Immersive History: FYP Class Site-Specific Theater

Camille Pfister

Executive Editor 

Finding Your Place (FYP) is an optional program a couple of weeks before orientation for first-year students that provides a place for the new undergraduates to ground themselves on the Mountain. They begin to know the environment they will be spending the next four years in, and the history of it. The theater FYP class, this year taught by Professor Jennifer Matthews, was particularly focused on having the students learn about the messy, unfiltered, history of the place they are now calling home. 

For those unfamiliar with the way FYP works, let me explain. Once an undergraduate registers for the program, after accepting their offer to attend Sewanee, they are provided with a list of the classes they can take. This class is one of the four classes they will take during their first semester, and begins about two weeks prior to the beginning of the semester. They rank the classes in order of preference and are placed by the University. FYP is a great way for new students to get to know the campus, their fellow classmates, and some professors before the semester begins and things get chaotic. The classes meet throughout the semester, ending earlier than the rest of the University courses, due to the early start prior to the semester. 

“It was a lot of fun,” Ava Bowron (C ’27) and a student in Matthew’s FYP class said. “I got to meet a lot of new people really early. I knew nobody coming here, and it was really good to immediately have that group of people. I learned a lot about Sewanee and its history.” 

Photo courtesy of Camille Pfister

Matthews’s class, Memory, History, and Stories Site-Specific Devised Performance, spent time exploring the domain and learning the rich history of the University. Matthews wanted the students to “soak a lot of this in” and emphasized the importance of equal partnership. “We did a little bit of work called Moment Work,” Matthews said. “It’s creating plays, not from a top-down model, [but taking] that model and flip on its side so everyone has equal input.” 

The class spent the “Immersion Period,” the time of FYP before the semester began, out and about in the community, exploring different aspects of the Sewanee culture. Once the semester began, they divided into three groups and each student presented a “hunch” and the groups chose the hunch they wanted to pursue. The three groups landed on portraits, the celebration of the St. Mark’s Community, and a reflection on the Highlander School. “Those were all things that they found important,” Matthews said. 

The Portraits of the Past play was the first one to be performed, on Thursday October 26, in Convocation Hall. The performance was a hilarious and also eye opening insight into the portraits hanging in Convocation and around campus and their continued impact on the students today. The play begins with two students, dressed in black robes, complete with white beards, standing up high above the audience, partially hidden, holding portrait frames around their heads. They call out to each other, identifying themselves as Rev. William DuBose and Rev. Henry Lay, two founding members of the University, and whose portraits hang in Convocation Hall. They are also two men who believed horribly racist and misogynistic things. They spent their lives trying to preserve a way of Southern thinking that oppressed people  of color. They defended the KKK, slavery, and the Civil War. 

Photo courtesy of Camille Pfister

As the two men talk, reminiscing about the “good old days,” current Sewanee students enter, waiting in Convocation for one of the speakers. They begin to discuss their classes, their lives, and Sewanee’s history, oblivious to the portraits looming above them. The portraits can hear the students and chime in with disgusted commentary, most of which got a chuckle out of the audience due to the absurdity of it all. As the students discussed how far Sewanee has come, but in a tone that implies how far Sewanee has to go, the portraits gasp in indignation at the sheer amount of progress. When a student tells another that women have only been allowed at Sewanee for fifty years, the portraits can’t believe women have been allowed for fifty years. When another student discusses the fact that only eighteen percent of Sewanee students are non-white, the portraits can’t believe it’s that high. They speak in a hateful manner, most of the lines being directly quoted from the two men, according to the content warning given to the audience prior to the show. 

“I hope the community will think about things in a way they haven’t before, or maybe this brings a new insight,” Matthews said. “These are people, for the most part, who would have been oppressed by the subject of their play. I think it’s important to make that point.” 

The students began drawing attention to the portraits on the walls, talking about the racist history of the men being honored and celebrated. They called out one portrait in particular, the portrait of Leonidas Polk. Many years ago, a different portrait of Polk hung in Convocation Hall. One of Polk with his Confederate uniform beside him. That one was replaced, but as Matthews said, “He’s still right here, in his church clothes.” The hateful imagery may have been removed, but the person who represented all of that hate is still very much there. As you may recall, in April of 2021 George Burruss (C ’22), then a student, removed the bust of Polk that resided in duPont library, and placed it on the steps of the University Archives. It was an act of “civil disobedience” the student said in an open letter in The Purple a year after the removal. It was an act that represented the removal of these figures from places that honor them. 

“We were all committed to making a play and making a statement about these founders,” Bowron said. “It’s very uncomfortable [having these men] looking down on you. As a woman, they would never consider me a student of Sewanee.” 

During this discussion, the students began to hear the portraits above them. When the portraits argued with the students that they represent Sewanee values, the students rebelled, saying that the men don’t represent what Sewanee has become. They ripped the portraits from the men, removing their power, and held up a large portrait frame around all of the students, proclaiming, “We are Sewanee.” 

“If Sewanee wants to be a more diverse place, we have to listen to those folks,” Matthews said, speaking of those whose perspectives have been historically ignored or oppressed. 

In the final moments, one student stepped away to the podium and read a statement, arguing that the portraits hanging in Convocation Hall should not be celebrated and should be removed. They stated that one option is to place the portraits in a museum type archive, where a full and accurate history is available, so that Sewanee’s history is not erased, but is no longer celebrated or idolized. Finally, she called on people to sign the petition to remove these portraits from the walls of Convocation. The petition was available in the back of Convocation for audience members to sign as they were leaving. 

According to Bowron, people have asked the cast about the other portraits around campus, like in the library, and why the play does not focus on those. “We haven’t done research on those,” Bowran said. “Our research is not done, this topic is not over. In the short amount of time that we had, we researched those two men [DuBose and Lay] and researched Convocation Hall. I definitely think we can do more, and that’s kind of the point.”

Bowron also confirmed that the cast is interested in continuing this work and performing the play again, specifically for staff members, as they have “been around longer” and some have expressed that they “don’t want the paintings up either.” 

Bowron spoke on the message of the play and how it can impact the community at large. “I want them to understand that our past is something to remember and get educated on, but it’s not something we need to praise and continue to uplift,” Bowron said. “Especially in Convocation Hall, because that place is very important to Sewanee. I don’t think we always need to be looking at those men, who don’t support the Sewanee of today.”

The next play to be performed was Hidden Stories, which focused on the St. Mark’s community, and the last one was An Immersive History of The Highlander Folks School. 

All of these plays focused on the importance of honoring the history around you. In some cases, that history is largely ignored and should be honored and celebrated. In others, the history is being celebrated without the proper context. There is a message flowing through all of these performances that speaks to the heart of Sewanee. “We don’t have to hide [the history], we don’t have to push it under the rug,” Bowron said. She reiterated the importance of context and said, “Let’s expose it and grow from it.” Sewanee, it’s vital to acknowledge your history and make sure people’s voices are heard. 

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