African American Arts Alliance: A Proud Penn Tradition

Established in 1991, the African American Arts Alliance (4A) is a student theater group that grew out of Penn’s Black Arts League and, like its parent group, situates its art in protest, activism, and solidarity against racial discrimination, and in celebration of Black culture.

“For 25 years, our mission has remained the same,” 4A President Aizhaneya Carter says. “When we select shows, create post-show ‘talk-back’ discussions, and organize educational events, our first consideration is the campus climate. We perform shows to validate ourselves, our place on this campus, and the belonging of folks like us.”

4A has brought seminal African American theater figures to campus, such as Spike Lee and poet-playwright Ntozake Shange, and created partnerships with Black organizations and faculty across campus with the help of their academic advisor, Professor of English and Africana Studies Herman Beavers.

Junior Destiny Bingham (left), supporting 4A General Body Member, and Chair of the Gala Planning Committee Elaina Joseph (right), both in the Class of 2018.

Junior Destiny Bingham (left), supporting 4A General Body Member, and Chair of the Gala Planning Committee Elaina Joseph (right), both in the Class of 2018.

Carter, who is majoring in theatre arts and international relations in the School of Arts & Sciences, says: “It has taken the entire village to keep us going and we continue to give back with thought-provoking works that challenge us and the whole campus community.”

4A students and alumni hosted a gala at Alumni Sweeten House over Homecoming Weekend to celebrate their 25th anniversary. This quarter-century mark gave them an opportunity to reflect on how much the group has accomplished and developed since its formation.

Miranda Brickle, 4A’s alumni relations officer and a Penn Nursing student, says the group has grown considerably over this time.

“We’re still expanding and our membership is diversifying, with more various people of color joining,” she says. “We’re still mainly a people-of-color oriented group, but we’re becoming more multifaceted.”

“Our audience has definitely grown, too,” adds Carter. “We have wide recognition across campus and often sell out shows. I think that comes with having more diversity within 4A and in the casts. When you ask who our audience is, it’s not just the people of color on campus anymore. It’s people who want to see amazing theater—and race isn’t a determining factor of whether or not someone can produce theater.”

Carter points to a cultural shift in the “TAC-e” (Penn Theatre Arts Council) community as another factor in the 4A’s changing dynamic. TAC-e’s seven student groups used to keep to themselves, but now, members in the various groups mingle and actively seek to learn about—and learn from—each other.

When you ask who our audience is, it’s not just the people of color on campus anymore. It’s people who want to see amazing theater—and race isn’t a determining factor of whether or not someone can produce theater.

4A President Aizhaneya Carter

The first play by and about African-Americans to be performed at Penn was “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1988, when 4A had not yet diverged from the Black Arts League. Since then, 4A has produced a wide range of plays and musicals written by African-American artists about African-American culture, from original student pieces to last spring’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical, Memphis. With a cast of about 30 people, last spring’s show has been their biggest yet.

4A’s most recent performance was the play “She Like Girls”by Chisa Hutchinson, which Carter says “aligns directly with our goal of bringing productions to campus that intermingle our passion and politics in portraying the struggle people often have to confront when they are not in their safe spaces.”

Mckayla Warwick, Class of 2020, (left) and Hope Smith, Class of 2019, (right) in a scene of "She Like Girls," a story that centers on the relationship between their characters, Marisol and Kia.

Mckayla Warwick, Class of 2020, (left) and Hope Smith, Class of 2019, (right) in a scene of "She Like Girls," a story that centers on the relationship between their characters, Marisol and Kia.

After the Dec. 10 performance, Carter says that 4A felt it was important to hold space for LGBTQ People of Color, so they teamed up with the student group Queer People of Color (QPOC) to hold a post-show “talk back” workshop. QPOC facilitated a discussion which touched on aspects of the play that shocked them or challenged their views, considered whom they would have liked to invite to see it, and addressed the topic of homophobia in intimate and familial relationships.

Carter and Brickle also count the appearance at Penn’s 2016 Commencement of acclaimed Latino playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda—whose wildly popular Broadway show, “Hamilton,” features an unprecedentedly diverse cast and a hip-hop story of the titular Founding Father—as a significant moment in 4A’s quarter-century journey.

Brickle describes Penn’s decision to invite Miranda as tantamount to saying “‘This is for you, 4A. We see all the hard work you’ve been putting in; we hear you; we see you.’ It’s just amazing,” she says. “And the fact that ‘Hamilton’ can make it so big, win so many Tonys and be accepted by everyone goes to show the shifts we’re seeing in theatre.”

Carter agrees, saying, “It makes me believe we could be there, too, one day.”

  • Text by Christina Cook
  • Photos courtesy of the African American Arts Alliance