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Crossroads Project’s New Play Selection Tells Timely Story Of Race, Inclusion

From 1904 to 1908, Oscar De Priest was a member of the board of commissioners of Cook County, Illinois.

The Crossroads Project at Illinois State University, which is devoted to promoting diversity and inclusion, will do a staged reading of “The DePriest Incident” next month.

“The De Priest Incident” is about Oscar De Priest, the first Black person elected to Congress from Illinois in the 20th century. Crossroads Project chairman Kee-Yoon Nahm said the characters and message of 1929 have uncanny parallels to this past year’s national dialogue.

“When we were thinking about the play, we definitely had race on our mind, but at that time we weren’t really thinking much about the backlash we’ve seen towards election results. I think there are a lot of connections that we can make to the kind of resistance we are seeing right now towards more progressive politics. It is also just a fascinating chapter of African American culture that deserves more attention,” said Nahm.

In the new play, De Priest is an outspoken civil rights advocate, and he has his mind set of getting his wife, Jessie, to the White House tea party hosted by First Lady Lou Hoover. Oscar plans to use Jessie’s appearance to send a message about racial equality. 

Playwright Charles White said he didn’t think the play would be so timely. 

“I just got caught up in the tea incident. From the racial point of view, I did not want to tell ... what’s the Hollywood cliche now? ‘A white savior story.’ There really is one to be told because Mrs. Hoover did not have to do that. If I turned this into a TV series or film I would have to have Mrs. Hoover and the White House angle in on it. But I didn’t want to tell that story, I just wanted to show just how important it was to the De Priests and the Black community what this tea party symbolized.”

“The De Priest Incident," selected from a pool of 100 plays from writers all across the country, will be presented free of charge March 25 via Zoom. Nahm said diversity is achieved by including Black experiences. 

“In terms of the selection process, this was one of the top runners from early on. All of the plays, in terms of subject matter, are fascinating, important and many of them are deeply personal stories,” he said.

Nahm said year’s selection speaks to the injustices and milestones the Black community continues to face--centuries later. 

“The year 2020 has been a time of reckoning to rethink past practices and think about institutionalized racism within the art that we make.” 

Demitri Corbin has his work cut out for him. He will be directing the staged reading. Corbin said it’s important for Black people to tell their stories. 

“This is one that hasn’t been told and certainly not in this way," he said. "To look at the real characters within the situation and see it from their point of view. From what we know of ‘The De Priest Incident’ is from the papers and the backlash that occurred. So we know what the response to Jessie DePriest visiting the White House was, but Charles White has given us a point of view from their eyes.”

What theater students gain

The Crossroads Project is an advocacy committee comprising faculty, staff, and students that promotes diversity and inclusion in ISU’s School of Theatre and Dance.

The project is designed to inspire theater students, specifically those of color.

Nahm said he hopes the theater students' interaction with White and hearing of his experiences will inspire them to shoot for the stars. 

“It is also a roadmap for students to see that, ‘Oh I can see myself working with or in that position ... 10 years, 20 years down the road.’ I think that’s important.” 

Nahm thinks it is important to have art and discussions that surround race. 

“We’re pushing for more opportunities and visibility for historically marginalized voices because I think fundamental change is on the horizon, and I am both happy and grateful that we as a theater department can take part in these conversations on a much, much wider scale.” 

Nahm said there is something to be learned from new plays that are just getting off the ground. 

“To have the opportunity to actually have impact on a way the play develops, to provide feedback and to see your feedback become part of that play is a valuable experience for our students. That’s also a kind of lesson we hope this staged reading instills.” 

Corbin said marginalized theater students can give more perspective and offer further insight on how to capture the De Priests’ feelings about the tea party. 

“That’s what these readings and workshops do, give the writer as much feedback and information as we can to help facilitate him to flesh his story out further,” he said.

Women’s liberation

Through writing about Oscar De Priest, White found he wasn’t only giving voice to the Black community, but also simultaneously writing a women’s liberation play. 

“Jessie De Priest is really going from being a congressional housewife to a celebrity in her own right. So the play sort of morphed from this powerful man to a woman who becomes more powerful and the play is about her growth.”

Nahm said Jessie’s story added another layer to the mission of promoting diversity and inclusion.

“Anxiety the people have over what it’s going to be like for a Black woman to be at that tea party for the first time in the presence of all of those southern Democrats, which was at that time the stronger political base for white supremacy,” he said.

The Zoom link of the staged reading will be distributed closer to the event.

Catrina Petersen is an intern at WGLT focused on reporting and online writing. She is also a student in Illinois State University's School of Communication.