Shifting the Spotlight

Humanities7 MIN READ

Liberal arts bolster graduates’ innovative techniques to use performance as change agent

By Laura Meader
May 20, 2020

Students interested in social justice issues increasingly turn to theater and dance as a discipline to communicate and affect change. RaQuion Braxton ’20 and Saduo Dangui ’20 found Colby’s Theater and Dance Department the ideal place to develop their talents and use performance as a contemporary platform for social change. Now, they’re headed to highly competitive graduate school programs, thanks to Colby’s exceptional liberal arts education.

In the Driver’s Seat

RaQuion Braxton ’20 is no stranger to the stage. A singer and actor all his young life, he had a clear vision for his college career: a focus on musical theater. He could have attended a conservatory, but he chose the liberal arts. And he chose Colby.

Braxton spent equal parts in Colby’s Music Department, taking voice lessons and singing in choral groups, and in the Theater and Dance Department, acting and studying performance theory.

He was all set, until he wasn’t.

Exposure to the wide-ranging possibilities of contemporary performance and its power to address social issues stirred another passion: directing. He decided to pivot.

“What I love about being a director is that I’m in the driver’s seat,” said Braxton from his home in Virginia. “I have the ability to do something meaningful that I can’t do when I’m an actor or in other positions in the theater.”

Driven to succeed, Braxton rocketed through his course requirements and is graduating as a theater and dance major after just three years at Colby, hot to pursue graduate work. Accepted to four graduate programs in directing, he ultimately chose the University of Texas, Austin, where he’ll start this fall.

RaQuion Braxton ’20 on stage

“Devised theater pushes the boundaries of what we think theater is and can be. It’s a platform to talk about social change, to be political.”

RaQuion Braxton ’20

AB Brown, Colby’s assistant professor of contemporary performance, described Braxton as “deeply receptive and a good listener,” traits key to success as a director. “A good director, to me, is someone who’s really observant and in touch with and engages broadly with cultural shifts,” said Brown, who mentored Braxton in a directing course through the Teaching and Learning at Colby Fellows Program.

The youngest in his cohort of grad school applicants, Braxton held his own during interview trips. “I was able to hold a conversation about really high-level material with people who are at the institutions and with the other people interviewing for those positions,” he said, crediting Colby’s broad-based liberal arts curriculum for giving him the tools to make connections across departments, across disciplines—skills he wouldn’t have acquired at a conservatory.

“Braxton is extremely clear, dedicated, and passionate about telling particular stories,” said Brown, particularly stories about blackness and queer people of color, which are often underrepresented or only represented in a certain way.

For example, Braxton led an informal staged-reading of James Ijames’s play about police brutality, Kill Move Paradise, for Colby’s first Fringe Festival in 2019. He first saw the play at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater with other theater and dance majors and minors during the department’s trip to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Braxton reimagined the production to focus on black women instead of black men; to adhere to the script’s requirement that the play involves a physical challenge, he staged it in the bleachers in Wadsworth Gymnasium.

The piece was new and experimental for Braxton and set him up for a summer theater program in Berlin, where he dove deeper into devised theater—a production built from scratch without a script and pulled together quickly, collaboratively. “Devised theater pushes the boundaries of what we think theater is and can be,” he said. “It’s a platform to talk about social change, to be political.”

Back on campus, Braxton participated in two devised theater productions: Tick Tock Memory Metamorphosis, a 2019 Jan Plan project exploring memory in which he was an actor and collaborator, performed at the Boston Center for the Arts. And All See: Reflect, about mirrors and their societal implications, which he co-directed for the first-year theater project in Theater and Dance.

These performances gave Braxton confidence and the space to flex his collaborative and directing muscles. They also reflect Colby’s Theater and Dance Department’s mission to provide opportunities for students to explore innovative storytelling avenues.

Brown believes that Braxton stands out as a student willing to make bold choices, to take risks. “His particular political perspective is really needed right now,” Brown said. “It expands the world of contemporary professional theater-making.”

Life in 3D

Dancing ballet as a child in Shenzhen, China, Saduo “Sunny” Dangui learned about ballet’s positions, its precise movements, and the right and wrong way to do both. At Colby, she learned that dance can be so much more.

“We can use dance and artistic forms, we can use our bodies, words, and sounds to convey something really powerful and perhaps change what people think about a social environment,” said Dangui ’20, reflecting on the Theater and Dance course titled Colby Collaborative Company she took her first semester on Mayflower Hill.

With that one course, her entire perspective on dance changed.

The course focused on the Colby Museum of Art’s recent acquisition of Picasso’s Vollard Suite and on Picasso himself. Students researched Picasso’s infamous history with women, said Annie Kloppenberg, associate professor and chair of theater and dance, drawing parallels with the artist and then-candidate Donald Trump. At the end of the class, students produced a devised theater piece titled I Met a Minotaur, which became a kind of feminist manifesto, Kloppenberg said.

Dangui was so moved by the experience that she embraced her new perspective and embarked on a rewarding academic journey as both scholar and performer. A double major in theater and dance and in Spanish, Dangui is poised to bring her far-reaching, global perspective to graduate school in Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Management Program, which she will begin this fall.

“Sunny is one of those exciting students whose interest in art spans an investment in theater, in dance, in performance, in visual arts, in theory, and in writing,” said Gwyneth Shanks, assistant professor of theater and dance. “She excels in these academic pursuits and then thinks deeply and with a lot of risk.”

Saduo Dangui ’20
Sunny Dangui ’20, right, on stage in Strider Theater

“We can use dance and artistic forms, we can use our bodies, words, and sounds to convey something really powerful and perhaps change what people think about a social environment.”

Sunny Dangui ’20

At Colby, Dangui embraced an interdisciplinary mix of courses and opportunities across departments, amassing a plethora of experiences that exposed her to novel worlds of artistic expression and unique forms of communication.

Her classes included narrative film production, choreography for the camera, and dance as a tool for civic engagement. She delved into performance studies, read plays in Spanish, and took courses in Latin American studies. She attained near perfection of her Spanish-speaking skills. She let herself expand, explore, and experiment, she said, in full recognition of the freedoms that accompany a liberal arts education.

Enriched by her on-campus academic experiences, she spent her entire junior year abroad in Spain, where she encountered immersive exhibitions in museums and other spaces for the first time. Her perspective changed again. She recalled a pop-up exhibition in Barcelona on Van Gogh—with a huge projection screen and sets of the artist’s world—as especially powerful.

“It was different from going into an art gallery, because in art galleries you look at paintings in 2D,” she said. “When you’re in that immersive space, it really puts you physically in the world of Van Gogh.”

Dangui returned to Colby passionate about immersive, interactive experiences, which dovetailed perfectly with a book that Shanks is working on about the curation of live performances in museum spaces. As Shanks’s research assistant, Dangui investigated institutions around the world that are implementing more and more live performances. Shanks, who had Dangui in two classes this year, was struck by her curiosity and open-mindedness.

“She’s just this wonderful sponge,” Shanks commented. “And I think it helps fuel her success rate in all of these myriad interests she has and that she’s often incredibly successful exploring.”

During her senior year, Dangui was cast—in a male role—for the first time in a department production. She performed so compellingly that she was selected by an external responder to compete in the American College Theater Festival Irene Ryan Acting Competition.

In graduate school, Dangui plans to expand and develop her interest in immersive experiences by creating entertainment opportunities in the virtual world—through AR and VR—and in more tactile, interactive installations.

With a successfully choreographed Colby education almost wrapped up, Dangui looked back: “Every decision we make is like a puzzle piece,” she said. “They may be scattered all over the place, but you need to have faith that they will eventually fall together into a complete picture.”