On the first floor of the West Duke building, as the work day is ending and Kenan’s office is emptying for the night, the cast members of Bull City Dignity come into our rehearsal space for the evening’s workshop. Lee, Dom, Cindy and I have pushed the tables and chairs to the edge of the room, and we sit in a circle with the cast in the middle of the carpet, swapping advice on transcription techniques and telling stories from the past week’s interviews.
This is the second year of the Bull City Dignity Project, a public history program that brings together high school students from across Durham to create a work of documentary theater crafted from oral histories they’ve conducted with members of the community across generations. The nine weeks of the program pack in quite a bit: the cast begins by choosing research topics to explore in their interviews. Then they practice learn basic ethnographic methods, write questions, and head out to conduct 2-3 oral histories a piece. After transcribing the interviews, the students sit down to write, considering the ethics of representing the testimonies on stage. They rehearse lines, practice movements, rewrite and rearrange, and eventually, perform for audiences across Durham-- at the Hayti Heritage Center, the Durham Arts Council, and at Duke University.
Last year, our cast members researched Durham’s civil rights legacy from the 1960’s to #BlackLivesMatter, the intersections between our city’s LGBT+ and faith communities, and the history of local urban renewal and gentrification. This year, as our students conduct interviews with a new set of neighbors, family members, and community leaders, they’re delving into a new set of issues: What is the history of Durham’s healthcare system, and how does it relate to the prison industrial complex? What are the experiences of immigrants in Durham within the public and private school system? How are each of our individual lived experiences shaped by broader structures? And how do we, in turn, carry out our lives in ways that reinforce, rupture, or complicate the very forces that act on us?
In many ways, the Bull City Dignity students are working on the frontlines of public history research. In the course of a single summer, each team not only produces a significant amount of primary material (a set of oral histories to be archived for public use) but also draws from a wide range of perspectives and sources, from newspaper articles to tweets, to animate a narrative of Durham’s past and present. By opening night, dozens of community members will have contributed to the show in some way, whether by offering a skill-share to the cast, helping brainstorm topics of interviewees, or by working with the students to create an oral history for the project. Moreover, these students share their work with hundreds of people from across multiple generations, including many of their high-school peers as well as local officials.
At its core, the Bull City Dignity Project is an act of imagining what it would look like to build self-determined, community-centered art spaces. By working at the seams of grassroots organizing, academia, and the arts, our team stakes a claim for a critical public history by and for the youth of Durham. Over the course of the summer, we ask: What does it mean for us to tell our own stories? What would it look like for us to study our own communities? How might our work of art-making move us toward the world we’re trying to create?
And so we continue, the way we always do. We take out our pens, and our notebooks, an iPhone or two to record. And we get back to work.