May 3, 2001

Theatre Ensemble Captures Perkins Prize

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The James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony at Cornell was recently awarded to the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble (CITE), a group dedicated to training others to face issues of diversity.

The prize was created and endowed seven years ago by Cornell alumnus and Trustee Thomas W. Jones ’69, leader of the student protests in the 1960s that caught national attention.

Since its formation in January of 1992, CITE has served university staff, administrators, students, faculty and groups off campus as well as around the nation. The group’s interactive ensembles primarily focus on a combination of live performances and audience participation to address issues of diversity.

The group consists of only four members, a well-trained staff from the department of the theatre of arts at Cornell.

“It’s definitely a very small group and we each do our share of work, but the work is so rewarding,” said Martha Dewey, associate director of education and curriculum and an actor for CITE.

The group, self-described as non-confrontational, facilitates the exploration of the consequences of problematic attitudes and behaviors in a non-threatening environment.

By request of groups interested in programs on diversity, the ensemble performs scenarios in which they portray characters mirrored from the people that contact them. They trail their shows with interactive discussions between characters for the show and those in the audience.

Since its founding, one of the main goals of the group has been to foster student involvement in its efforts. Over 560 students partook in CITE programs during the first semester of this academic year alone.

“We’ve done our best to have liaison programs for students to be involved and one of our hopes for the next year is to include more students,” Dewey said.

Seventeen different groups either applied for or were nominated for this year’s Perkins Prize, according to Sue McNamara, assistant to the dean of students.

“The number of applications for the award has gone up significantly in the past four years,” McNamara said. “This year it was extremely competitive.”

The Perkins Prize was established by Jones, a leader of the Willard Straight Takeover in 1969. He named the prize after James A. Perkins, the president of the University from 1963-1969, for his work in increasing Cornell’s minority undergraduate student body and the creation of the Africana Studies and Research Center.

Perkins left office after the protests in 1969 and Jones’ creation of the prize in 1994 was an indication of the reconciliation between the two men.

After a nomination by the Faculty Senate Affirmative Action Committee and consideration by a panel of students, faculty members and administrators, CITE was awarded with the Prize which carries a $5,000 cash prize at a ceremony on April 18 in Willard Straight Hall.

The Perkins Prize is awarded each year with the understanding that the money will be used to further projects which promote interracial understanding and harmony at Cornell University.

Three criteria are used in the selection of the winner. The criteria include, “the number and diversity of students participating in the group’s activities, the extent to which these accomplishments promote common values and shared community standards among diverse students and the extent to which these accomplishments enhance the abilities of students to work with, live with and learn from individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, beliefs and cultural perspectives.”

“Winning this prize has been very gratifying. It tells us that people value our program and all it stands for,” said Vivian Relta, associate director and facilitator for CITE. “Working with CITE has been one of the best professional experiences I’ve ever had. The program uses such a creative medium to make people think in a way that is very non-threatening.”

The other group members shared similar reactions to their recent recognition.

“At times, we didn’t even know if the campus knew we existed,” Dewey said. “We are all very thrilled and honored, and I can personally say that CITE has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Archived article by Aylin Tanyeri