ALAN v22n3 - Exploring Prejudice in Young Adult Literature through Drama and Role Play

Volume 22, Number 3
Spring 1995

Exploring Prejudice in Young Adult Literature through Drama and Role Play

Barbara T. Bontempo

Young adult literature provides rich literary material for exploring issues and dilemmas of the human experience as perceived by the young. The dramatization of cultural pluralism is one of the major roles this literature can play. The adolescent years are timely years for dealing with issues of discrimination, prejudice, and cultural differences since adolescents often perceive themselves as a "culture" apart from the mainstream. Thus, authors of young adult fiction who deal with themes of diversity in race, religion, gender, or class can touch young readers in a profound way.

But these matters are difficult ones, fraught with the potential to unleash prejudices inherited by the young from their elders. Merely reading and discussing cultural, ethnic, and racial issues in the stories of such authors as Virginia Hamilton, Mildred Taylor , J. Okada, Rosa Guy, and others may only affect attitudes on one level. Often these problems are dealt with in ways that allow students to remain removed from the human conflicts involved --literature is read, the problems discussed, the issues abstracted. An empathetic understanding of the complexities and human feelings involved is difficult to achieve. Dramatization or "living through" the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the characters can provide students with a deeper, more immediate experience. Through dramatics, teachers can help their students connect with sensitive, complicated human issues with a sense of empathy.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

There are many young adult books, stories, and poems that deal with cultural diversity and with young people sorting through and confronting the issue of being "different," of finding their place in a sometimes confusing and diverse world. However, drama as a teaching tool is often most effective when a single, powerful stimulus is used. Mildred Taylor's beautifully crafted novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry , provides such a stimulus. It provides an authentic view of black culture as experienced from the inside.

Set in Mississippi in 1933, the story covers twelve turbulent months in the life of the Logans, a black land-owning family. The narrator is Cassie Logan, an independent-minded, nine-year-old girl who questions the social situation that requires her to be subservient to the local white families -- even to the point of accepting physical assault by Charlie Simms, for whose daughter Cassie refused to give way on the sidewalk. The Logans had bought their land during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, but the original owners, the Grangers, are attempting to get it back by fair means or foul. A number of incidents, including the firing of Mary Logan (a progressive teacher) by the white school board, depict the difficulties and apparent powerlessness of the black population who, in this locale, are mainly sharecroppers.

When the involvement of the Wallaces (the white owners of the local store) in the brutal kerosene burning of three black men goes unpunished, the Logans organize a boycott of the Wallace store. Feelings and tensions run high. When T. J. Avery, the bragging and troubled black teenage friend of the Logan boys, is involved in a robbery that leads to murder, he is hunted down. His two white partners in the robbery hypocritically take a leading role in the manhunt. Seeing that a lynching is imminent, David Logan sets fire to his own cotton crop during a fierce thunder and lightning storm. The Grangers, in order to save their adjoining property, divert their fellow whites to join the effort to put out the fire. The book ends with T. J. captured by the law and facing a probable death sentence. Cassie, who has always disliked T. J., weeps for him and for the land and for a trusting innocence that will never again be hers.

Using Drama To Explore Diversity

To demonstrate the potential for using drama to explore cultural diversity, the following drama-based lesson is offered. The lesson, which has been used effectively with English teachers-in-training, in-service teachers, and high school students, is designed to take students through a sequence of drama activities that explore racial prejudice as reflected in Taylor's novel. Using techniques of role play, improvisation, "hot seating," and tableau (freeze frame), students respond to the motives, feelings, and events depicted in several of the novel's scenes.

Focus: Experiences in Prejudice


* To give students an opportunity to adopt different cultural perspectives and to respond to the conflicts involved through negotiation "in-role."

* To encourage students to read quality young adult literature that illuminates the conflicts and joys of cultural diversity.

* To provide students with another tool for engaging a piece of literature.


Activity 1: "The Warm Up"

(Pair Work/Whole Group)

When using drama to deal with a powerful issue such as racial prejudice, students should first start with an activity that provides them with a situation drawn from their own lives that relates to, or is analogous to the issue.

* Teacher: "I'd like you to search your storehouse of memories/experiences (childhood to the present) and try to fix on a time (moment/event) in your life when your ideas about something or someone were abruptly changed -- a time when your assumptions about "how things are" were jolted. This may have been a pleasant or unpleasant awakening. An example from childhood might be the first time you realized there was no Santa Claus. (Vocabulary/examples can be adjusted to suit the class.) "Think for a few moments; jot it down briefly in your journal; then turn to a partner and just talk about it."

* Students: They think, write briefly; then dialogue and share in pairs for 3-4 minutes.

* Whole Group: Debrief and probe their feelings about the various experiences.

Activity 2: "Extrapolating a Scene from the Novel"

(Improvisation/Role Play)

After reading and reviewing the early scenes (or reading the summary, which presents a skeleton of the story), the students are invited to participate more fully by stepping into one of the key events and improvising the reaction of the fictional community to the event. This improvised "scene"goes beyond the actions of the novel. In effect, it creates a new scene, one that the author did not include.

* Teacher: (Sets up the next situation) "A pivotal event in the story is, of course, the burning with kerosene of Mr. Berry, a black sharecropper, and his nephews. This vicious attack is led by Mr. Wallace, the white owner of the town store. One of the nephews has already died. It is a day or two later; tensions are high; there is much talk about the incident; rumors are flying, but no legal action has taken place."

"I'd like you to pair up. One of you will be `A' -- the other `B'. Quickly decide. A's, you are a member of the community who was away when the burning occurred. You've just returned and want to know what's happened. You are a gossipy, instigating type. B's, you are a neighbor who was in town and you`know something.'"

The teacher then gives the following directions: "Before you role-play a conversation with your partner, I'd like to divide the entire class into two sections. This half of the A/B pairs are white members of the community; this half are black members of the community. Think about who you are for a moment. Then begin."

* Students: In role, students engage their partners in conversation for 2-4 minutes.

As the students role-play the conversation, the teacher circulates, paying close attention to how the students are handling the dialogue, gently keeping them "in role." After a few minutes, the teacher may want to stop the drama momentarily to "eavesdrop" on a particular conversation, asking the rest of the class to listen while this particular dialogue goes on. It is important to be selective in eaves dropping. It is not essential for all students to hear all conversations. Indeed, the teacher may decide that it is better at this point to leave all conversations "private." But if one or two dialogues seem particularly pointed or illuminate the issue well (and these students seem willing), then the teacher might spotlight some of the role play.

* Debriefing: It is essential to allow students to express their feelings after engaging in such potentially powerful role play. They need to reflect on and analyze a bit as a whole group what has occurred. The teacher can prompt that response with brief questions such as "Was it difficult or easy for you to do this? How did you feel in your role? Were your partner's questions/responses realistic? What kinds of things did you talk about? What attitudes could you detect in the tone your partner was using?"

Activity 3: "A Quiet Reflection" (Whole Group)

For this activity, the students sit in a circle and listen as the teacher reviews another poignant scene from the novel. She reminds them that the Logan children have not been told of the specifics about the burning, although they have picked up bits and pieces of information through overhearing the adults talk. They have been strictly forbidden to go near the Wallace store. But Cassie and her brothers disobey, and with their friends they hang around the store. When their mother finds out, instead of punishing them, she decides it's time for Cassie and her brothers to see the brutal consequences of the assault. She takes them to the Berry cabin to bring the family food.

At this point, the teacher asks the students to close their eyes and to listen as she reads this passage from the novel:

"Daddy, who you s'pose done come to see `bout us?"

There was no recognizable answer, only an inhuman guttural wheezing. But Mrs. Berry seemed to accept it and went on. "Miz Logan and her babies. Ain't that somethin'?" She took a sheet from a nearby table. "Gots to cover him," she explained. He can't hardly stand to have nothin' touch him." When she was visible again, she picked up a candle stump and felt around a table for matches. "He can't speak no more. The fire burned him too bad. But he understands all right." Finding the matches, she lit the candle and turned once more to the corner.

A still form lay there staring at us with glittering eyes. The face had no nose, and the head no hair; the skin was scarred, burned, and the lips were wizened black, like charcoal. As the wheezing sound echoed from the opening that was a mouth, Mama said, "Say good morning to Mrs. Berry's husband, children."

( Taylor, pp. 73-74 )The teacher stops, waits and quietly asks the students to think and absorb this scene. After a moment or so, the teacher asks each student to go around the circle and speak a single word or phrase that comes to mind or heart from hearing this passage. The teacher may want to jot down the words on a piece of paper as they are spoken; later these words and phrases could become the basis for writing a poem. All words spoken must be accepted, whether angry or compassionate. After the circle of words is completed, students should be allowed to talk freely about their feelings.

Activity 4: "The Cover Up"

(Secret Meeting Format -- Hot Seating/Teacher-in-role)

Once again, the teacher creates a situation that did not take place in the novel, but one that is consistent with the author's depiction of plot and character. It is important for the teacher to take an active role in the drama here, perhaps portraying the character, Mr. Jamison, the white lawyer who has been sympathetic to the plight of the Logans and the black share croppers, or perhaps portraying Jeremy, the shy, secretive white boy who admires the Logan family and hangs around them as much as he can. If some students have completed the novel, they could be "plants" at this secret meeting, perhaps taking on the role of Mr. Wallace or Mr. Simms. The other class members improvise their roles as members of the white community.

* Teacher: The teacher leads in: "It is obvious that some members of the white community are involved in a cover up of the burning incident. No legal action has taken place yet, but many are nervous. There is a rumor circulating that little Jeremy saw the whole thing that night while he was hiding up a tree. Everyone knows that he's always hanging around the black kids. What if he tells? A secret meeting is about to take place at the Wallace store -- Mr. Wallace, Mr. Simms (Jeremy's father), a reluctant and scared Jeremy, and other members of the white community are there. Jeremy is being badgered with questions as Mr. Jamison walks in. (Teacher in role as Mr. Jamison sets the tone.) "You folks don't mind my dropping by, now do you? Hi there, Jeremy. What you here fo' boy?"

* Whole Group: The group takes it from there and the scene unfolds.

* CAUTION: This open-ended format is not for everyone. Not all students can handle such volatile drama. Not all teachers will feel comfortable in this role.

Activity 5: "Standing Up For Our Beliefs"

(A Tableau)

The teacher recaps: "We began these activities by searching our memories for a moment in time that shook our values -- a frightening, but revealing moment. Cassie has been experiencing this in a big way throughout this book. She's bright and free-spirited, and just learning that the white world expects her to show deference and be submissive. She has to decide what to do about the white girl, Lillian Jean, her supposed friend, who allowed her to be shoved down on the sidewalk and be humiliated. Confused, she turns to her father for advice. Listen to David Logan trying to explain a world of injustice to his 9-year-old daughter":

"Cassie, there'll be a whole lot of things you ain't gonna wanna do but you'll have to do in this life just so you can survive....

"But there are other things, Cassie, that if I'd let be, they'd eat away at me and destroy me in the end. And it's the same with you, baby. There are things you can't back down on, things you gotta take a stand on. But it's up to you to decide what them things are. You have to demand respect in this world, ain't nobody gonna hand it to you. How you carry yourself, what you stand for-- that's how you gain respect. But, little one, ain't nobody's respect worth more than your own. You understand that?"

( Taylor, pp. 133-134 ) * Teacher: "In groups of 3 or 4, I'd like you to devise a still picture, a visual image to capture the essence of David Logan's message. This picture could be a realistic portrayal (people) or an abstract, symbolic portrayal. The theme of this frozen picture should be: "Standing Up For What You Believe Is Right."

* Students: Given 7-8 minutes, the students plan how they could depict this idea. Should they be people in an actual scene from life? (coming to the rescue of a mugging victim perhaps), or could they portray abstract qualities like justice, injustice in a symbolic struggle?

Each group then takes a turn and forms its tableau for 30 seconds or so. The rest of the class may comment on what they think they see in this depiction.

If appropriate, the teacher or a student may want to tap the shoulder of one member of the tableau and allow that person to speak in role -- what are his/her thoughts; what emotions are being felt?

* Debrief: After each group has presented its tableau, discussion and reflection should follow. What range of situations were presented? What feelings did students experience in portraying the theme? How does one decide when it is time to stand up for one's beliefs? How does one know when it is more important to remain silent? What would you do about Lillian Jean if you were Cassie?

All of the preceding activities are designed to help students connect with sensitive, complicated human issues; not all students will be comfortable with such activities. Techniques like improvisation, role-reversal, and hot-seating can be volatile when dealing with cultural, ethnic, racial, or other social issues that tap the core of our individual value systems and awaken our own latent biases. Working through the screen of a fine work of literature can soften the sting without removing the impact. The key to working successfully with dramatics is the establishment of a classroom atmosphere of trust and respect. Students should never be forced to "perform." Forced performance is not theatre; theatre is a way to respond to and explore the lives, situations, struggles, and decisions of young people as portrayed in the best of young adult literature. It is a way to make that literature a learning tool for one's own life.

Works Cited

Bontempo, B., and R. Jerome. "Exploring Diversity in Adolescent Literature." Workshop Presentation, National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, Baltimore, Maryland, November 19, 1989.

Taylor, Mildred D. Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry . Bantam Books, 1989.

Barbara T. Bontempo is an Associate Professor of English at SUNY College in Buffalo, New York.