Reading of HistoryMakers play to share archive narratives

URBANA – Billing itself as the largest archival collection of its kind in the world, The HistoryMakers collects stories from African-Americans, both famous and unsung.

The Chicago-based project also enjoys a three-year partnership with the University of Illinois, providing it public lectures – last year's in Urbana was with civil rights pioneer Julian Bond – and giving students and scholars access to its digital archives.

Now UI Professor Christopher Benson and Chicago playwright David Barr III have put a twist on the public-lecture component of the partnership.

The two men have combed The HistoryMakers archives to find stories that represent the African-American experience, looking for commonalities and connections that many people will recognize in their own lives.

They then adapted those narratives into a dramatic play, "The Moment." A staged reading, the first for the script, will be presented Wednesday evening at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Admission is free, but tickets are required.

Benson, a professor of journalism and African-American studies, said "The Moment" so far amounts to one act but eventually could become a major play.

At the reading by seven UI theater students, Benson and Barr will take notes to help fine-tune the piece for eventual production.

"This will be a unique opportunity for the audience to be part of the process," Benson said.

Immediately after the reading, Benson, Barr, director Lisa Gaye Dixon and Julieanna Richardson, founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers, will engage in a "talkback" with the audience.

"The questions from the audience will help us see more clearly how this piece will be perceived," Benson said.

"The Moment" also pays tribute to the 10th anniversary of The HistoryMakers, which aims to complete 5,000 interviews of African-Americans. So far the project has collected 8,000 hours of videotaped interviews from 2,000 people ranging in age from 29 to 105 in more than 80 cities and towns in the United States, the Caribbean, Mexico and Norway.

In addition to recording individual stories, The HistoryMakers collects the stories of organizations, events, movements and time periods of significance.

All interviews are digitally indexed so researchers can search them using key phrases to pinpoint similar themes or search for different people or aspects of their stories.

"The point of the archives is to collect all of these historical narratives in order to preserve the African-American experience in its totality," Benson said. "It's very much part of the total American experience; you see that as you go through the archives and listen to the stories."

As part of its partnership with the UI, The HistoryMakers provides access to its archives via a bank of computers at the UI's Department of African-American Studies.

Some professors give students assignments designed to encourage them to use the archives so they learn the value of oral history, learn history and develop proficiency with online research, Benson said.

The HistoryMakers also offers summer internships to UI graduate and undergraduate students in its Chicago office.

If you go
What:
Chicago-based The HistoryMakers and the University of Illinois Department of African-American Studies present a staged reading of "The Moment," a dramatic adaptation of narratives in The HistoryMakers archives, written by UI Professor Christopher Benson and playwright David Barr III.
When:
7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Where:
Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U.
Admission:
Free, but tickets required from Krannert Center ticket office.
Of note:
A "talkback" with the audience will follow the reading, and a reception will take place in the Krannert lobby after the performance.

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