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  • Writer's pictureAlexis Gerard Finger

The Evolution of The People’s Zoom Readers Theater

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

Since I was a child, I have always been concerned about the hurtful and often harmful consequences of prejudice and injustice.

But I had never personally experienced the sting of prejudice until as a high school teacher in New York, I participated in a pilot program for English as a Second Language students.

I had a wonderful relationship with my international students who came from all over the world, and it never occurred to me that we had significant differences until

one day when I decided to wear to school a small blue Star of David that my parents gave me when I was a child.

During the middle of a lesson, one of my students from Colombia, South America, spotted my Jewish star, raised his hand, and asked me why I was wearing it.

When I told him it’s because I’m Jewish, he said, “You can’t be.”

When I asked him why not, he said, “because I like you” and ran out of the room crying….

As one can imagine, I was very upset. I couldn’t understand what he was telling me.

His friends felt terrible and explained that he and all of his classmates from Colombia had probably never met a Jewish person before but the stories they heard about them were very bad.

This experience became a turning point in my early years of teaching.

I realized that I not only had to teach my international students about American culture, I had to teach them about my religion and those of others, about the importance of rejecting stereotypes and learning to think about people in terms of WHO we are, not our skin, nationality, or religion.

My awareness of the injustices of racism came from my own associations with numerous black people in my home, my parents’ business, and in my work. They were all very smart, hardworking, talented and caring human beings, and it pained me to see, hear and learn how white people have systematically denied African Americans of educational, residential, economic and job opportunities that could concretely break their cycle of poverty and hopelessness.

So, when I came to the Philadelphia area and started teaching international students at Drexel University about the consequences of stereotyping, I was rather surprised to learn that many of my students tended to believe the negative stereotypes reinforced in movies, television programs and news reports. Thus, I incorporated opportunities to educate my students about the shameful history and current situation of Black people in the United States.

Discussions in my classes also revealed a lack of acceptance, understanding and compassion about the plight of the LGBTQ community. It was a subject that really hit home since I knew in my own family, close loved ones, were gay and were taking a very long time to “come out” because of the terrible consequences they could experience in school, at work, and in our society in general. They lived with anxiety and fear for far too long, even though they must have known it would NOT have made a difference to their family. I deeply regretted their reluctance to share their lives, but I understood. The longer it took them the more determined I was to educate people within my reach about the cruelty of treating members of the LGBTQ community, as well as every other community, with anything less than the respect, if not love, all people deserve.

One way that I felt I could make an impact on people would be through a medium I knew so well- drama. For years I had studied acting and discovered drama’s potential for changing hearts and minds. Colleagues at Drexel University who also enjoyed helped me create the Drexel University Readers’ Theater Alliance and provided feedback as I created our first script “Better to Light a Single Candle Than to Curse the Darkness.”

The truth is that the United States has never been “great” in the way minorities have been treated, originating with the Native Americans.

But, during the Obama administration we were slowly evolving into a more inclusive society. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, we were jubilant. The perception was that we were on a roll. We were wrong.

It is very possible that our complacency contributed to the “shattering” results on the night of Nov. 8, 2016 when Trump was elected. He and his administration froze our progressive clock.

The election of a person who publicly demonized Muslims and Mexicans, shamed women and showed disdain for immigrants and insensitivity toward disabled people was devastating to me and all the members of our readers’ theater.

He gave people a license to openly hate. People we never thought would harbor intolerant ways of thinking seemed to be “coming out of the woodwork.” The time for passivity and complacency was over. We realized more than ever we could either succumb to feelings of despair and isolation or engage with other like - minded people in positive initiatives that could help give us a sense of purpose and empowerment.

Since 2014, we have performed this script at least four times in person and ended each performance with a follow up discussion with the audience.

One of the silver linings of the life changing and taking pandemic is Zoom.

With this kind of technology, we have been able to expand the readers’ theater to include anybody who enjoys performing and wants to combat prejudice and injustice through drama. We had a performance of our third script "The American Experiment" in June 2020. On November 30th we have our first Zoom performance of “Better to Light a Single Candle Than to Curse the Darkness.”

Unfortunately, the topics of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia are still too relevant. In fact, because of the increase in all kinds of harmful killing, stereotyping and name calling, our script has expanded to include representatives of groups who have been increasingly demonized, particularly Asians.

All of us involved in this production hope we can help make a difference and hope we will inspire our audience to try to make a difference, too!

With hope and appreciation,

Alexis Gerard Finger

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