c/o Rose Chen

c/o Rose Chen

“What Comes Next?”—a staged reading of a play written by Senica Slaton ’26 and produced by the SHADES Theater Collective—was read in Russell House on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. The play follows five Black and Latina girls in mid-1960s Montgomery, Alabama as they live out their teenage years, confront the culture of racism that surrounds them, and fall in love. 

The play begins in 1959, as we’re introduced to Beverly (Oluchi Chukwuemeka ’26), the 13-year-old new girl in town who’s worried about making friends. Beverly is begging her mother Bessie (Shekinah Mba ’26) to allow her and the girls she’s invited over to have snacks in her room, desperate to gain their approval. Four other 13-year-old girls—Shirley (Hyacinth Tauriac ’25), Gloria (Skye Figueroa ’26), Denise (Tilora Raphael-Shirley ’27), and Rita (Sierra van Wijk ’25)—tumble into her room, promptly decide that she’s a good addition to their group, and have a dance party. 

The play then jumps forward in time to 1964. The girls are now 18 years old, getting ready for their Debutante Ball. Through continued jumps forward and backward in time, we watch the girls grow up. Beverly grapples with the thought of marrying her high school sweetheart at 18, Shirley confronts her mixed parentage at 13, Gloria falls in love with a white boy and realizes he’s part of the KKK at 17, and Rita finds a way to live out her dream of going to college before getting married at 18. Denise and Shirley both have to understand their respective privileges as Denise confronts what it means to be pretty and a woman of color and Shirley what it means to be half-white. 

“I wanted the central point to be 1964,” Slaton said. “Because of that, I wanted to connect their past to what we’re hearing in the present, but not necessarily act two to be just about 1964. [I wanted to] make it a little bit more interesting for the audience, make them have to work for a little bit more of what we’re talking about and what’s going on.”

Transitions between each of the scenes were often accompanied by snippets of songs from the 1960s, like “Chapel of Love” (1964) and “All I Could Do Was Cry” (1960). Each song helped contextualize the scenes on stage—songs of love were paired with talks of marriage and dance parties, for example. Music was an important part of the creative process for Slaton, which led to her deciding to incorporate these songs into the show.

“Both of my parents are older, so I grew up with a lot of the music that we heard in the play, and I love that music so much,” Slaton said. “So it’s like, ‘What if I just keep adding this in and see what happens?’ And part of it is also to end each scene on almost a lighthearted note because they are still 13-to-18[-year-olds]…. I write to music, and so it was whatever song I felt fit the vibe of the entire scene that I was writing to that just ended up working with what I had added in.”  

Despite having only two rehearsals before its final performance, the production was smooth and cohesive. It was evident that the actors had connected with the story and with one another. Even though they were reading from scripts, their ability to emotionally inhabit their characters and their natural dialogue delivery made it feel like they had been working together for weeks.

The casting process was an integral part of the production, and both Slaton and the actors expressed that their familiarity with one another allowed them to realize which role each actor was best suited to. Slaton communicated her reasoning behind the casting of each part, which was highly appreciated by Chukwemeka. 

“There was no audition process,” Chukwuemeka said. “Senica emailed us and was like, ‘I know all of you, and I know who each of you are, and I’m going to assign you roles.’ The first rehearsal that we had, she told us why she picked us to be each role, and it was so sweet, and it was so warm…. That was something that was really important and especially affirming, that director-to-actor relationship.” 

Mba expressed the importance of representation in the cast. 

“Senica specifically wanted to highlight Latina and Black women’s voices and that was very representative in the cast,” Mba explained. “There are so many talented people on this campus, especially so many talented students of color.” 

Mba and Chukwuemeka both expressed that their roles in “What Comes Next?” reflected parts of their own personal relationships and identities. The production not only provided cast members with a chance to represent aspects of themselves onstage, but also had the potential to create a larger impact on theater at the University.

“When people have conversations about social justice and systemic inequality, people forget the personhood in terms of going through all of those struggles,” Mba said. 

Pieces like “What Comes Next?” highlight these talented actors by creating the opportunity to tell stories about people of color that could not be conveyed by any other cast. Both the writer and actors highlighted the importance of a space in theater created by and for people of color, specifically women of color. 

“I have a complicated relationship with Wesleyan Theater, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people of color have that complicated relationship too,” Chukwuemeka said. “A lot of the plays that we do put up, especially with the student production groups, are white-based or based on plays that were written only for white actors or actresses. That’s why I was so elated to be a part of Senica’s production.”

One of the reasons this play has the potential to create such an impact is because it performs conversations concerned with discrimination and intersectional experiences. The play’s characters put faces and narratives to systemic inequalities, allowing the audience to connect with their stories.

“I think a lot of people are aware of the dynamics of roles and the dynamics of race,” Chukwuemeka said. “Gloria’s trouble is not only was she a person of color, she’s also a woman, and her discrimination was based on [that] fact…. And that concept of intersectionality, that’s so important, and it could be shown in so many plays and understanding where your privilege comes from, and where discrimination comes from, [is] really important.”

While the play takes place 60 years in the past, the themes it highlights remain relevant. Through the stories of five young girls, “What Comes Next?” examines systemic privilege and disadvantage as two sides of the same coin, and the dynamics of young women of color grappling with the intersection of womanhood and race. The audience gets to watch the characters get older and experience a transition in their understanding of how race impacts the way they navigate the world. 

Slaton described how she wanted the script to echo reflections that she and other women of color have had about their identities and how their understanding of those identities developed over time. 

“Even though this takes place 60 years in the past, a lot of the women of color on this campus can relate to this play and the characters in this play,” Slaton said. “I think it’s about seeing yourself on stage and seeing your younger self on stage. That was a lot of it for me.” 

Mba stressed the importance of having students of color at the University represented by student theater.

“I just love student theater productions,” Mba said. “I think especially when it comes to student of color theater, and making sure those stories are told and invested into because it’s incredibly powerful.”

Oluchi Chukwuemeka is a sports editor for The Argus. 

Caleb Henning can be reached at chenning@wesleyan.edu.

Langley Maciejewski can be reached at lmaciejewski@wesleyan.edu.

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