A Conversation with Caroline Jackson-Smith, Chair and Professor of Theater and Professor of Africana Studies

February 1, 2019
Communications Staff
Portrait of Caroline Jackson-Smith
Caroline Jackson-Smith is professor of theater and Africana studies and chair of the theater department. Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Jackson-Smith began her teaching career at Oberlin to develop Black Arts courses. Over the last 30 years, she has directed 40 shows on campus and mentored an impressive list of alumni working in the arts. She discusses some of her memorable productions, professional theater work outside Oberlin, and her upcoming mainstage show, What We Look Like, which will be performed February 7-10 in the brand new Irene and Alan Wurtzel Theater.

When did you begin teaching at Oberlin?

In fall 1989 as an artist in residence in theater and Africana studies—a position that was founded by Avery Brooks ’70. Since that time, I have become tenured as a full professor.

Roughly how many plays have you directed at Oberlin? What are some of your most memorable productions?

I have directed about 40 plays at Oberlin. One of my absolute favorites was Dessa Rose in 2015. It was a mainstage musical set in slavery based on a novel by Sherley Ann Williams, written for stage by Lynne Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. One of the leads, Ti Ames, is also starring in What We Look Like by B.J. Tindal ’16, which will be performed February 7-10. I am also very proud of all four iterations of The Word n the Beat, shows devised by students in my upper level Black Arts Workshop class that are always based in the aesthetics of hip-hop.  

Another high point was partnering with world-renowned artist and choreographer Dianne McIntyre to create a double bill composed of a piece devised by Oberlin students, Unexpected Journeys, and the premiere of a new choreopoem by Ntozake Shange, Why I Had to Dance, which was directed and choreographed by McIntyre. We performed both here in Oberlin and in Playhouse Square in Cleveland, and Ms. Shange was here for the productions.

Directing What We Look Like is also very special, because B.J. and Maansi Sanay Seth ’16 (dramaturg) are both recent graduates. B.J. received an MFA in playwriting from Northwestern University last spring, and we are so happy he chose to let us present it again as the second production in our brand new Nord Performing Arts Annex. B.J. and Maansi spent a few days with us refining the script with the cast’s participation. It was a great opportunity for them to participate in the process of a play coming into its final form.

Caroline Jackson-Smith with Ntozake Shange
Jackson-Smith with the late Ntozake Shange in 2012

You’ve also directed and worked on plays at Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater Festival, Karamu House, and Cleveland Public Theatre. How does your experience working on other stages inform your teaching and work at Oberlin?

Working professionally definitely complements my work at Oberlin. Learning is a two-way street. For instance, there are some techniques I’ve developed working with student actors. When I directed Funnyhouse of A Negro by Adrienne Kennedy in New York City for the Signature Theater, I wondered if seasoned New York actors would embrace these methods, and when they did, I felt very rewarded and grateful for the freedom we have here to teach and learn from students. I also took a musical director and directing assistant from Oberlin to work with me. Working in Cleveland has been a blessing. I have worked as a dramaturg on a few productions for Great Lakes and Cleveland Playhouse, and working directly with another director in the literary aspect of production was enlightening.

When I directed several community outreach plays for Great Lakes, I had a chance to figure out how a production could travel to different venues and serve a variety of audiences. I also had a hand in choosing the plays I directed—all of which came out of classes I teach in dramatic literature, and then fed those classes as well. Probably some of my greatest professional experiences have been at Karamu House, which gave me my some of my earliest professional directing experiences. I believe I have directed about 10 shows there, and sometimes they have involved Oberlin students.  

My most recent show, Simply Simone, based on the life and music of Nina Simone, played to sold out audiences in fall 2017 and was remounted last summer. One of the original cast members was my colleague Afia Ofori-Mensa in her first professional show.

What courses have you taught through the years?

When I came to Oberlin, I was asked to develop a real curriculum for the Black Arts. My two original courses are Black Arts Workshop, which traces the artistic, ritual and spiritual journeys of Africans in the diaspora through readings and performance, and African American Drama, which introduces plays by Black American writers from the 19th century to the present. I still teach both of these, and now have added the upper level Black Arts Workshop which has resulted in the full productions of The Word n the Beat; Theater of the Millenium, which explores American plays since the mid 20th century; and two courses in African American Cinema Studies. I also teach the core course, Introduction to Africana Studies.

Your upcoming play, What We Look Like, will be performed in the new Wurtzel Theater. Why did you choose this play?

B.J. has a very unique ability to blend edgy comedy with important explorations of issues of our times, in this case the power of media to influence identities. The play begins with a Black couple in therapy because their young son has drawn a picture of his family as all white. As the play unfolds we see an iconic 1950’s TV white family who then becomes a contemporary family with their own issues.  

What has been your experience planning and rehearsing for this new theater space? How is it different from Hall Auditorium?

The new theater space is fantastic! Hall Auditorium is a 500-seat theater with fixed seating, while the new Irene and Alan Wurtzel theater seats between 200 and 250 and is an open space amenable to flexible designs. For this first season, we challenged ourselves to do our three mainstage faculty-directed plays in vastly different configurations with surprises for the audiences. The operas and a major dance concert will remain in Hall.

The Oberlin theater department attracts students from other majors in the college, and students often double major in theater and another discipline. How would you describe the current arts landscape for recent graduates? What are some common pathways for theater grads?

I think the artistic landscape of Oberlin College is vibrant, diverse, and exciting. All of our departments—dance, cinema studies, art, and creative writing as well as theater open the door for students to explore multidisciplinary arts projects, often working with each other and students from the Conservatory of Music. Theater currently has 43 majors, many of whom double major in Africana studies, comparative American studies, neuroscience, computer science, and others. In our classes and productions, students are drawn from across the college.

For instance, the fall mainstage production, Cabaret, involved about 70 students acting, in the orchestra and performing management, design, and technical functions. I really do believe the fine and performing arts are a distinctive strength here at Oberlin.

Could you give some examples of some standout alumni?

Corey Stoll ’98 has appeared in films, television shows and theater productions; Sarah-Violet Bliss ’06 is a screenwriter and creator of Search Party on FX; Diona Reasonover ’06, actor currently on NCIS; Ben Sinclair ‘06, actor, writer, and creator of High Maintenance on HBO; Kelly AuCoin ’89, actor currently in Billions on HBO; Carolyn Hall ’91, dancer and environmentalist (Kelly and Carolyn are married and met at Oberlin); Justin Emeka ’95, one of my first students and currently on the faculty in theater and Africana studies; Gabriela Trigo ’07, actor currently guest teaching at Oberlin; Chris Puglisi ’17, currently in the playwriting program at Yale School of Drama; Mike Braugher ’16, graduate acting student at Juilliard; and of course B.J. Tindal. This is just a small sample!

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