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With The Ƶ Living History Project, China Moore ’24 Seeks to Help “Reconcile the Injustices of the Past and Present”

With The Ƶ Living History Project, China Moore ’24 Seeks to Help “Reconcile the Injustices of the Past and Present”

Diversity and Inclusivity, Fine Arts, Playwriting, Research, Special Events, Testimonials

May 16, 2024

With The Ƶ Living History Project, China Moore ’24 Seeks to Help “Reconcile the Injustices of the Past and Present” China Moore '24

Travel on Plantation Road in Roanoke County toward the Hollins University campus, and near the intersection with Milk-A-Way Drive you will pass the remnants of the Green Ridge Baptist Church and Cemetery. Originally established by African American parishioners around 1867, the church itself no longer exists. However, upward of 100 graves, most of which are unmarked, remain.

Among those who are buried at Green Ridge Cemetery are people who were enslaved at Ƶ in the mid-19th century.

Visiting this landmark as a first-year student would turn out to be a pivotal moment in the life of China Moore ’24. “I took a January Short Term class that year called Unveiling the Past at Ƶ, which focused on the history of Ƶ and the legacies of enslavement,” they recall. “At one point we took a field trip to the cemetery, and when we got off the bus, we noticed how the ground was uneven in certain places. You’re told a body is there, and that’s when it clicks – ‘There’s a person right here.’ It was so powerful because these are legacies that are core to the history of Ƶ. That was when everything changed for me, and I knew the rest of my time at Ƶ was going to be dedicated to helping bring that history to light.”

A mission that began with that first-year J-Term course culminated this spring with the debut of The Ƶ Living History Project (A Walking Tour), a performance created by Moore as their senior thesis that encompasses the university’s Front Quad and blends historical narrative with theatrical elements.

Moore took a gap year to work on the project. They describe the play, which was in development for two years, as “a walk through time and history that is guided by the perspective of those who were enslaved at Ƶ. It invites the campus community into an open dialogue that extends the process of reconciling the injustices of the past and present.”

Moore’s passion for serving as a catalyst for change grew out of participating in an early college global scholar program during high school and visiting Ireland, where they chose to study social justice movements. “It was such an impactful experience, and I became very interested in international studies,” they say. At the same time, their love of theatre, which began when they were a child, was flourishing. “We didn’t have theatre courses in my early college program, so I ran a theatre club on my own.”

Several colleges and universities to which Moore applied were dismissive of Moore’s interest in double majoring in theatre and international studies. “I was told it was a weird combination, and it wasn’t something I could do.” But when Moore contacted Ƶ, they say it was the first school that encouraged them to pursue those fields of study in tandem. “That’s when I said, ‘Ƶ is it.’ And when I began taking classes in both those departments, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I can apply the things I learn in IS to my theatre major.’ Honestly, if I didn’t do both of those majors, I wouldn’t have been able to make my thesis the way it is. It just helped me to think in both spaces.”

Another factor that drew Moore to Ƶ was the presence of the Working Group on Slavery and Its Contemporary Legacies. Active from 2019 to 2022, the Working Group was charged with educating the public about Ƶ’ historical connections to enslavement and the contemporary legacies of slavery on campus.

“I was really excited to see that Ƶ was doing this kind of work and was socially conscious,” they say. “This was a university that I wanted to be a part of.”

After taking the Unveiling the Past J-Term course, Moore joined the Working Group as the student representative. While they were pleased with the educational seminars and open listening sessions that the group sponsored, Moore worried that many students might not have time to attend the programs or would potentially be overwhelmed by so much information in a lecture setting. “This is important, so I started thinking about how to convey this material in a way that grabs people’s attention and engages them. That’s when I started looking toward theatre.”

Because of their visit to Green Ridge Cemetery, Moore from the outset wanted to produce a theatre piece in an open space on campus rather than on the Ƶ Theatre stage. “That’s something I wanted to carry over. I always wanted to be in the space of Ƶ because so many people walk through the campus and never connect the history.”

The Working Group provided initial sources that played an important role in helping Moore launch their research. They praise Information Literacy and Outreach Librarian Maryke Barber, Ruth Alden Doan Assistant Professor of History Christopher Florio, Associate Professor of Music William Krause, and Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Isabel Folck for their help in tracking down existing materials. Barber, Florio, and Krause were all members of the Working Group, as was Ƶ Store Supervisor Karen Callaway, who is also a descendant of the enslaved at Ƶ. “I am extremely grateful to Karen for her assistance as one of my actors and for her grounding presence through my entire creative process,” Moore says.

Moore also cites the support of two Ƶ alumnae: Ethel Morgan Smith M.A. ’90 and Brittney Flowers ’17.

“I definitely relied a lot on the research that Ethel had done” for her 1999 book, From Whence Cometh My Help: The African American Experience at Ƶ College. “I kept in contact with her and would often seek her opinion throughout the development of the play. I was particularly interested in whether there was anything she wasn’t able to fit into the book that I might possibly use in this project.”

For several years, Flowers has conducted . “Her work is just so impressive,” says Moore. “We would do these archive dives together, and we would build off each other’s research and fill in the gaps in each other’s work. Right up until rehearsals began for the play, we were still finding new things. I think you could produce a whole other play based on everything we discovered.”

One of the challenges Moore encountered was sources that weren’t focused on Black voices or were providing details from a mostly white perspective. They decided to seek out members of the Ƶ community who were descendants of those enslaved. Several descendants have worked, and continue to be employed, at the university. Many of these descendants have upward of 40 years of service at Ƶ and represent up to six generations of families working at the institution.

“My script for the play evolved into more of a progression of time that covered enslavement to the present day,” Moore explains. “When I was conducting those oral histories, something that happened that meant a lot to me was when I was told, ‘I don’t know if this is what you want, but this is what is on my mind.’ It was so impactful, and it completely changed the whole arc of the script.” As a cross-reference, Moore would often share research materials they discovered with the families. “I would ask if they recognized names and they would say, ‘I know this person’ or ‘This is my family member.’ Seeing all the connections over so many generations, it just made it so much more real.”

Moore says the Working Group’s suspension of activities in 2022 made the play “even more essential.” They staged two performances of The Ƶ Living History Project on April 20, each of which sold out as soon as tickets were made available. They admit that it was “such a bizarre feeling to see two years boiled down to two hours,” but witnessing the reactions of the audience was “one of the most emotional experiences for me. Students were coming to me in tears and giving me hugs and telling me that they felt seen. It was both joyful and cathartic. I think everyone who saw the performances took something away from it. In the best way possible, no one who came walked away quite the same.”

After graduating from Ƶ, Moore plans to take a break to write more plays and then pursue a master’s degree in playwriting. “I presented at the (the largest theatre conference in the nation) and made a lot of connections, so I’m hopeful this project has opened some doors. I plan to keep doing plays that uplift others’ voices.”

Moore says they’re proud to be “part of that legacy of people who are speaking about Ƶ’ history of enslavement and doing this work. I really hope this play continues because it was such a beautiful experience. Everyone involved was able to find strength in it. That’s something I want students and others to replicate and build upon in the future.”