The entire cast and directing team is black, a deliberate shock to the conventional theatre world. Or, should I say Cornell’s theatre world? The first full-length play to stage exclusively people of color in the Department of Performing and Media Arts, Life Sentence was written by the trailblazing playwright Gloria Majule ’17.
“Coming here my freshmen year I felt a need for more roles for people of color.
At first it was more out of anger for the lack of people of color and then it became something more.” Majule began the writing process over two years ago as her thesis, and will finally witness her goals embodied on stage Thursday in the Blackbox Theatre of the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.
The realistic set, designed by Christian Brickhouse ’17, places us where most of the play occurs: the living room. Majule takes a conventionally white format in American theatre, the family drama, and flips it on its head with radically inclusive casting by personalizing it within her own country, Tanzania.
Majule spent her most recent summer back home where she developed a lot of the play, drawing inspiration from facets of the culture. The re-entry shock was powerful at the axis of her racial identity as well as gender. “Being a woman is like a life sentence, it’s like a punishment,” she recounted.
The department must be lauded for their most recent season that boasts entirely female playwrights, a feat easily accomplished but rarely executed. Majule sits alongside some of the most lauded feminist playwrights of modern theatre — Paula Vogel, Sarah Ruhl, Naomi Wallace — and picks up the baton with three featured roles for women that give the actors much more to work with than the all-too-common Papier-mâché cutouts that dominate female representation on stage.
Majule is proud to be a part of the all-female season. “If you look at many plays, the men are developed more than the women. I wanted to challenge this. I wanted to explore how they try to break away from this structure.” Majule is also the director, which allows her to fully realize her intentions.
Directing poses its own challenges — she must stage the play with unfiltered access to the original imagination of each moment in the script. At first she noted it was difficult, but eventually appreciated the opportunity to be present while the small cast of five actors originates her characters. “They all have brought their personalities into these characters, in ways I hadn’t projected.”
Majule’s first full-length play will go up 80 minutes straight without an intermission. As much as I can elaborate on the profundity of Life Sentence’s performance politics, one must be excited to witness a budding playwright testing out her chops.
Sam Morrison is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.