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‘Cultivating Dignity’: Final theatre adaptation of year follows MLK’s summer in CT

Published on May 06, 2021

‘Cultivating Dignity’: Final theatre adaptation of year follows MLK’s summer in CT

Eastern Connecticut State University’s Theatre Department has premiered its final show of the 2020-21 school year. The performance, titled “Cultivating Dignity,” is a culmination of three years of research, student collaboration and ensemble training. Similar to Eastern’s production “Thread City" in 2017, “Cultivating Dignity” is an innovative project inspired by Connecticut history.

Based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s summer in Simsbury, CT, “Cultivating Dignity” handles the stark contrast between the South and North’s treatment of people of color in the 1940s. King, who grew up in Alabama, came to Simsbury through Morehouse College, a prestigious historically Black college that he attended.

The program created a relationship between southern colleges and northern farmers. Colleges would allow their students to go North and work in the tobacco fields in return for covering their education costs. King and his peers worked daily in the fields, and he described his time in Connecticut with fondness, often remarking on the decreased incidents of discrimination he faced compared to the South.

The idea for the play, which has been in development for the past three years, was first conceived by Eastern Professors Alycia Bright Holland and Kristen Morgan in 2016. After a presentation from Stacey Close, Eastern’s associate vice president for equity and diversity, the two realized how much of an impact King’s experience in Connecticut had on his future work as a civil rights leader.

Since then, the two professors have worked with award-winning local playwright Darcy Bruce to develop a script. They also began incorporating the project into their more advanced classes, such as Experimental Theatre, Dance Improvisation and Directing III. “Students in these classes are pivotal stakeholders,” wrote Bright Holland and Morgan. “Much of what we develop with them is used in the final script and/or performances.”

Although the original plan was for the show to be performed on stage, due to COVID-19, the two directors decided to adapt the show into a film. Filmed entirely outside, students were adorned in timely costumes made in large part by Eastern professor and costume designer Anya Sokolovskaya. Along with the costumes, the location of the performance allows for viewers to immerse themselves into the setting. Filmed at Holiday Hills in Mansfield, performers had ample space to move and interact without COVID-19 restrictions.

Along with the innovative script, the action is led mainly by King, played by Eastern sophomore Tajmarnie Appolon, and Emmett “Weasel” Proctor, played by guest actor Juma Bridgewater, who both rely heavily on movement.

In preparation for the show, students and staff attended a three-day virtual residency with “Frantic Assembly,” a theatre company in the United Kingdom. The company is known for its work in physical theatre, as well as its Ignition Program, which helps at-risk youth in England through performance.

Movement throughout the film, although not always directly dance, allows for a flow to be created. Students are seen interacting with each other with grace and poise, with tasks as simple as handing off a pen.

The show also depends widely on its ensemble, which although small, carries the show through many of the group scenes. Actors are seen working in the fields as well as enjoying time off and writing letters home.

By filming the production, directors and students were allowed the freedom of editing. Using this to their advantage, a variety of different camera angles, sound effects and backdrops allowed for the setting to change rapidly, from a train to a field. Both Bright Holland and Morgan credit this work to Professor Brian Day, who worked on the project as director of photography and film producer.

Paired with “Cultivating Dignity” is a developing documentary titled “Stepping into the Shade,” which is being produced by Eastern senior Drew Ellison. The documentary, though not complete, is shown at the beginning of the production, and includes interviews with a number of scholars speaking on the impact of Connecticut’s tobacco fields, as well as the time King spent there.

While this is the first showing of “Cultivating Dignity,” it is not the last. Both Bright Holland and Morgan plan to continue editing the film, as well as incorporate it into a high school theatre unit. The two hope to present another version of the play by this summer.

To view “Cultivating Dignity” via on-demand streaming, register at

Written by Molly Boucher