Student production tackles social justice issues

Photo courtesy of Ernest Williams

The Ferst Center for the Arts hosted “What’s Going On: A Musical Production for Social Justice,” a play starring many of Georgia Tech’s own students and put on by an organization called Caterpillar’s Promise.

Since 2011, Caterpillar’s Promise has been led by Industrial Engineering student Danielle Mathis.

With the ultimate goal of contributing to the greater good of the community, Caterpillar’s Promise organizes annual events, such as community service trips and talent showcases.

This performance marks the second time that “What’s Going On” has been performed on Tech’s campus, and after experiencing everything that the production had to offer, hopefully this play will return annually.

Coordinated entirely by college students and sponsored by the Georgia Tech MLK Student Board, “What’s Going On” was a six-act production that honestly and comprehensively tackled many different themes within the realm of social justice.

The show began with a welcome from Cam James, a Georgia Tech alum, up-and-coming rapper and social justice advocate in the Atlanta area.

He primed the crowd with cordial greetings, an explanation of Caterpillar’s Promise’s
purpose and a short question and answer session about common misconceptions of the Black
Panther Party.

James concluded his introduction with a concise summary that acted as a thesis statement for the entire project: “This is a play about social justice, but make no mistake — it’s about black people.”

The play began on a light note with two college students falling asleep during a late night of studying. In their sleep, dream sequences were represented by six different acts that highlighted various causes of social injustice and
their effects.

Race, poverty, education, war, religion, gender dynamics and more issues were all touched on during the show. An exchange about “unruly” hair on black women is even featured within the play’s dialogue, which drew a lively response from the audience.

Impressively, these topics were almost always handled in conjunction with one another, providing surprisingly substantial and nuanced commentary on the way these issues can conglomerate and contribute heavily to
social injustice.

The six acts also varied greatly in the performance styles that were chosen. Actors and actresses engaged in spoken word, step routines, rap-sung collaborations and traditional dialogue. These shifts in style provided nice variances in atmosphere and mood during the duration of the performance.

Regardless of the form of performance, each act was just as heartfelt as it was culturally accurate. One scene featured an African-American pastor (with the requisite song-filled delivery and brow full of sweat) enumerating the ways in which Satan can manifest himself through social injustice. The delivery and poignancy were memorable.

A scene in a beauty parlor with four black women discussing the hardships of existing within multiple kinds of minority identities excelled for its honesty, elegance and visual presentation. The combination of relevant content, frequent audience engagement and well-performed live instrumental music resulted in an enjoyable experience.

While the transition from the play’s first scene into its dream sequence may have initially confused audience members, the transitory nature of the production became one its strengths as the play continued.

After the play had found its footing one or two acts in, a buzz could be felt in the theater after the end of an act. Audience members sat on the edge of their seats ready to engage with another form of social injustice as “What’s Going On” continued to offer awareness, insight and perspective to the issues.

The value of “What’s Going On” becomes even more apparent when it is put into context: both the play and the organization overseeing it are the brainchild of one college student. Her mission to empower individuals by developing their talents is in
itself praiseworthy.

At the end of the night, after the credits and acknowledgements had been announced, the creator and playwright Danielle Mathis offered words to live by: “You’ve got to find a vision, you’ve got to find a crew, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do!”

With “What’s Going On,” Mathis has done just that, and the result is an engaging production that empowers its audience to stay informed, stay involved and, more than anything, #staywoke.