Through the Black Arts Theatre Company, dramatic art majors Aubree Dixon and Liz Howard help students of color feel more comfortable both onstage and behind the scenes.
Despite a global pandemic, senior dramatic art majors Aubree Dixon and Liz Howard are leaving their mark on Carolina with a project that’s near and dear to their hearts — the Black Arts Theatre Company.
Dixon works with Howard on the student-run BATC, founded by Howard in 2019. Originally conceived as an improv group within Carolina’s Black Student Movement, it grew to a theater company for students of color to feel more comfortable onstage or behind the scenes. BATC has a particular emphasis on showcasing works by Black playwrights and other writers.
“We really wanted to create a space where Black students and other students of color can dive into the arts and theater without feeling like they don’t belong in that space,” said Howard.
The inaugural production of Black Girl, Interrupted opened to sold-out crowds in 2019. It was written by LyaNisha Gonzalez about a female soldier’s death and coverup.
Being a student during a pandemic is already a challenge — not to mention trying to run a theater company amid social distancing and capacity limits.
While acting for the stage is her true passion, Dixon has been doing some Zoom theater events and acting in short films during the pandemic. “I have grown to appreciate acting for the camera a lot more recently.”
This semester, her acting class with Jeffrey Cornell recently met in person in Forest Theatre. The shift from acting to a screen to returning to performing on a stage has helped her get back to the basics, she said.
“Being back in in Forest Theatre, able to stand and yell and scream and shake my arms if I want to … it’s brought that excitement back to me,” she said.
Dixon, from Fayetteville, began acting as a small child, but didn’t take it as seriously until high school. When she came to Carolina, she began as a computer science major, thinking that she could continue theater for fun. But after only one class, she knew that acting was her passion. She still gets her stimulation from STEM through her statistics and analytics minor.
Like Dixon, Howard also began acting in childhood. Her first play was Alice in Wonderland, Jr. The Musical when she was in seventh grade, which spurred her to attend a performing arts high school in her hometown of Atlanta.
Her family encouraged her to consider broadcast journalism as well, citing her skill on camera. While she didn’t see herself as a journalist, she did a minor from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, focusing on video and photo editing. Recently she has been taking graduation photos and exploring creative photography.
“If theater didn’t close down during the pandemic, I don’t feel like I would ever have tapped into this other side of me that’s not acting,” said Howard.
There aren’t many actors in Howard’s family. For inspiration, she looks to her late cousin, Lynne Thigpen, who won a Tony Award for her role in An American Daughter in 1997. Howard said she frequently watches her acceptance speech on YouTube.
“She’s very inspiring to me because I want to continue to carry on her legacy of acting and the arts in my family. She was incredible,” she said.
Dixon also turns to family for affirmation that she’s chosen the right path. Her aunt, whom she thinks of like a sister, danced ballet and entered pageants. Dixon sees her as fearless, and still remembers what her aunt said to her one day: “I may not be great at it, but I love to do it so I’m going to keep doing it.”
They’ve both had their chance on the professional stage with the University’s professional theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company. Dixon understudied for Everybody in the 2019-2020 season, where the starring role changed nightly. While she was prepared to step in, she also played a glowing jellyfish that occupied the afterlife.
Howard took the stage of the Paul Green Theatre as an ensemble member in Ragtime. While she prefers the smaller and more intimate spaces, she appreciated how interactive and fun it was. Not to mention, she acted with PlayMakers favorite Ray Dooley.
“That was a great memory, being onstage with him. It’s such an honor – the man is a legend.”
After graduation, Dixon and Howard said they will continue to pursue acting. Howard will return to Atlanta, aiming to sign with an agent to book auditions for both screen and stage. Dixon will attend the London Academy of Music and Drama for a year, which will be her first time out of the country.
“I’m excited but I’m very nervous,” said Dixon. “I know this is the right time for me to do something like this.”
With the year drawing to a close, Dixon noted how close-knit the students in the department of dramatic art are. It’s bittersweet that the pandemic cut short their opportunities to perform in person.
“Hopefully we’ll cross paths and do a show together again,” added Howard.
By Kristen Chavez, College of Arts & Sciences