Gina Cleveland smiled when asked the goal of the registered student organization (RSO), the Black Actors League (BAL). A senior acting major from Chicago, Cleveland knew the answer most people expected would include a nod to black playwrights and screenwriters.
“The Black Actors League is a group open to all students who are interested in studying art through an underrepresented lens,” she said.
Cleveland currently serves as president of the RSO that has been at Illinois State since 2008. “We were originally established as a way to explore the black experience in art, but we go beyond that,” she said. “The group explores diversity and culture through art, and reaches into the experiences of Latinx, Asian-American, LGBTQ—any group that is underrepresented in the arts.”
Members of the BAL gather for readings or workshopping plays. “There are times we have monologues due in classes, and we bounce ideas off of each other,” said Cleveland. “We work on our craft and draw from one another.”
The BAL takes part in activities throughout the year, including performing for the Black Heritage Ball. The group recently finished working with the New Route Theatre for the Black Voices Matter Festival, which featured readings of playwrights from across the country. Cleveland, who directed the reading “Last of Ken” for the festival, had the chance to work closely with playwright Ann Eskridge. “She lives in Detroit, but we talked about the play, and she was able to Skype in for a talk-back at the last performance,” said Cleveland.
In April, the Black Actors League will join the FreeStage Festival with a poetry slam penned by members Anthony Harden and Da’Mara Smith. “It can be acting, improv, writing, or directing—the League gives us the opportunities to express ourselves through art,” said Harden, a senior acting major from Rockford who wrote a play that was performed by the BAL. “There is a family feel to it that I love.”
Cleveland nodded her head in agreement. “We are a family, and we want to share that feeling,” she said. “We create this safe space and this safe culture no matter who you are, where you came from, or where you’re going. We want to help you be a better student, a better actor, a better person. We want to help you just be better.”