Students and faculty from the University of Central Florida spent their spring break in Ithaca, N.Y., presenting a new, devised play about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to elementary students. During the last week of classes this spring, the Theatre students also performed We Carry the Dream in Orlando at the Orlando Science Center.

Theatre faculty member Be Boyd organized the project, which was a collaboration with the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca. Jesse Bush, the associate artistic director of the Hangar Theatre, was the playwright and collaborator for the piece. He visited UCF in February to work with the cast before they traveled to New York.

“Devising a new play gets back to the heart of the creative process, the stimulation of ideas, a spontaneous environment that students aren’t experiencing in a scripted environment,” said Boyd.

Boyd said the group knew the play was going to focus on the legacy of King and that it needed to reach contemporary youth. “These kids have never experienced segregation. They hear people complaining about standing in lines to vote, but don’t understand that at some time not so long ago, they wouldn’t have had the right to vote.

“We knew that we could somehow help the younger students connect his values and legacy to their own lives. Most people know he was a leader of the civil rights movement, but don’t know what his values were. They don’t know the enormous amount of organization, energy, and braveness it took to create the March on Washington or the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”

Boyd said the goal was to help the younger generation understand this background.

“For the first few couple of weeks in rehearsal, we’d throw out a word like ‘unity’ or ‘perseverance’ and then would do a sound, movement, or improv activity about the word. We recorded the sessions so we’d have material to build the script. We sent the recordings to Jesse and he created an outline for us based on the material we had created. Then we fleshed out the outline with more details.

“We were devising a script in a manner similar to the way that Martin Luther King Jr. devised the future for African Americans. You have to be willing to take a risk, and it can be frightening, but it is exhilarating and exciting to see the process at work.”

Julianne Tvaroha, an art teacher at Groton Elementary School in Ithaca, said: “The students were absolutely captivated by the soulful voices that filled our cafeteria, the enthusiastic personalities of the cast, and the overall history and message that was being delivered. 

Terrance Jackson, who graduated this spring with a BFA in Acting, said this experience influenced his career choice. “I will be working at the Barter Theatre for the next 15 months, where I will be doing a three-month tour from January to March, performing shows for the exact same audience age as we did for We Carry the Dream, so this experience has given me insight on what to expect and how to deal with theatre for young audiences.”

Stage management student Christa Arzon was excited to make professional connections outside of Orlando, but she also had a personal reason for wanting to be a part of the experience.

“Growing up in Orlando, I had never seen snow and was excited beyond belief! We were also able to spend a few days in New York City and to see so many Broadway shows and really experience the city again only further confirmed my motivation to live there,” Arzon said. “I feel that I grew so much through this. The learning experience, connections, and fun I had made it all worth it.”

The partnership between Theatre UCF and the Hangar Theater is one that has been building over the past several years. Boyd said the relationship started a many years ago when Stephanie Yankwit, artistic director for Hangar, was excited by a production of Antigone that Boyd directed in North Carolina.  “Stephanie came to UCF to recruit for interns, and once here, she really liked our students and the work they do. We’ve now had many students, both actors and stage managers, participate in their summer lab program.

The hope is that this production will launch an annual collaboration with Hangar Theatre to develop new pieces that are nurtured and staged in Orlando at the University of Central Florida and then are shared with young audiences in Ithaca.

The project was funded by the College of Arts and Humanities Dean’s Office, the UCF Office of Diversity Initiatives, and the MLK Orlando Commission.