Brittney Caldwell walked on stage at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts feeling overwhelmed. She wondered what people would think about her script. Then she recited one of the lines: “We done went from Colored to Black, but ain’t too much changed ‘cept what they callin’ us.”
It was Caldwell’s final performance within the Master of Fine Arts program last spring at the University of Florida. But that show was not the final curtain call for her one-act play. Caldwell’s script developed into a full hour and a half production with three performances March 16 – 17 that all sold out.
“From Colored to Black” reflects on past and current race disparities within the north central Florida African American community. In researching the play, Caldwell collaborated with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program to bring to the stage first-hand accounts of those who lived through periods of racial segregation.
Jeffrey Pufahl, a lecturer at the UF Center for Arts and Medicine, supported Caldwell during the process of writing the play.
“The night it was performed Jeff looked at me and said, ‘Brittney, this is a whole play and you are going to write it,’” Caldwell said.
Caldwell dug into research and interviewed locals prior to writing the script. She used oral archives and county reports for inspiration.
She researched a 2018 report by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at UF entitled “Understanding Racial Inequality in Alachua County” that cited disparities in the African American community. The report noted the historic racism in the area is still an “everyday” factor and that the history of racism in the area still plays a significant role.
“There is pretty much a few drafts of this play that sound like a textbook,” Caldwell said. “So, once we got past that and got all the information together, then it was time to figure out a way to make this information digestible.”
Archives from the Samuel Proctor Oral History provided rich accounts about the civil rights movement in St. Augustine and interviews from people who attended Lincoln High School during segregation. The collection also told stories of the first family to move back to Rosewood after the Rosewood Massacre, a racially motivated crime that occurred in Levy County.
“School is school, but art can be educational as well as entertaining,” Caldwell said.
Jessica Morey, a history teacher at Buchholz High School, attended the first live show with her daughter.
“I thought it was pretty neat how they bridge contemporary issues as well as historical events,” Morey said.
She said Gainesville offers excellent resources for people and educators interested in learning more about historic issues within the African American community, such as lectures and museum exhibitions.
Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and history professor at UF, said there are obstacles for history educators. As a professor of almost 20 years, he said the performance is important because it takes the audience out of their comfort zone.
“The visceral emotional power of the stage and the theater is something I cannot replicate as a history professor in a classroom,” Ortiz said.
Pufahl said the play provides a foundation for further conversations on health disparities, social structures, inequalities, diversity, inclusion and the local civil rights movement in Florida. Material from the play “From Colored to Black” was provided to the African American Oral History Symposium at the University of Florida on March 22. The play’s third performance was video recorded and will be offered to the state of Florida as educational material for middle schools and high schools, Pufahl said.
“It’s really beautiful to get these voices heard and its artistic,” Caldwell said. “Whereas they might not be Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Rosa Parks, their stories are just as important and vital to the history of the black community.”