Audience members in the Whittenberger Auditorium on Sunday evening turned up their coats against the cold words shouted from the cast of “Catalyst,” an emergent theater project inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.
The cast weaved its way through the rows, shouting words of hatred, discrimination, racism and prejudice and asked, “Why me?” Their words hung heavy in the air, creating a vast garden of weedy tendrils reaching everyone in the audience. As they finally reached the stage, they turned to the audience.
“We are calloused.”
There they paused with looks of fierce determination on their faces as they mentally prepared to debut the roller coaster of emotional performances they had been working on for three and a half months.
“We had such a diverse group,” cast member and IU alumnus Peter St Fort said. “We had Asian, Jewish, black, country, we had so many different types of people who came together. We talk about discrimination, different problems we always run into and make something work out of it. It was pretty fantastic.”
In previous years, the production was performed by students outside of IU, St Fort said. This year, the cast was composed solely of IU and Ivy Tech Community College students. Kassandra Housley, an instructor at Ivy Tech, performed the first piece of the evening. She stood onstage as if in a classroom, surrounded by the cast.
“Before Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream, he sat in jail,” she said. “It was there he constructed one of his lesser known works.”
Housley went on to talk about King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in April 1963. She moved offstage, staring into the eyes of audience members as she hammered them with pent-up passion.
“Is justice too long delayed? Is justice denied? We are content even as we bear witness to the oppression of others … Dr. King understood us. We enjoy what he would call an ‘anesthetizing security.’ We sit in judgment of the oppressed yet never succumb to action,” she said.
Housley spoke words she had written herself.
“Wake up and be more,” she yelled at the audience. “We live in a world of action. For actions speak louder than words, and deeds carry more weight than prayers.”
She moved slowly back to the stage. A bell rang and class was dismissed.
“We wrote everything ourselves,” senior Shaily Hakimian said. “We got a lot of inspiration from the teachers who came in to see us. They helped us with speaking, but all the pieces that were in there were ourselves.”
Housley’s stirring speech was followed by numerous other personal pieces. Each new scene was different from the last, moving from comical to serious.
The cast performed an “elevator scene,” asking the audience if they had ever wondered what people were thinking in an elevator. In the scene, they allowed numerous thoughts to become manifest.
“Damn, this sister got a fine bubble butt.”
“Am I the only white person on here?”
“I’ll bet that white girl think I’m gonna rape her.”
“God, don’t let me fart.”
Though the scene was comical, it delved into the issue of how discrimination and hatred can lie inside each and every person. The idea of change was addressed throughout the entirety of the production and sent a poignant message in Hakimian’s piece.
“We each are a part of the puzzle of the dream Martin Luther King dreamed,” she said. “We each need to be the catalyst for change. Ghandi said, ‘We need to be the change we wish to see.’ Be fearless, the change will be you. The change is you.”
The idea of unity was expressed in a scene featuring IU student Yusuf Agunbiade and Ivy Tech student Britt Sweeting. Agunbiade and Sweeting were working together on a “Unity Dance,” a dance Agunbiade was getting frustrated with.
He told Sweeting the one thing he wanted to do was paint, yet he was being shot down by both his peers and society. He was told that, because he was black, he should dance.
Sweeting told Agunbiade that he shouldn’t let society tell him what he could or could not do. She explained that the meaning of the Unity Dance was to create equality, to act as a catalyst for change.
“We’ve made the dance,” Sweeting said. “We’ve made it a catalyst. Now it’s up to the people to accept its meaning.”
Other cast members joined Sweeting and Agunbiade onstage.
“My family,” Sweeting said as they began the step. “It’s pretty beautiful and pretty diverse. When I say step, my family steps with me.”
A powerful boom echoed around the room as the dancers stamped their feet and slapped their legs.
“Wow, just wow,” director Eric Love said. “The students were incredible. I knew it because I’ve been working with them for a while, but to see the audience react the way they did, I think it really drove home the message, the multiple messages of Dr. King, in a contemporary way with young, fresh voices telling us what it’s like to live in this society, giving us advice, giving us challenges, giving us insight into their lives and the issues they’re faced with. It was just an absolutely incredible experience.”
At the end of the production, the cast performed a song, running through the audience, telling people to stand up and pulling them onstage.
Claps, screams and singing resounded in the auditorium, and everyone was standing. Junior Jaclyn Koshofer, a member of Theta Nu Xi sorority, stood and cheered as well.
“Looking at it from both a multicultural sorority standpoint and an actor standpoint, it was just really, really powerful,” Koshofer said. “I was really glad they talked about issues other than just race. They talked about diversity in all different aspects of life, and it was such a unique experience.”