The In[HEIR]itance Project: Theater Production Helps Break Cultural Barriers

A group of 15 women convened at a neighborhood arts center in Cincinnati, Ohio, to describe their city to playwrights gathering raw material for a script. All but one were White and used terms like “hidden gem,” “beautiful place to raise a family” and “nice.” The word that came to mind for the lone Black woman was “cliquish.” At that, most of the White women gasped, shushed her, and asked her not to say such things. But through the conversation, some acknowledged the need to make their community better.

That exchange is similar to the type of dialogue local community leaders hope to foster in Hampton Roads by bringing the In[HEIR]itance Project to the region via a $10,000 Beneath the Surface grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation in collaboration with Virginia Humanities.

The In[HEIR]itance Project is a national arts organization that intertwines community issues, history, religion, and theater to promote cross-cultural awareness and understanding.

In Hampton Roads, In[HEIR]itance Project artists will work with area residents to create an original stage play based on their experiences, stories, and perspectives of racism and how it continues to shape this region. They plan to perform at an upcoming upcoming Virginia Arts Festival event.

The local endeavor is administered by the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and led by Hands United Building Bridges, or HUBB, an interfaith and intercultural coalition of diverse religious leaders. Community conversations and public playmaking workshops are central to the effort.

“Every city has a story to tell, and we count on the people in the community to give us the content,” said Ariel Warmflash, one of the In[HEIR]itance Project’s co-founding artists. “We come with expertise in making theater and you come with expertise in your own lives, and together we create something.”

HUBB’s co-leaders say their organization is a good fit for the playmaking project because of its mission to promote better understanding by bringing together diverse people to discuss tough issues. They believe the conversations, workshops, and performance will spark additional activities that foster community awareness and healing.

HUBB Co-leaders

“The In[HEIR]itance Project will give another vehicle to us for unity,” said the Rev. Dr. Sharon Riley, senior pastor of the Faith Deliverance Christian Center in Norfolk, and one of the HUBB co-leaders. “This project will enable us to develop methods of communication and networking that allow us to see how much we are alike as opposed to how much we are different from each other.”

In the Ohio example, playwrights included a scene based on the exchange between the White women and one Black woman to highlight diverse perspectives and demonstrate the importance of talking about racial issues. “That scene explores different people’s versions of reality,” said Warmflash. “Our work is not just about us hearing what people think about their city but having them hear from each other.”

Greater recognition of historical and current racial inequities in South Hampton Roads, Riley said, is a key step in countering racism.

HUBB co-leader Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg of Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk agreed. “The history of racism in our community is not as well-known as one would think,” she said. “There is an opportunity to tell the stories and educate people, first of all just to make them more aware of issues of race and how they still perpetuate themselves.”

The Rev. John Rohrs, a HUBB co-leader and rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, said the play has the potential to unite people of various backgrounds as well as spark more cross-cultural dialogue and activities.

“The arts and theater have ways of fostering conversations ... that can be hard to do otherwise,” he said. “This play can be an entry point to doing more work together.”

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