- “Every 28 Hours” at York College of Pennsylvania: Discovering How the Past Influences the Present
In October 2015, I was fortunate to see a production of “The Every 28 Hours Plays” at Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island. Everything I have always wanted to see in theatre was present: a standing room–only crowd, a diverse audience of various ages and races, and new, socially conscious work. I returned to my home institution, York College of Pennsylvania (YCP), blindly determined to bring these plays to campus. YCP’s theatre program does nontraditional casting well, but we have not done enough to consciously diversify representation by producing plays with characters who are delineated as people of color. The Every 28 Hour Plays, I felt, would give us that opportunity and hopefully recruit students of color to our stage who might not have felt that there was a place for them. The fact that I had seen the plays and could testify to the scripts’ power helped me pitch the show to my department chair and upper administration, and we booked the show for October 2016. However, I was naively aware of York’s racial history and how this past, as well as the current climate, could jeopardize this production.
The first revelation occurred in July 2016.1 Following two police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, five police officers were assassinated in Dallas in a separate incident. While Every 28 Hours had already been approved by the Cultural Series Committee, these national events reactivated painful memories of our community’s own racial history and experiences of police violence. York is infamous for a pair of tragic murders that occurred in July 1969: during race riots2 that required National Guard presence, a 22-year-old white police officer, Henry Schaad, and Lillie Belle Allen, a 27-year-old black woman from South Carolina visiting family, were both killed in the streets of York.3 Both murders were not solved until the thirtieth anniversary of the 1969 riots. Given this history and the recent political climate, the administration worried about presenting plays that critiqued the police; they were particularly on alert since the south-central Pennsylvania area has an active Ku Klux Klan and Skinhead group presence.4
Therefore the president of the college, the dean of Student Affairs, and I met throughout the summer to discuss how we could allow theatre students the artistic freedom to participate and yet not provoke dangerous protests from extremist groups or more conservative members of our own student body. We arranged to have a designated area in front of the theatre for any potential protest groups so that actors and audience could safely enter and exit the building.
Meanwhile, in response to the administration’s hesitancy, some students of color stepped forward in leadership roles to ensure the show’s continuance. They held an informational meeting to drum up interest with non-theatre students and campaigned for their friends on campus to join us—galvanized to show multiple points of view and perform together on our campus for the first time. These students discovered, as I had when I first saw the collection, that the plays explore the issue of police brutality from multiple vantage points: mothers whose children had been killed, privileged allies, and the police themselves. While it was not easy for students to tackle roles that went against their personal politics, everyone was sensitive to the need to show diverse perspectives. [End Page 171]
The administration did ask for compromises, such as requiring college IDs at the door to ensure that all audience members were from the university community, which led to pulling out of consideration for a community arts grant and keeping marketing contained to the campus boards and eblasts. They were also concerned about the post-performance discussion. Posters extolling the Alt-Right had been found on campus that May (Mathius), so we decided against allowing audience members to ask questions in an open format with a microphone; however, we recognized that it was important that everyone have the chance to respond. The college president knew Lisa Brenner of Drew University and suggested that...