Play about Race, Basketball Wins Professor National Arts Grant

From the July 2018 Desktop News | Seth Panitch, professor of acting and head of The University of Alabama’s acting programs, was awarded a $10,000 National Endowment of the Arts grant to produce his upcoming play, Separate and Equal.

Photo of Seth Panitch
Seth Panitch

He co-wrote the grant with Dominic Yeager, UA assistant professor of theatre, and developed the play with Lawrence Jackson, a choreographer and UA assistant professor of dance.

The grant is typically given to those only in professional theatre, not academic theatre, but because Panitch’s Bridge Project is a hybrid of both, he qualified.

“We were thrilled to be able to get this support from the NEA,” Panitch said. “I had sat on a grant committee for the NEA – this same one – and the amount of submissions they get is titanic. I had 80 projects to evaluate, and there were a dozen different groups doing it at the same time.

“There were hundreds of applications for this grant, and very few were granted.”

Panitch’s The Bridge Project was initiated in 2006 to help UA theatre students bridge the gap between being a theatre student and a working theatre professional. It places them in professional productions alongside established actors in reputable theatres.

Separate and Equal is about a hypothetical basketball game between black and white teens in segregated Birmingham in 1951, which was illegal at the time. It explores what that meeting could have been like and reflects on current race relations.

“The audience will sit around the stage like they’re at an actual basketball game,” Panitch said. “The actors play a basketball game within the play. The basketball is done through music and dance to be more visceral and expressive.

“I’m using the movement of basketball to express how African Americans and whites have interacted over the past 50 years. So, it’s a play about communication and lack of communication through the lens of segregation.”

Panitch said he received help from the NAACP, professors, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in creating the play.

“I developed the script for this over the last year and a half. During my sabbatical, I researched the 1950s at the archives at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute oral history archive. It was fantastic listening to these recordings and transcriptions from people on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.”

The play will have a soft premiere locally at the Marian Gallaway Theatre on campus Aug. 28-31 at 7:30 p.m. each night.

It will then run an entire month at the award-winning theatre on Park Avenue and 59th Street in New York City starting Sept. 6. See 59E59 Theaters’ website for prices and times closer to its run date.

The grant will be used to pay for the set, professional actors, housing actors, and travel.