with the way that we are going about diversity. We need to say, okay, this role, I want this type of person. This role, I want that type of person. That's the only way that we're going to influence diversity within film, within theater, like all sorts." So I guess I took that and I ran with it.

It's called Through Our Lens, because I guess in a sense I was making the film for people who didn't understand the problem or the issues surrounding colorblind casting. So Through Our Lens, it's like "This is kind of what we go through." So I flipped the script and whatnot. And my sister and I played multiple characters, and it took a lot in terms of chopping things up and putting things together. But it was an amazing experience working with not just Jacob Ming-Trent, but also Epic. And having them teach me things like directing and editing. Oh my gosh. But overall, so that I can bring this idea to a larger audience like today.

EmbraceRace: It's amazing, right? Just flip the identities of people involved, and play out the exact same scene. And how does that feel? How does that sound? Does it strike you as weird now, right? It's a great technique.

How has the response to the piece been?

Taylor Bolan: Lots of laughs. Lots of laughs at first. I actually did another panel. I forget the name of the organization at the moment, but originally there are lots of laughs. And towards the end, when we come to the discussion part, you start to see people open up in terms of, "Hey, there are other instances where this may be going on." Where there is an organization or some type of school that's pushing this agenda of diversity, but they're doing it in not the best way. So they're not receiving the best effects that they can. So it becomes this thing of, where else do we see this? Like in the end where it says, is this racist? Take a moment to stop and look at this, and just really just breathe in the moment and ask yourself, is this the best way that we can do this?

And it leads to a lot of conversation about what is the best way that we can do this in this situation? What about that situation? And also a huge emphasis on not having a casting director of color. It's something that you don't notice, and you have to think about like, "Okay, what other professions is there a lack of diversity that may cause certain negative effects to come because of that?" So there's a lot of conversations surrounding it, but like I always say. I approach things from a comedic stance, and of course seeing my sister and I with Post-its all over our body. It could be kind of jarring for some people. So it catches people off-guard. And then we get into the crux of the conversation of "Okay, now let's get serious." So.

EmbraceRace: You guys are physical comedians, you are very mobile, in the family, mobile faces. What you're saying about making something that you take for granted, just revealing it. Like, wait, we just in our daily lives are maybe not asking, or maybe the audience isn't asking. And that seemed to come up in some of the pieces, right. That we're about to hear as well. Just this idea that, is it me? Like people doubting themselves. Is it me? Or is this right? Or is it the system?

One of the things, Taylor, that I thought of when this spotted towards the end, when your sister says, "Gosh, you've inquired all these gay Black women, isn't that reflective of bias?" That just made me think of there are some big court cases going on right now where Black people were not included or disproportionately stripped from the jury pool. Which is this idea that Black people or Brown people are going to be biased. You can judge fairly, but because White is so often the default, the assumption that White people can judge, can be color blind, but people of color, not so much. And you flipped that script.

We're going to move on to the next film. Jim, you directed this one. Is there anything we should know before we see it?

James Wallert: I think it's mentioned in the beginning, but all three of these pieces were created in the summer of 2020 when we were very much in lockdown. We worked 100% virtually, so thus Taylor, she's Taylor. So her sister said yes, as she said before. So a lot of the students were enlisting family members to either hold the camera or be on the camera. We knew that as a company, we wanted to continue working together and keeping the Epic family together and working and building work and doing this work, but we had to do it remotely. And so, I think just for context, thinking about where we were back in July of 2020. And then this piece is 100% composed, the text, from interviews that the students conducted, and they asked everybody the same first question, which is a part of the piece. So you're hearing some of the responses to that first question that those students asked.

First Question, directed by Epic Theater Co-founder James Wallert

EmbraceRace: Nakkia, what was being in that film like for you?

Nakkia Smalls: I think it was important because it echoed the repetition of things that I've heard my whole life, and the idea about social mobility and the impacts of racism. I think Jim did an amazing job with framing what those constant phrases and mechanisms of oppression and racism and how it appears and how it shows itself and makes people question the environments they're in.

EmbraceRace: So, I have two questions and they're very different, feel free to answer either.

Jim, I understand that you recruit the people typically to be interviewed, but the students ask the questions and conduct the interviews. What difference do you think it makes for the interviewees to have these questions asked by high school students, as opposed to by another adult?

My second question is, this denial of systemic racism and the dynamics of systemic racism is certainly at the heart of this so-called "anti CRT backlash." I know this film was done last summer, 2020. And the backlash gathered steam since then. I'm wondering if you've done this film in front of audiences in the midst of this backlash and what kind of response you've gotten?

James Wallert: Yeah. So I think the second part of the question first. Yeah, that's been really interesting, and we have shown this piece over the last few months where there been all of these conversations and people have been running political campaigns based on their position and on teaching racial justice in schools. And the response for the most part has been pretty positive to the piece. It's been interesting that we were actually commissioned this past summer to create a piece inspired by those very conversations. Inspired by the 1619 Project, using some of Nikole Hannah-Jones's text, her preface, prelude piece to the 1619 Project, to really look at the legacy of slavery, the impact of slavery.

And also in the continued legacy of that in the United States, and the courage required in this particular political moment to teach truthful history, which is significant. That's a huge requirement in certain parts of the country. And so this piece in particular. But I think this other piece, which is called Creation of the Nation, which was written by four of our alums, that piece has received a lot of interesting feedback. The piece that I'm most proud of, is it made Nikole Hannah-Jones cry. She saw the piece and that's the thing that I want put on Epic's resume.

But, also I think what's exciting about it as well, is that we're using that piece as the center of an education residency that we're beginning to introduce in New York City, but also in other parts of the country, Seattle, Washington, DC, Chicago that's encouraging students to look at this piece and then do research and examine stories that are not represented in their history texts. Really examining the way in which history is presented, the figures that we look at, how we look at them. So, that's been the most exciting response to that work is that this piece made by young people about this current moment, is being seen by thousands of more young people. And it's inspiring them to create their own work and, and creating those conversations.

EmbraceRace: And people can go to your website for access?

James Wallert: Yeah, we're getting close to being able to put that out there. We do have a video on demand section of Epic's website where you can take a look at some of our other full length pieces. And that piece, Creation of the Nation, we're hoping to get on there soon. Or if folks are interested in talking about an education residency, building something around, as well. (See Epic’s YouTube channel.)

EmbraceRace: Nakkia or Taylor, do either one of you want to take that question about the difference it makes for, I'm sure it depends on the interviewee, but to be, as it were confronted, maybe that's the wrong verb, by a young adult, like one of the two of you, as opposed to an age peer?

Taylor Bolan: Yeah. I think that oftentimes when it comes to two adults talking to each other, because of how things are set up in society, they see it as I'm talking to a colleague, I'm talking to a person who's on my level. When an adult is talking to someone who's younger, they tended to it from a peak of I'm talking to someone who's a bit inferior, a bit underneath me in some way. And in a sense, they take that and they make it more into, "Okay, this is like a mentee, a learning experience. This person wants to learn from me." And in that, I find that at interviewees tend to be more open because in their mind, we're seeking knowledge, which we are, we're seeking their perspective, but in their mind, we're seeking something bigger, as well.

We're seeking their knowledge, their view on things, the lights are on them. And it's younger person who's interested in what they have to say. So, they tend to be very open and ready to answer. And there hasn't, at least a time when I've interviewed someone, there hasn't been any resistance or whatnot, because everyone wants their voice to be heard. That's just a natural human thing to want to feel heard. And even if it's in this sense of like, "Oh, this really smart sounding to child is asking about my perspective." It still puts adults and other people in the position of, "Okay, this person wants to hear what I have to say. So let me tell them." So at least that's my perspective on things.

EmbraceRace: As Nakkia was saying earlier, they learned pretty quickly if they had other ideas that you're not just receiving their information. You are interpreting and adding your opinions to it and making something new, your art is. So, that's pretty cool.

Nakkia Smalls: Yeah. I just quickly wanted to add, Taylor, I'm so happy you've had great experiences with your interviewers. We've had multiple times where the interviewers just don't want to answer the question. It gets a little awkward in the room. And I think what is so special about having students interview the people is that there's always a mentor there, but they're not going to try to save the day. We're here to have that conversation and to get those answers to those questions. And we've spent so much time cultivating the questions that when it's there and then the people don't want to an answer, we all just like understand that this is a touchy thing. And we used the idea that they didn't want to answer the question in the facet that it was given to them as motivation and as answers to some of our questions in turn. There's been multiple times where we asked a question, the person doesn't necessarily want to answer the question. And they're looking to the facilitator of the conversation for a "Save me," but like, there's no "Save me" here.

So you have a couch full of five people just waiting, because we're obligated to take notes, we need the research. So we're all sitting there waiting, and when we realize the person just doesn't want to answer, we all just understand the person doesn't want to answer. And then we have so much research based off of no answers, as well. So I think that's the best thing about asking from a student perspective is that we apply pressure as students. And we let the person know in their interview, as well as after the interview, in whatever piece we create, that we have agency and we are not underneath any program that prohibits us from having strong and important dialogues and conversations. We're actually here to make it happen. And we're actually here to cultivate something that's actually going to stimulate progressive and effective dialogue. And that doesn't come from avoiding questions and that doesn't come from us trying to make the room easy and less intense or less tension, easier for you to digest.

We let the person know in their interview, as well as after the interview, in whatever piece we create, that we have agency and we are not underneath any program that prohibits us from having strong and important dialogues and conversations. We're actually here to make it happen. And we're actually here to cultivate something that's actually going to stimulate progressive and effective dialogue.

Nakkia Smalls

EmbraceRace: That's so interesting. I was sitting here actually thinking about this process and thinking how unusual it is to have five people, five young people staring at you, asking you about systemic racism. And thinking about, "What are the opportunities, the routine opportunities for 15, 16, 17 year old's to ask adults these questions?" And I was thinking, ideally they would be able to ask these things for example, of your teachers in high school and your professors, now Nakkia, I know you're a college student, but this idea of being able to ask questions that they don't want to answer, that makes them uncomfortable. I don't think that happens very often, even in the higher ed classroom.

James Wallert: It's really interesting. One of the, I'll just very briefly say, in education, there are a lot of education spaces where students are talked about, but never brought inside the door. And, that's not helpful for the young people, but it's also not helpful for the people making those decisions. These folks have incredible expertise, they are participating in the system right now. They have an incredible expertise that is very often not utilized. And so, one of the pieces is called Nothing About Us that Epic made a few years ago that comes from that phrase "Nothing about us without us is for us." And we've definitely heard over the years, particularly with that particular piece that phrase has been taken in and principals or superintendents have said, "I can't believe I've been looking at some of these school policies and I never brought a student in the room to ask their opinion." And I think that's a huge part of the work, is putting young people at the center of this dialogue.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: Let's move on to Nakkia's video. Nakkia is there anything you want to say to prepare us going in? Was this a commissioned video?

EmbraceRace, Andrew: There's no preparing this for this one.

Nakkia Smalls: This was indeed a commissioned piece. And basically this is a dialogue. The simple thing I would say is The Tale of Two Cities, but it's also the tale of two pandemics.

Three-Fifths Rule, written and directed by Nakkia Smalls of Epic Theater Ensemble

EmbraceRace: That is a powerful piece. What is the story of that piece?

Nakkia Smalls: Okay. So thank you so much for your wonderful comments. So I think, so the broad question that was asked to me by the commissioning partners was, "How do you build positive relationships on Zoom or during a time of remote learning?" And for me, I thought the context was off. I thought we were asking the wrong question. And I came to that conclusion after we did an interview with one of, I forgot where, but that doesn't really matter too much, but it does at the same time. And the thing that they kept saying about the relationships in school was, "Should, should, should. This is how it's should be. According to these booklets, this is how it should go." And then it was like, "You have not mentioned once that that's what's happening. You've not mentioned once in this entire interview that it's happening right now. So you have all of these dialogues and discussions about how thing should go, how are we implementing that?"

So, that's where I understood that the context was wrong. So, we wanted to start asking about how relationships would be better online, but we have to make sure those relationships are better in person as well. Because how can you expect people to, students in particularly, to come into such a distanced learning, literally, and then ask about how to build relationships when we are literally separated from our teachers, our friends. I felt like the question was off.

So for me, I kind of felt like there was this battle between how things should go and what's really happening. And then the idea of the pandemic was that, there was two realities. I went to school in Harlem in between two housing projects. So, I understood how funding and resources varied greatly, depending on which district you went to. And I remember when the pandemic first hit, I was in college, so I didn't experience the same kind of issues a lot of the students were experiencing. But I remember Mayor de Blasio talking about how the releasing of iPads and Chromebooks was this revolutionary thing. Like, "Whoa, every kid is about to get a Chromebook! Every kid about to get an iPad. Online learning, problem solved." But they don't think, "Okay. What about Wi-Fi?" Okay. The reliance of school lunches for a lot of these children. What about that?

So, I understood that the pandemic, there was two experiences with the pandemic. But just as I was saying, you had to establish them before you went online. Before you went online, the experience even getting to school, staying in school, the route after school, after mandatory primary school is different. And then, the notion that this was a pandemic, we were all experiencing the same pandemic. Like, everyone's isolated. But how you're isolated, why you're isolated, where you're isolated is different for everyone. And there is a racial determination in some of these differences. So, I thought really having a conversation between two people who might experience two different things and the pandemic is bringing them to have this conversation would present those conflicting ideas the best.

EmbraceRace: Okay, it worked. I loved you playing both characters. That was kind of awesome. Just you listening to yourself. And how has the response to it been?

Nakkia Smalls: Actually, the response has been very good. I think there's been a couple of times where my film's used in different programs and mediums. And I've been nothing but ecstatic. And I think the response has also been very reflective. I think there's a lot of conversations that spurn out of the film, when it comes to the two experiences of the pandemic and how the pandemic didn't create these two experiences, they exacerbated it. So, I think that was one of the biggest responses.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: Taylor and Nakkia, "Y'all are just amazing." says Rachel. This is amazing work y'all.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: Jim, you're pretty great too. He's not chopped liver.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: Hey Jim, you are crucial in starting this. I mean, you're a little bit chopped liver, but we've seen bigger chunks.

Are there materials from Epic that can be used in classroom or children's theater? Are there things on the website that people can go and download or refer to?

James Wallert: Yeah. Well, first of all, these three films and 19 more are available on Epic's YouTube Channel. There's a playlist actually, it's called the Epic NEXT Film Festival. And so, all of these films are available. I think, I'm about to say a thing and I think it's true. I think there's also a discussion guide that's on Epics website, on the Epic NEXT Film Festival website. If not, you can email me and I'll send you the discussion guide for that. So yeah. Those pieces are available to be used in classrooms.

And yeah, there's a book that's just come out this week called, Citizen Artists. It's got the texts, scripts from the last four plays that were made by Epic NEXT. But it's sort of a guide to the process that we use, specifically the interview based work. So, it's got curriculum, lesson plans and then also a lot of, it's sort of built like one of these pieces too, in that there's interview excerpts from teaching artists and mentor artists who have worked in the program for the last 10 or 12 years.

EmbraceRace: A question for Taylor and Nakkia. Where do you see this experience of theater, film, directing leading you in your future?

Nakkia Smalls: Yeah, I can go. I definitely see me somewhere loud. And I don't know what that means specifically, but somewhere just very loud and very statement driven. And the medium is really tricking me right now. But I definitely feel like, just on a platform where I can just be as loud and creative as I can possibly be. And I definitely see it taking me into so many different environments that do not necessarily see theater in the way that we see theater and transforming the way we view a lot of the discourse. And making it STEAM instead of STEM, is one of my big things too.

EmbraceRace: STEAM instead of STEM.

Mike wants to know, will EmbraceRace continue to collaborate with Epic and with other organizations? Seems like a perfect role to be a hub of these conversations and efforts.

So, I don't know about being a hub, but we definitely want to collaborate with Epic. We're having that conversation and hopefully we'll work out, I'm pretty confident we'll get to something. Yes, we have very much started that conversation. Yeah. We love these folks, in case you can't tell. Yeah, go ahead.

How does Epic go about collabing with schools? Is there a certain criteria for the schools that you choose?

James Wallert: We began working specifically with, as Taylor mentioned before, we had partner schools. For most of our time, we really put a focus on breadth of experience rather than, or depth of experience rather than trying to work with a ton of students. So we would work with, like at Nakkia's school, we would do in-school work, where we worked with every student in every grade, every year. With between like, 25 and 50 artist visits in English, History, Science classrooms, after school programming and the ability to be a part of Epic NEXT.

One of the things that we've been doing sort of post COVID is, is expanding our work to work with more schools throughout New York city, but also around the country. So, there's really not kind of a particular criteria for working with the school other than, we're really interested in partnering with educators that are excited by this kind of work and school leaders that are comfortable kind of turning the reins over to young people and letting their voices be centered in these conversations. And that's a risky proposition in some parts of the country right now. So, we're really excited about doing that work and getting this work and making it happen in different parts of the country. So yeah, if there's anybody watching this who's interested in collaboration, please do reach out. My email is jim@epictheatreensemble.org, or you can leave a message on Epic's website. And love to have that conversation.

EmbraceRace: There's a question I love. "Do your Mamas, and Papas, and family, and ancestors just melt into tears of pride when they see these shorts?" And I'm going to add just a little piece, which is, how do your people, whoever those are, how do they understand what you're doing?

Taylor Bolan: So, I'll answer this one. For the first part, my parents, whenever I make a film, or whenever I perform as well, they tend to get very proud of me. Not to say that they're not proud of me on the regular. But they're just, they're amazed that I, at such a young age, am picking up such serious topics and creating art at the same time. It's like, "Whoa, what's going on?" So they'll share it on Facebook. They'll share it there and next thing you know, I'm getting calls from like the entire family from people in Jamaica and from Britain. And it's like, I'm getting all these calls like, "Oh, we saw your film." And everyone's super proud of me. So, it's a very supportive environment, I guess, I can say with my family. Especially when I'm picking up such serious topics and there's comedy in it. So of course, they're going to watch it.

As for the second part of the question, how do they understand what I'm doing. I think at first, it may be a bit difficult for them to understand. Being that, their culture is like, my entire family is from a different place. So they're from Jamaica and they're first generation immigrants and whatnot. So, I genuinely, at times, sometimes, if my film is based off of something that's more of in the past, other than what's going on in the present, I may have to break things down and say, "This is why this is important for right now."

And they see my work as a way of spreading information, but through a different way. And oftentimes with coming from a Caribbean background, they are going to want me to of course be interested in STEM and whatnot. And they see me, "Oh, where you going, Taylor?" "Yeah, I'm going to the theater to go perform." Or I'm like, "Oh, I'm filming this or whatnot." But overall, it's been extremely supportive, because they know that at the end of the day, my work is meant to spread information, and it's meant to bring people together, and it's meant to get people to understand one another more than anything else. So, that's how they understand my work.

EmbraceRace: All three of you see your work as social change work. Nakkia, how do your folks understand your work?

Nakkia Smalls: Yeah. I think they see it as powerful. I think because they've understood from a young, from about me, ever since I was young is like, one thing about the Nakkia is that she's going to speak. So, I think theater is just like another platform to get me to explain my ideas in a broad and a fun way, I think. The topic doesn't always have to be fun, but the idea of going to watch theater is the thing that entices people. And then I feel like, and that's when the strong conversations can happen.

And I honestly, I don't think they understand what I do. And that's not a bad thing. I think generationally, there's barely an understanding about the social implications and that, just all the implications of a lot of social inequities that occur. And I think they feel like it's past their time to understand it. They've graduated out of school. They kind of just live in this world where it's like, you provide, you take care of your kids. There's not a need to dive deep. I don't think they understand their position within these ongoing issues. So in honestly, I don't think they necessarily understand it and that's okay, because I do. And anytime I can, I'm reminding them about anything problematic or anything that's new and should be talked about. So, yeah. They don't understand it, not to the magnitude and multitude I wish they would. But nevertheless, it's okay. Because that's people in general. Not everyone's going to understand.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: My kids would say the same for my us.

EmbraceRace: I'm sure they appreciate, we certainly appreciate. Jim, congratulations on starting this amazing program and meeting these amazing people, supporting them. I love the, just the young people expressing their voice with the voice of others, I think. Right? Literally using the words of others, but expressing their voice through how they piece those together. It's really wonderful. Really beautiful.

And again, we are so psyched to continue the conversation about how we can do some stuff and work together. Thank you so much for making this time. Thank you to all the folks who came in. Keep doing what you do, people. Honored to have had you all on. So, thank you.

Nakkia Smalls: Thank you so much for having us.

James Wallert: Yeah, thank you.

Taylor Bolan: Yes, thanks.

Resources (back to the top)

Video shorts

Taylor Bolan

Taylor Bolan is a 17 year old student currently specializing in theater at Wadleigh Secondary School for the Visual and Performing Arts. She has been a part of the Epic Theater Ensemble community since 9th grade. With them, Taylor has been able to perform at various venues; partake in screen writing, directing and acting workshops; and use her talents to call attention to overlooked issues.
Taylor Bolan 360 x 360 px

Nakkia Smalls

Nakkia Smalls is currently a Senior at the University at Buffalo. She a participant Epic NEXT throughout her high school career during which time she performed in Laundry City, Building Blocks, Measure for Measure, Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. Nakkia has served as an apprentice artist with Epic NEXT for the last two years.
Nakkia Smalls 360 x 360 px 1

James Wallert

James Wallert is an actor and director. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Epic Theater Ensemble. Epic’s artists challenge the institutional status quo by making theatre radically accessible, engaging thousands of students and first-time audiences in the transformative process of telling their own stories and learning to deeply empathize with those of others. James is the author of the forthcoming book Citizen Artists: a Guide to Helping Young People Make Plays that Change the World.
James Wallert