Simon Tran (BA '16) reflects on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Simon Tran at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Civil Rights Pilgrimage with UW's Dept. of Communication.
Simon Tran at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Civil Rights Pilgrimage with UW's Dept. of Communication.

by Simon Tran

It all starts with Drama and ends with Drama.

This last October and again this March I participated in the University of Washington Department of Communication’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a nine-day intentional trip to the Deep South to learn about the Civil Rights history in the places where the monumental Civil Rights events occurred. On the pilgrimage we met with living Civil Rights activists, saw theatre performances about the Civil Rights, and dove into the racial history and realities of our country. On these pilgrimages I was joined by 52 others. Our pilgrimage community included students from the University of Washington, Bellevue College, Utah State, faculty, and staff, in addition to adults from the community. The pilgrimage community was intentionally interracial and intergenerational. This fostered people on the pilgrimage to broaden their perspectives and the humanity and intersectionality within the pilgrimage community to unfold and shine through. By intimately learning about the Civil Rights movement and the past, we were also able to find inspiration and direction reflecting on the current state of racial and social injustice in the US.

So how did a Drama Performance major find himself on a Communications Civil Rights pilgrimage?

It started in October 2014. I was in rehearsals for the Undergraduate Theater Society’s production of Yellow Face. This was a very special moment, not just for me, but for UW Drama. That production of Yellow Face was and remains the only UTS production that had a majority of actors of color in its cast, and one of the first ever productions that was specifically about race. For me, being in that production was huge because I was part of a production at UW for the first time that reflected my racial identity and combatted racism and racial issues in an artistic way. While we were rehearsing for the production, a lot of things happened in the country. Arguably the most impactful event was the lack of indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who gunned down and killed Michael Brown. I connected the production with the world, and how necessary it was to address these issues and hold the world accountable. After Yellow Face I became very upset with the lack of discussion or focus about these issues in my Drama classes. After having an immense awakening of what was more of the reality of our world, I just didn’t see the value of learning Shakespeare anymore. Through my desire to learn more and engage directly and critically with conversations about race, racism, oppression, and injustices, I learned about the Civil Rights pilgrimage last April. From there, my personal and academic world dramatically changed.

For me, being in [Yellow Face] was huge because I was part of a production at UW for the first time that reflected my racial identity and combatted racism and racial issues in an artistic way...I connected the production with the world, and how necessary it was to address these issues and hold the world accountable. 

Before my first pilgrimage, I thought that in order to make a real impact, you had to be a “Dr. King”-type icon. However, from meeting Civil Rights activists, a lot of whom were the footsoldiers of the movement, I learned how profound and important being a footsoldier or every day person is in the movement. People who were seen as “ordinary” were a part of something larger than themselves. Together the thousands of footsoldiers all contributed to the Civil Rights movement. As an actor I sometimes feel as though I have to be hugely successful to make a difference that elevates the position I and others are in. It was absolutely humbling to hear the stories and be in the presence of these extraordinary people who didn’t need the recognition but were simply proud and fulfilled by doing what they thought was right.

The pilgrimage allowed me to see the importance of activism and the call for justice. From learning about the inhumane and treacherous lives that some people in the Deep South faced (and continue to face, in the South and everywhere in this country), there is a need to support equity, diversity, and justice in every aspect of society. The arts, including theatre, are ridden with problems at the institutional level. The Civil Rights activists in the 1960s risked their jobs, their homes, and even their lives in order to fight for what needed to be done despite the incredible risk of failure and repercussion. This gave me a huge sense of confidence, courage, and conviction to not sit idle when something is not right and those in power fail to address the problems. Being completely confident, courageous, and convicted isn’t something that I can embody immediately, but I’ve been able to say more what’s on my mind and to create and be in uncomfortable and even contentious spaces in order to address issues and create productive conversations and actions through them.

Being completely confident, courageous, and convicted isn’t something that I can embody immediately, but I’ve been able to say more what’s on my mind and to create and be in uncomfortable and even contentious spaces in order to address issues and create productive conversations and actions through them.

The last takeaway from these pilgrimages is hope. From these pilgrimages I became (painfully) awakened by the forces and systems of oppression in our world that encourage and perpetuate inequity and exclusion. But at the same time, I try to see and remember what is being uplifted in our world while these injustices exist. From the pilgrimages, I realized how there are those in my life and at the University of Washington who are fearless, enduring, and the footsoliders for justice. There are incredible artists who devote themselves to do art activism that raises both the hair on our arms (placing us in positions that make us check our own positionality) and also raise our sense of understanding and social responsibility in the world. The DNA of the pilgrimages are interracial, intergenerational, multisexual, and economically varied, and despite our differences in identity, we all were there to work towards the same goal: justice. Many around me who have different genders, religion, skin color, or sexual orientation are also working towards that same goal.

There are incredible artists who devote themselves to do art activism that raises both the hair on our arms (placing us in positions that make us check our own positionality) and also raise our sense of understanding and social responsibility in the world.

As I continue to reflect on my pilgrimage experiences, I come back to Drama. As I graduate this spring, I translate my learnings from the pilgrimages to my identity as a theatre artist. The Civil Rights activists didn’t know what their role or outcome of the movement would be. I am not quite sure what my role will be in theatre. Will I be an actor or will I do something completely different? It is inspiring to know that those in the movement stood up after generations of trauma, violence, inhumanity, and suffering and changed and continue to change the course of history. So I look back to Drama. Because isn’t the definition of Drama when something drastically changes and the world is forever different?