Students and The Lab Take Original Production on Politics and Identity to Segovia, Spain

Four students on stage

Velani Dibba (SFS’17), Devika Ranjan (SFS’17), Aly Panjwani (SFS’19), and Cristina Ibarra (COL’17) perform I Pledge Allegiance on stage in Segovia.

October 23, 2017
by Aislinn McNiece

Three SFS students joined Derek Goldman, professor and Co-Director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, this summer on a trip to Segovia, Spain, where they debuted an original piece about identity and politics in the United States.

The piece, “I Pledge Allegiance: An Immigrant Anthology,” was written by Lab Fellows Velani Dibba (SFS’17), Devika Ranjan (SFS’17); Aly Panjwani (SFS’19); and two students from the College, Cristina Ibarra (COL’17) and Ben Lillian (COL’18), with support and mentorship from Goldman and the Lab.

“I Pledge  Allegiance was in many ways the perfect embodiment of everything The Lab is about. A new theatrical work, co-created by an extraordinary and diverse group of students, that engages issues of immigration, home, and nation in a highly personal way that is also immediately and urgently political. This exploration of what it is to be an American and what we in fact should pledge our allegiance to in the current political moment was created and performed by students who know the experiences of immigrants and first-generation Americans firsthand,” Goldman says.

Goldman also serves as the Director of the UNESCO ITI Global Network for Higher Education in the Performing Arts, which hosted this summer’s Global Congress in Segovia. Through his leadership, the group of students was able to bring their production to the inaugural Student Festival as part of the ITI Global Congress.

“ITI has a vaunted and important history that grew out of the Cold War, as it was for many years the only way that artists from parts of the world that were deeply at odds could connect and develop exchanges. The position I hold as President of the U.S. Center was once held by the great playwright Edward Albee – so there is deep and humbling history here,” says Goldman.

“To see [I Pledge Allegiance] in front of a global audience at the ITI World Congress in Segovia, where it effectively subverted the narrative of what America looks like to the world right now, and then to witness how powerfully impacted that audience was, was a revelation.”

Getting Started: Finding Inspiration

Panjwani came to the SFS to pursue a Culture and Politics major, with a concentration in peace and art education for conflict resolution, because it gave him the opportunity to explore international relations from a new angle. Getting involved with The Lab seemed a natural fit.

“The School of Foreign Service is clearly a leader in international relations and it was an easy decision [to attend] when I was accepted to the program. However, beyond the prestige of the school, the Culture and Politics program was attractive because it allowed me to take an unconventional approach to international relations. This is also exactly why I was attracted to The Lab,” Panjwani says.

He took two classes with Goldman — “Improvisation for Social Change” and “Performance and Politics,” which pushed him to get involved with The Lab and, eventually, with the I Pledge Allegiance project.

Student sits on stage

Aly Panjwani (SFS’19) performs I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE in Segovia.

“I have always found power in storytelling as a means to express identity and create an avenue for empathy. When Derek proposed this project to attend the festival, I immediately jumped on board. For me personally, the election was a moment of deep confusion, and writing, directing, and acting in this play was the perfect opportunity to put into action on stage many of the emotions that I was feeling. Much of the story was based on personal experiences for the five members of the team. Scenes were crafted based on our definitions of America, but also through an extensive interview process that we conducted with people from Georgetown and off-campus that considered themselves American in some way,” says Panjwani.

Similarly, Dibba, a Culture and Politics major with a focus on media and cross-cultural communication, had been involved with The Lab since its early days, making I Pledge Allegiance an intuitive next step for her.

“I’ve always been interested in the intersection between international relations and media. Most of my major courses already focused on how different types of media can bridge that gap between cultures, so when Derek approached me saying there was the opportunity to do a piece in that realm, I was super excited. I had already worked with The Lab on other projects like MIGRAR and Generation (Wh)Y, so that when he proposed a project that I’d be able to have a larger creative role in I was super excited,” says Dibba.

Writing an Original Production

The group of five students collaborated on the creation of the piece, which at first was based almost exclusively on the interviews they conducted. Eventually, though, they changed gears, taking Goldman’s advice “to open up about how we personally felt about these issues,” says Dibba. The final product, a synthesis between the stories from the interviews and the students’ own experiences as immigrants and first generation Americans, tackled the question: “What does it mean to be an American?” Ranjan too reflected on her personal creative process for creating the production. “It is a product of our political reality, and it is my activism,” she said in a separate article

“The most difficult part was bringing together our different conceptions and understandings of what America was. Even with similar political opinions, we found differences in our approach and articulation of Americanness. It was almost a metaphor for what America is dealing with right now: trying to figure out from different perspectives and backgrounds what it really means to call this country home,” says Panjwani.

Five student playwrights

Velani Dibba (SFS’17), Devika Ranjan (SFS’17), Aly Panjwani (SFS’19), and Cristina Ibarra (COL’17) and Ben Lillian (COL’18) wrote and performed their original play, I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE, at a festival in Segovia.

The group took an iterative process to writing the piece, using different strategies, from improv to writing scenes line-by-line, to craft a range of vignettes. By the end of the writing process, the group found their groove.

“We split up roles from within the group, so since Devika had a strong playwriting background she would guide that process, and since Cristina and I direct, we would guide a lot of the blocking. By the last month though, we had found a productive enough working dynamic  where all five of us were writing and blocking and giving acting notes to each other equally, so it was a pretty miraculous group project dynamic. That was definitely the most rewarding part. I’ve never seen an ensemble work like that before,” says Dibba.

Even once the production was written and ready to go to Spain, the students faced another obstacle: finding the funding to bring their piece to the Student Festival at the Congress. Panjwani served as the point person for the group’s grant-writing process, calling the experience a “love-hate relationship” in trying to find the financial backing to get the project off the ground.

Eventually, the group was awarded several grants, travelling to Segovia with funding from the SFS Human Conditions Grant, the Georgetown International Relations Association Grant, and a grant from The Corp.

Performing in Segovia, Spain

In Segovia, the Georgetown student group was the only  delegation from North America, as well as the only group not representing a professional theater academy or school. They watched performances from these groups in addition to performing I Pledge Allegiance in front of the international student delegations.

“We were one of the only delegations (if not the only) that wasn’t coming from a theater conservatory, and most of the other pieces were performed by actual actors, so there was a bit of trepidation leading up to it, but they really liked it. We almost had to break for applause at one point in the middle of the play, and at the end had a standing ovation. People afterwards told us they’d cried at some points, and a lot of others approached us wanting to know if we could do a showing at their university. I think the general reaction was ‘I didn’t know there were Americans who felt that way.’ I wouldn’t say we covered all of the perspectives in the United States, but instead showcased a set of American perspectives that I don’t think a lot of people abroad get to see,” says Dibba.

Professor and students in workshop

Professor Derek Goldman, co-Director of The Lab, leads student workshops in Segovia.

In addition to their own performance, the students participated in workshops led by international faculty alongside the rest of the student delegations. These workshops took place in Segovia’s Cultural Center, a former women’s prison, where students created and later performed shorter pieces exploring the theme of home in front of the wider Global Congress audience.

“The experience in Segovia was incredible because we were with such a unique group of people from so many different parts of the world. We were in the presence of rising global artists with a passion for theatre, expression, and social change. Beyond the workshops and the performances that we saw, just spending time with such a diverse group was so rewarding,” says Panjwani.

Goldman, who said the experience “surpassed [his] highest expectations,” led some of the workshops at the Student Festival. Goldman has been involved with ITI for a decade as a practitioner of global theater and cultural exchange, and he was the curator and director of the Student Festival itself.

“To be able to share this experience with students has been the greatest joy, in part because ITI has been starved for the vibrant, young energy that the students and young practitioners bring. I love making theater of course, but I think I am more proud of having helped to facilitate these opportunities for people from around the world than I could be of any single play that I might ever write or direct,” says Goldman.

The Lab and the Future of I Pledge Allegiance 

The Lab was co-founded by Goldman and SFS professor Cynthia Schneider in 2012, and it came under the SFS umbrella in 2016. With the move, SFS students from across majors and class years were given the opportunity to merge their studies of international affairs with a cultural education geared toward humanizing global politics. Schneider elaborated on what that means. “The Lab exposes students and the Georgetown and D.C. communities to game-changing, grassroots, artistic voices from around the globe through productions we host at Georgetown. We invite students from the SFS and the College to break down the false barrier between the left and right sides of the brain and to apply their creative energies to the urgent challenges of today. We live in unusual, even unprecedented times, times that cry out for original, unconventional strategies and approaches; The Lab fosters and welcomes out-of-the-box thinking and creating. In keeping with Georgetown’s core values, The Lab invites students to apply their whole selves — their past, their present, their emotions, their  knowledge, and their analytical capacities — to understanding and tackling the world we live in and their place in it. I Pledge Allegiance is the perfect example of this approach.” 

And students recognize and relish that approach, as it gives them the space and support to fuse their interests and passions across arts and international relations.

“I appreciate how the SFS doesn’t have a limited view of what ‘international relations’ is, so that we as students get to choose between engaging with IR at a cultural level, or at a policy level, or at a business level. When I realized I wanted to do theater, I had all these tools to critically assess my art in an international context. The Lab, as a sort of brainchild between the SFS and the Department of Performing Arts, was then the perfect combination of all the things I liked,” Dibba says.

Going forward, the group hopes to develop I Pledge Allegiance  as an ongoing project, bringing other people on board and collaborating with other groups and initiatives in an effort to bring the piece across the globe. At SFS, The Lab intends to bring more student pieces to future World Congresses, and continue the momentum that I Pledge Allegiance has created.

“The Lab feels like it is firing on all cylinders when this kind of incredible student work and engagement are at the center of it. We absolutely see the success of this event as the seeds of much more work and opportunity ahead both at future World Congresses and many other sites,” says Goldman.