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For the Darwin Turner Action Theatre (DTAT), what happens after the performance is just as important as what takes place on stage. Through compelling, often challenging pieces that focus on social justice, the group aims to inspire reflection and action among audiences.

On Jan. 16, DTAT presents “A Look at the Presence of Justice,” the kick-off event for Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Week 2008 at The University of Iowa. The piece pays tribute to six heroes of the Civil Rights Movement—Elizabeth Eckford, Fred Shuttlesworth, Mamie Bradley, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, and Mordecai Johnson.

Like many other DTAT performances, the show is based on original work. “There are stories that need to be told that just aren’t out there,” says Tisch Jones, associate professor of directing and theatre history and DTAT director, who wrote the piece inspired by her own experience fighting for civil rights in Orangeburg, S.C.

DTAT grew out of Black Action Theatre, which showcased work by African American playwrights starting in the 1960s. Today named for a late faculty member who built the original program, DTAT offers work representing a broader spectrum of people and issues.

The group includes both UI theatre students—many who get involved through the for-credit course Theatre for Social Outreach—and community members. This mix of actors reflects the history of African American theatre at Iowa, which has long brought together campus and community.

“We open our doors—we’ve always done that,” says Jones. “Our audition process is not about your acting ability, but your social commitment.”

DTAT regularly performs for community organizations and schools, drawing on a menu of pieces for different age groups and interests. Their work includes forum theatre, which invites audience feedback and participation throughout the performance, and even helping schools develop their own productions.

The group’s demanding performance schedule poses a challenge, Jones says, but also a reminder that theatre can address social problems with immediacy and intimacy. “It’s a lot of work, but like everyone in theatre, we do it out of devotion,” she adds.

Darwin Turner Action Theatre
Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Week
Department of Theatre Arts

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