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A group of people stand on a black box theater stage smiling at the camera.
Professor Renee Alexander Craft (far right) with students.

A performance woven from extensive oral histories of Institute of African American Research (IAAR) leaders will be brought to life by student performers in a public performance Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre in Swain Hall.

“Performing Sankofa: UNC Black Trailblazers” is a tapestry of first-person accounts from five oral histories being preserved by the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill in collaboration with the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Research in Black Culture and History (Stone Center) and the Southern Oral History Program. Under the direction of Professor Renée Alexander Craft, this project serves as the centerpiece of the Fall 2023 interaction of Comm 562: “Oral History and Performance.” Over the semester, students learn theories and methods of oral history research that they put into practice by conducting oral histories, transcribing them and using key themes to create a public performance that places them in dialogue with each other. The goal of their work is to complete interviews with five previous IAAR leaders and to create a framework by which the project may be amplified and expanded.

The IAAR leaders whose stories are touched upon in this work include: D. Soyini Madison (1995-2001), Gerald Horne (1996-2001), William “Sandy” Darity (2001-2007), Harold Woodard (2009-2009), and Karla Slocum (2013-2021). Slocum is now senior associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Dean’s Office of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“We’ve all been in those conversations where somebody starts talking about something, and you just feel transported, right? This is because they’re transported and they’re really communicating something that cannot be captured fully in written form. So these performances come in and fill in the gap,” graduate student and performer Lauren Rekhelman said.

Halley Zhang, a senior student and performer, voiced the importance of sharing these stories. “I’m excited to be able to share these people’s stories with the rest of the Carolina community because they have put in a lot of time and effort in making this predominantly white institution into a space that is more and more welcoming for experiences of [people of] color. I think the immense work that they have done is worthy of being told,” said Zhang.

The cast includes: James Biddix, Skyler Clay, Maxwell DiMuccio, Jordyn Earl, Anna Elliott, Desmond Evans, Rachel Greiner, James Jonathan Jones II, Helene Karlshoj, William Andrew Kleinschmidt, Caroline Elizabeth Mays, Robert Philip Melvin IV, William Grayson Moss, Myles Murphy, Lauren Rekhelman, Alya Suayah, Ethan Thomas, Jenna Thornton, Sydney Tyson, Emma Zamani and Halley Zhang.

In 2022, IAAR and the Stone Center merged to become the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Research in Black Culture and History. “Performing Sankofa” is an oral history project focused on the vision and goals that animated the creation and expansion of the IAAR. This staged reading is the culminating project for Comm 565: “Oral History and Performance” taught by Professor Renée Alexander Craft.

About the Artist:

headshot of Renee Alexander Craft
Renee Alexander Craft

Renée Alexander Craft is a Professor and Director of Outreach and Public Engagement in the Department of Communication and Curriculum in Global Studies, with a primary area of study in performance and cultural studies. For over 20 years, Alexander Craft’s research and creative projects have centered on an Afro-Latin community located in the small coastal town of Portobelo, Panama who call themselves and their carnival performance tradition “Congo.” She has completed a monograph, a digital humanities project, and a novel, all reflecting this focus. The first is an ethnographic monograph titled When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in 20th Century Panama (The Ohio State University Press, January 2015). The second project, titled Digital Portobelo: Art + Scholarship + Cultural Preservation (, is an interactive online collection of ethnographic interviews, photos, videos, artwork, and archival material that illuminate the rich culture and history of Portobelo, Panama. The third is a novel, The Part of Me That’s Mine, represented by Beth Marshea, owner and lead agent of The Ladderbird Literary Agency. Alexander Craft also co-edited The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance with Kathy A. Perkins, Sandra L. Richards, and Thomas F. DeFrantz.

About the Process Series

Dedicated to the development of new and significant works in the performing arts, The Process Series features professionally mounted, developmental presentations of new works in progress. The mission of the series is to illuminate the ways in which artistic ideas take form, examine the creative process, and offer audiences the opportunity to follow artists and performers as they explore and discover. Immediately following each performance, we ask our audiences to join in the creative process, providing feedback critical to the development of the work as it moves forward. All performances are free and open to the public.

The 16th season is based in the Department of Communication, supported by StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, and is co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Arts Everywhere, and these UNC Departments and Programs: American Studies, Art and Art History, Communication, Creative Writing, Dramatic Art, English and Comparative Literature, and Music.

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