When the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival selected UAB’s production of “In the Blood” to be performed as part of its annual festival April 14-20 in Washington, D.C., it was an affirmation of almost a decade’s worth of time and effort the department has invested in itself and its students.

UAB Theatre Chair Will York and Associate Professor Dennis McLernon say the play “In the Blood” represents one of the department’s biggest breakthrough successes. The play will be performed at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival April 15.

UAB’s Department of Theatre has expanded steadily since 2000, growing to more than 90 majors from 35 while retaining and enhancing design and performance faculty.

The quality of students has improved with the numbers, and the faculty always was considered a strength of the department by Chair Will York. These factors have enabled York to shape UAB’s reputation regionally as a place to be for excellence in the arts.

“The quality of our work has improved each year, and we’re beginning to see the fruits of that labor,” York says. “We’re receiving regional and national recognition, which is nice, and we hope to continue that trend.”

“In the Blood” represents one of the department’s biggest breakthroughs yet. The play, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, was one of three chosen from 300 shows nationwide to be performed at the Kennedy Center Festival. It marks the first time in 22 years an Alabama university will be represented at the national festival.

Dennis McLernon, director of the play, says credit for the success of the play belongs to the hard work of the cast and crew, their ability to embrace the play’s heavy subject matter – and the skill to perform it so eloquently.

“They’ve just been fearless in the presentation of this very difficult material,” McLernon says. “It is the performances of our students, courageously doing this material and trusting in me, themselves and the purpose of the play, that really have enabled us to go to the Kennedy Center. They believed in the message of the play, and it has shown in their performances.”

Confronting the audience
“In the Blood” is the story of Hester, a mother who lives under a bridge with her five children, born of five fathers. She scratches out a subsistence existence as best as her limited education allows, at the mercy of the streets.

The play is performed in a Brechtian style, which relies on the audience’s reflective detachment, draws the audience in and confronts them with their own culpability in homelessness, child abuse and government bureaucracies.

“The audience is confronted with these issues and how they are complicit in them,” McLernon says. “It asks them, ‘What are you doing to change the status quo?’ It’s a dark subject matter, but the playwright is ingenious because there is a good bit of gallows humor in the piece. It would be almost impossible for an audience not to shut down if it was presented with the heaviness of this material from a grim aspect.”

McLernon received a national teaching fellowship from the Kennedy Center this past year, enabling him to spend two weeks in New York City with The Actors Center in an intensive sequence of classes with the top U.S. theater teachers. He learned techniques and exercises that helped him formulate his approaches to this production, he says.

“It’s really kind of wonderfully circular that the production has been invited back to the very place where they helped me come to terms with this difficult material,” he says. “It certainly makes for a marvelous year. Just fantastic.”

Honor for department, school
The selection is empowering for the School of Arts & Humanities in general, McLernon adds. “It makes a difference to be able to say our school has had a production invited to perform at the Kennedy Center,” McLernon says.

“In some aspects that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

McLernon says the entire staff in Theatre shares this honor, too. “The school, our chair, our production and design faculty, performance faculty and of course our students all came together to make a show of this caliber possible,” McLernon says.

“We are as collaborative a faculty as I have ever been a part of, professionally oriented and really open to each others’ ideas and work.”

Student recruitment
While McLernon says there is an element of luck involved in being selected, he says there is no doubt this will enhance the department reputation among prospective students and faculty.

“We definitely are highly recognized within the region, and now we’re beginning to attract wonderful students and place graduates into prestigious programs throughout the country,” McLernon says. “This type of progression is something we’ve been working toward.”