Activism and the Arts in Hampton Roads
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
Words by Moriah Joy. Photos courtesy of Peyton Stephenson.
As the social media trends are dying down on newsfeeds, many people believe that their work is done. The protests worked, the change we needed has happened and it’s time to move on. However, this movement is far from over. I sat down with Peyton Stephenson, who is a local activist, Drama and English teacher, to get her opinion on how the Hampton Roads area can continue to advocate for the Black Community. Full disclosure, Peyton and I met in the process of working on A Piece of My Heart together at Little Theatre of Norfolk. She has been kind enough to share her story and words of encouragement during this time.
Growing up as the daughter of a doctor and in private schools, Peyton’s journey started out by never noticing any outright discrimination. She even went so far as to tell her mother, “No one sees color anymore, that was back in the 60’s. It’s not like that anymore.” Her mother, being a big influence in her work ethic, told her she would have to work twice as hard to be half as good. Peyton took this thought and ran with it saying, “Well if that’s the case, then I want to work four times as hard and be great,” and accomplished it by always putting her studies first.
When it came time for her to decide her career path, Peyton decided she wanted to be an actress. She had begun her journey as a thespian by gracing the stage of her grandmother’s church in Christmas pageants and youth events and has been enthralled ever since. However, it wasn’t until high school when she had access to a real drama program that she considered wanting to pursue acting as a career. She was cast as an extra in Gypsy, stating that she had the most costume changes out of everyone in the cast.
“My drama teacher at the end of the performance said, ‘Even though she never said one line. She’s going to be a star.’ I wanted to prove her right.”
Peyton decided she wanted to apply to the Royal Academy of the Arts, Tisch and NYU. She was accepted to both NYU and the Royal Academy of the Arts but was discouraged from attending for financial reasons and the worry of acting being an unstable career. She then decided to study law and become a lawyer. Quickly realizing that was not the type of advocacy she had assumed it to be, Peyton pursued English with a minor in Political Science at Case Western University.
After college, she moved back to Virginia and started working the front desk at her father’s business. Seeking a more long term opportunity, she found a job as a full time substitute teacher working with kindergarteners and fell in love. Peyton now works as a middle school teacher focusing on English and Drama. Bringing her passion for theatre to her students, she encourages them to be true to themselves.
“My goal is to be able to show these kids the beauty of theatre. Often, outside of school, these students are told that they have to dim their light, and I want to show them how they can be bold and expressive on the stage.”
As the world is bringing to light racial injustices around the country, Peyton reflected on the first time that she realized her childhood wasn’t as colorblind as she had thought. “It’s the phenomenon known as realizing you’re black, not just ‘Oh I have dark skin’ but being seen specifically as different. Growing up, people would always tell me things like, ‘You’re the whitest Black person I know.’ because I didn’t live up to their stereotypes. Or ‘You can’t be Black, you’re so smart.’ The fact that my Blackness couldn’t exist within the same area as my propensity for success and knowledge hurt more than anything.”
For Peyton, the discrimination she has experienced has mostly been in her adult life. She noted that fear began to overwhelm her and her family after Travon Martin was killed. “I looked at my younger brother and just thought how could anybody do something so evil. My brother is the sweetest thing ever.” As she became an outspoken and passionate activist, there was a lot of push back and felt as though she was simply being labeled as “an angry black woman.” This was often followed by words such as irrational or hysterical or being altogether dismissed.
This past year, Peyton had been experiencing weird symptoms such as weight gain despite eating a fairly balanced diet, only drinking water, and exercising regularly. Her doctors’ would simply tell her to change her diet and to exercise more so she could lose the weight. After months of seeking treatment to figure out what was going on, a medical student finally looked at her symptoms and gave her a thorough physical exam, which had not yet been performed. Upon this exam, they discovered that not only did she have diabetes but was almost to the point of ketoacidosis, a complication of diabetes that can often be fatal. During her many visits, she had made friends with another patient with similar symptoms who was eventually diagnosed with diabetes as well. She recounted her frustration with the practice as her new friend had been able to receive answers and/or treatment at the end of every visit. Peyton’s experience is not unique as BIPOC persons (Black, Indeginious, and People of Color), especially women, are marginalized in the healthcare system.
She has decided that while she is not a protestor, that those who are choosing to protest need to be intentional in their activism. For her, this means educating yourself on what is being protested in the first place. If you are saying “Say Their Names,” know whose names you’re saying, know their stories. Don’t just go out there because your friend invited you to or because you want a picture for your social media. “You can hold a sign but if you are not knowledgeable, who are you really helping?” Education is particularly important when it comes to common terms that are often misconstrued such as “microaggression” (a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.).
Some people have approached Peyton and discussed that to them the protests are just theatre, “It’s all for show and not real at the end of the day.” However, from Peyton’s perspective the protests also represent the realness of theatre and the change it can evoke. The experience of being able to step into another person’s shoes and make a statement. “All the world’s a stage and art is a reflection of life. I am not a protestor but rather a caretaker and activist. I will tell their stories, I will give you a ride, offer you bail money and help where I can.” She mentioned how, for her friends, the reason for this difference in the way that theatre is viewed comes down to audience perspective versus acting perspective. Both have different benefits, but transforming into a character and telling their story is truly a unique experience.
Before the stay-at-home orders went into effect, Peyton performed in A Piece of My Heart at Little Theatre of Norfolk. The show is based on the true stories of six women who go to Vietnam and how their lives are drastically changed from their time served. Her character was Steele, an Army Intelligence Officer who faces injustice as she strives for greatness in the military. The experiences of her character resonated immensely with the struggles she has gone through personally, despite the events of the play occurring almost fifty years prior to now.
Peyton onstage in a Piece of My Heart, brandishing the report that her male superiors were ignoring.
Peyton’s experience with theatre and art as a type of performative therapy has been incredibly healing and comforting. Her hope is that the arts community will embrace these stories and be inclusive in their programs and in their leadership.
“There were many times where I walked into an audition knowing I wasn’t going to get a part or feeling like I had to be a whitewashed version of myself to be cast, no matter how good an actor I was. Theatres talk all the time about being diverse but it’s so much more than that. Diversity is inviting someone to the dance and inclusivity is asking them to dance. If theatre is going to expand and do the community justice it needs to be equitable and inclusive.”
While protesting and theatre or other art forms are one way for a community’s voice to be heard, the loudest voice comes from those who hold elected offices. Make your voice heard.
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