Photo by Prescott Watson.

The Second Stage Theater is completely dark except for the lights illuminating center stage, where members of the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) gather in an intimate circle before their rehearsal. They aren’t holding hands, but they might as well be. Here, the students open up and share what’s currently happening in their lives, from handling midterms to loving Skittles.

This isn’t just another production or class — it’s a family, one that is celebrating its 20th anniversary as the only African American theater troupe in the entire UC system. In spite of financial struggles through the organization’s history, AATAT has triumphed to reach this milestone, one they will commemorate with the opening of their latest play, “Ruined.”

A student-based organization, AATAT is a group of predominantly African American students who perform an annual production depicting aspects of African American life. According to their website, AATAT’s mission statement is “to create unity, higher visibility and an understanding of the African American culture at UCSC.” Through “Ruined,” AATAT hopes to bring awareness to present-day social injustices.

About the Show

In this play, the term “ruined” refers to a girl who has been raped and whose genitals are mutilated to the degree at which she would be unable to work as a prostitute.

“Ruined” will be performed at the Second Stage Theater at the UCSC Performing Arts Center from Feb. 24-25 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 26 at 3 p.m., at the Stevenson Event Center March 2-3 at 7 p.m., and at the Oldemeyer Center at Cal State Monterey Bay from March 9-10 at 7 p.m. Admission for UCSC undergraduate students is free with student ID. The cost of attendance, with the exception of the Oldemeyer Center, will be $15 for general admissions and $11 for other students and seniors.

Directed by Don Williams and written by Lynn Nottage, “Ruined” is based on 2004 interviews Nottage conducted with Congo refugees in Africa.

“Ruined” revolves around a present-day brothel in the Republic of Congo in the midst of a civil war over precious minerals. The brothel, owned by a woman named Mama Nadia, supplies government officials and rebel soldiers alike with a plethora of young women and alcohol to take their minds off the tragedies of war.

Williams’ African American history class selected the play for performance.

AATAT is fundraising at the event by collecting old and used cell phones for recycling. Bring old phones to the play or to Stevenson 199 before March 3. All money raised will be given to Congolese women living in unsafe conditions.

The group sings and dances around the stage with excitement in preparation for their latest play before Don Williams, founder and director of AATAT, arrives. Williams, director of Cultural Arts and Diversity (CAD), has been working at UC Santa Cruz for the past 22 years and is the backbone behind programs like Rainbow Theater and AATAT. Williams and AATAT are almost one and the same — you can’t mention one without the other.

“I believe that if we’re going to be a teaching institution, it is our global duty to make sure we touch upon the major culture groups that are really here at the university,” said Williams, who regularly spends 12 hours a day on campus during the week working on various projects.

AATAT gives students the opportunity to act, direct, stage-manage, film and write plays. AATAT is open to all students, regardless of ethnicity or level of experience. This program gives students the foundation to connect, learn, grow and change with the support of their peers.

Williams said the motto for AATAT and Rainbow Theater is, “if you want to be truly blessed, learn to uplift others higher than yourself.” An emphasis on sharing students’ gifts and building upon strengths — whatever they may be — to help others is key to AATAT.

“It’s not even about the grade, it’s not even about the class, it’s about the service,” Williams said.

AATAT also acts as a major outreach and retention program for the university, giving students of color — especially African American students — a chance to be in theater and full-length productions with other underrepresented students. Out of the 16,451 students at UCSC, only an estimated 450 are African American, which amounts to 3 percent of the population. Of the current members of AATAT, 30 of the 40 are African American.

“There was a time when the UC was losing a lot of African American students who would come here because of the isolation that went on,” Williams said. “AATAT provided that nature of common experiences.”

AATAT was established in 1991 by a group of African American upperclassmen who persistently approached Williams about producing a theatrical show. Williams, who first began at UCSC as a theater technician, said he took time out of his own schedule to create AATAT. At first, students did not receive credit for the productions.

Since the program’s inception, AATAT has given over $85,000 in scholarships to participants of the program. Five members are chosen annually by AATAT to receive $1,000 for their role in AATAT as well as for academic excellence, another way the program supports its community.

Jessica Jones, playing brothel owner Mama Nadia, attempts to soothe war victim Salima, played by Precious Wingo in “Ruined.” Photo by Prescott Watson.

Third-year theater arts and feminist studies double major Alana Duvernay is the assistant director of “Ruined.” Duvernay, who has been a member of AATAT for all of her three years at UCSC, sits in the front row at every rehearsal to assist the director and actors with their lines and overall character development.

“I chose UC Santa Cruz because of AATAT and Rainbow Theater,” Duvernay said. “First, because there are not multicultural theater groups in the UC system, [and] second because it is my goal, and AATAT’s goal, to uplift other people.”

During rehearsals, it is obvious a clear line of communication is necessary to attain a level of respect and trust among AATAT members. This is especially true when touching upon sensitive subjects like rape in “Ruined.” The actors must abandon their everyday personalities and transform into characters they may not be comfortable or familiar with.

Thousands of students have participated in AATAT over the past 20 years. AATAT’s success has sparked the creation of other multicultural programs like Rainbow Theater, also run by Williams. But despite their constantly sold out shows, AATAT continues to struggle yearly with financial shortfalls.

Over the years, AATAT has experienced many setbacks, predominantly a lack of staff and funding for the inherently costly productions they put on each year. However, with Williams’ focus on the future, you won’t ever hear him talk about the negatives.

“This art form of theater is a vehicle we cannot allow to [die out] or something,” Williams said. “It has a way of connecting with you like nothing else. You can go to the movie theater and you’re at the discretion of the editors. But [when] you come to live theater, you are the editor.”

Photo by Prescott Watson.
Photo by Prescott Watson.

Theater arts graduate Maria Olivo, an AATAT alum and former president of Rainbow Theater, is currently getting her master’s degree in theater education in the hope of creating a similar multicultural theater arts program in California’s Inland Empire. This was almost made impossible during Olivo’s four years at UCSC, when Williams’ job and programs were at risk of termination due to budget cuts.

“We knew that without him Rainbow and AATAT wouldn’t exist,” Olivo said, sitting in the theater and taking notes for her dissertation. “He’s really the heart and soul of these programs, and the students are the breath that keep it all going and functioning together.”

Duvernay, who encourages and supports the entire cast of AATAT, said Williams continually struggles to maintain his position and receive the support and funding needed for his programs.

“Don is constantly fighting for us, constantly charging things on his own credit card, running from meeting to meeting, conference to conference, seeing if he can do something for us,” Duvernay said.

But AATAT now sees more possibility for prosperity in their future, thanks to Measure 49. Undergraduate students voted last year to voluntarily increase student fees by $5.25 per quarter. This money goes toward the CAD, which supports AATAT and Rainbow Theater.

Third-year electrical engineering major Amanuel Zeryihun is acting for the first time in “Ruined.” On Tuesday night, Williams awarded Zeryihun with one of the $1,000 scholarships. The cast and crew cheered him on, but Zeryihun was speechless.

While sitting behind the stage with his fellow actors, Zeryihun said it is important for people to recognize all the hard work put into this organization.

“People need to know this didn’t just come out of nowhere,” Zeryihun said. “It didn’t just last 20 years. It required the struggling of everyone who got on board, especially Don Williams, who is the visionary for this.”

Zeryihun is inspired by witnessing the changes AATAT and Williams create in the community on campus.

“It’s really important our university invest in people like him because he teaches from a very genuine approach, and it’s not something you find here a lot of the time,” he said.

Jessica Jones, a third-year student who plays Mama Nadia, the main character in “Ruined,” looks forward to the 20th anniversary celebrations. Many AATAT alumni will return to watch the show.

“For people to actually see how long this legacy has lasted is very powerful,” Jones said. “We’re here now, but we want to know what happened 20 years ago.”

Photo by Prescott Watson.

On stage and off, the players of AATAT spend time together working on lines, getting into character, and sharing valuable information to feel more comfortable about the play. Jones and Zeryihun bring their characters into their everyday life, like asking one another to pass the milk in a Congolese accent at their house.

Adam Buxbaum, a fifth-year theater arts graduate student, said there’s a lot of experimental theater occuring on campus, but AATAT’s theater work goes a different route.

“AATAT is consistently the only production every year that actually brings real poignant and pertinent issues to the community,” Buxbaum said. “AATAT works to agitate and educate, to make people leave the auditorium angry and feeling like they can make a difference.”

AATAT members hope it will continue to grow and gain support as a theater troupe so African American productions will continue to exist on campus even when Williams is gone.

“My hope is that AATAT will always be here,” Williams said, “[and] that this campus will always be a beacon to making sure diversity really does happen and is not just spoken.”