Technology Lends a Voice

Technology touches the theater as a university professor works to provide students with an extension of the African-American ensemble experience.

by Sundi Lofty

From the silhouette on the dark stage, a loud, sharp cry rises like a kite caught in a gust of wind, then slowly spirals downward into the audience. "I will raise my voice!" the student declares as she continues her dramatic presentation of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide by Ntzoke Shange, an African-American playwright. Viewers shout, "Say it, girl!" and "I hear you!" in a display of traditional African call and response. The student dramatist and the audience are participating in an ensemble--a coalition of theater and experience.

This is how Professor Ishmail Conway's class is conducted. An actor and professor of African-American theater at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Conway tries to foster a sense of community in the classroom, patterned after the community found in a black theater company. Recently, Conway has taken on a new challenge: finding a way to make this experience accessible to everyone. He finds this venue, not through text books or videos, but through the use of the Internet, a medium that links the classroom to the outside world.

Professor Conway has discovered that the Web is the answer to his drama students' request for more information concerning black theater. He is in the process of creating a class Web site that will give students access to a rich melange of materials outside the classroom. Students can visit a theater in Harlem, read a theatrical journal, and access a paper written about a playright, all at the push of a button.

"The medium is the message."

Conway, who is also an assistant dean in the Office of African Affairs, clearly values gathering together pieces of information. He owns a rare collection of African-American theatrical journals, newspapers, playbills, and other priceless pieces. Conway plans to include his collection on the class Web site. "My class could be better served if the information is archived," he notes. Conway, along with two university students, is currently working diligently to create the site by spring 1998. "The Internet is the next level of communication," Dean Conway explains as he leans back in a chair in the library of the Office of African-American Affairs. His hands wave enthusiastically as words spill from his mouth with the eloquence and ease of an actor.

Professor Conway is an advocate of Marshal Mcluhan's philosophy. Mcluhan, head of the Media Studies Program at the New School for Social Research in New York, developed the "medium is the message" theory. Both Mcluhan and Conway believe that the agent through which information is presented is just as important as the information itself. Past theories predicted a global community would be fostered by radio, video, or computers. But with the phenomenal surge of use of the Web and the many possibilities it lends, people have come to realize that it is through the Internet that we are able to connect. "The Web," Conway declares after minimal contemplation, gives us "access to the world."

"Black stuff on the Web is so cultural...you can almost hear the drums beating in the background."

And for African-Americans, who for years have been disenfranchised, access to the world is extremely important. "The irony," Conway notes, "is that there are so few people that are black that design things for the Web." He leans back and chuckles; a smile, both sad and funny, invades his face. "Black stuff on the Web is so cultural...you can almost hear the drums beating in the background." He's right. The University of Virginia's Web sites lack articles pertaining to current African-American themes, focusing predictably on activites like Black History Month. Articles should be interesting and fresh, as well as diverse, if they are to reflect the black community. And yet, these sites are often dry--there are no visuals--simply long scrolls of page and words.

As Conway's class is about to end, loud applause bounces off the ceilings of the theater as the actress takes her seat. Professor Conway announces that there are three articles found on the class Web page that are to be read for homework. The students scramble in their seats, commenting on what they have just seen, as they prepare to leave. Ishmail Conway stands back, silently watching his ensemble. This is the vision Conway has for his class. He, too, like the actress, is in the process of creating a vehicle through which he can "raise his voice," in hopes that this voice--this proud African-American voice--can only get stronger and louder. And with the use of the Web, there is only one plan: Rise to the top.

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