Students tell Nashville’s black history through immersive theater

Fifth graders will present “Never Known Nashville” from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 18 at Fort Negley Park, 1100 Fort Negley Blvd.
by Juanita I.C. Traughber, communications director

The Class of 2026 will culminate its civil rights unit with an outdoor, interactive play designed to lead audience members through the history of the city’s prominent African-American communities. "Never Known Nashville" shares lessons learned in Fifth Grade Social Studies Teacher Connie Fink’s civil rights unit, which took students out of the classroom and into Nashville neighborhoods to learn about their historic struggles and contributions made to the city. The play, under the direction of Technical theater Director Jim Manning, is free and open to the public.

Students began studying Nashville neighborhoods and civil rights issues in January. With Middle School Apprentice Teacher Joseph “doughjoe” Love III of the Norf Art Collective they toured Edgehill and Jefferson Street as well as met with businessmen and longtime residents to learn how policies and invisible barriers can segregate communities and change their landscapes. Students learned about infrastructure, urban development, and the impact of urban renewal on once thriving businesses and neighborhoods. This unit coincided with the reading of “Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High” and week-long visit with Little Rock Nine member Minnijean Brown as well as a time at at the Tennessee State Library & Archives, Fort Negley Park, and the Nashville Civil Rights Room.

The May 18 play condenses what they have learned over five months into a show that shares the seldom-told and little-known stories of triumph of African American Nashvillians, Edgehill, Jefferson Street, and Fort Negley. The latter recently was slated to become a high-profile redevelopment until archaeologists found enslaved people buried on the land and a chorus objected.

Students have enlisted the help of doughjoe and Manning, who studied immersive theater in Australia last summer, as well as Art Teacher Emily Holt’s seventh and eighth-grade multimedia art class, which constructed larger-than-life puppets and Nashville monuments that fifth graders will operate during the experience. The audience will walk through the public park, interact with fifth-grade performers, and at times become a part of history being told.

Last year, under the creative direction of doughjoe, the Class of 2025 unveiled to the community the 21st Avenue South garage mural connecting USN with the city’s prominent African-American communities. The Class of 2024 created videos as a reflection of what they learned when in Fink’s class in 2017.
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