CARBONDALE — Standing in the lower level of Grinnell Hall on Thursday night, Southern Illinois University student Alyssa Copeland laid out a defiant challenge for an imaginary audience.
“You think you know what a dysfunctional family is, but you don’t know the half,” Copeland said.
Copeland was rehearsing for her role in the Tunnel of Oppression, an interactive project that aims to give visitors deeper insight into forms of oppression and discrimination that some people face every day.
In the project, sponsored by the Black Togetherness Organization and University Housing, participants are led through a series of connected rooms, each showcasing a different scene depicting a form of oppression.
Tours will be held from 5 to 8:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday on the lower level of Grinnell Hall, located at 275 E. Park Street.
Copeland serves as narrator in a skit about a dysfunctional African-American family put on by the SIUC Branch NAACP. The skit includes depictions of abuse and mental illness, and one of the characters is transgender.
Vyctoria Brooks, a senior studying psychology and president of the Black Togetherness Organization, said this year’s event is themed around intersectionality.
“In the African-American community, sometimes they shy away from heavier topics, like homosexuality maybe, and mental illnesses. It has just been a thing as a culture, because we are taught that the world is against us and you don’t want to give them any more ammunition because of it. But those characteristics make you who you are,” Brooks said.
Maiya Patrick, a junior and an NAACP member, plays the mother who is physically abused by her husband, and doesn’t want to confront what’s going on with her children.
“But the mother is also verbally abusive to her children, because she doesn’t know how to deal with the societal standards that are going on with them. She wants them to be quote-unquote normal, but she’s having a hard time accepting that everything can’t be perfect,” Patrick said.
Unique Warfield, a senior and president of the SIUC Chapter NAACP, said the group worked to develop the skit to shine a light on that dynamic in African-American families.
“We just want people to really open their eyes and see that this is something that goes on day in, day out. Whether it’s in the household or outside, we see it, it’s on television, we ignore it. Especially speaking from my own family point of view, we ignore it, we downplay it. So this whole scene is very, very sensitive for me,” Warfield said.
Most of the students participating have never acted before, with the exception of members of the African Theater Lab organization, who are performing two skits in the project. Those students have helped the other groups with their acting chops — and Brooks said acting from experience makes a big difference, too.
“Because we talk it out, and because I ask them what they’re passionate about (while developing the skits), it’s more relatable to them. It’s way easier to act out something that’s already happened to you, or you know a lot about it,” Brooks said.
The rooms are ordered from least extreme to most extreme, Brooks said.
“I think it’s very effective and impactful because a lot of students grew up in small towns who come to SIUC, and even if they grew up in a big city, they might have had one perspective of how life is, but Tunnel of Oppression shows all different types of perspectives. So when they go through it, they realize — wow, this is something that can happen to somebody, and I never knew,” Brooks said.
It can be an emotional experience, she said.
“I have definitely seen students cry, adults cry. I’ve cried myself, just because sometimes you go through a room and it’s something you even identify with, and you’re like, wow, this did happen to me. That’s why I cried, and I was like, ‘I’m so glad they’re finally telling people this story,’” Brooks said.
Organizers suggest that those attending be at least 17 years old, and those under 18 will need a waiver signed by a guardian. Each tour ends with a debriefing by staff members from the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
“(The actors) do curse, they do yell. They never touch, but it can be scary for at least younger people,” Brooks said.
Taje Buckingham, treasurer of the Black Togetherness Organization, said there’s a reason the actors are so provocative and intense.
“When we interact with the audience, we really want them to feel what the room is. We don’t want it to be just like, ‘Oh, we’re just watching a few actors,’ you know, how when you watch on TV you might think, ‘That’s happening over there’ or ‘It doesn’t really concern me’ … we want to interact with the audience so they can feel exactly what’s going on,” Buckingham said.
The project offers a more immediate demonstration of oppression than talking about it theoretically in a classroom, Buckingham said.
“Here, you have people who are showing it to you at face value. They are showing you the raw emotion, the raw feelings, with no sugarcoating,” Buckingham said.
Travis Hardwick, assistant director of education and outreach for residence life, serves as an advisor to student groups within University Housing.
“We hear about (oppression) in the news, we see about it on TV, but for most of us it’s not our lived experiences, and to see about it and think about it in a face-to-face experience then gives you that chance to go back and think, ‘OK, this is what people around me do face. How can I help make a difference in that?’” Hardwick said.
As rehearsal of the “dysfunctional family” skit wrapped up Thursday night, Copeland and other actors again confronted their imaginary audience, this time yelling: “If you’re not going to help, then get out!”
Buckingham said he hopes that line sticks with people.
“That is them trying to say, ‘You guys should start helping now,’ and the audience is going to feel that,” Buckingham said.