“From the Back of the Bus” explores racial inequalities in America

Central New York’s teen theater troupe The Media Unit presented the question, “How do we start the dialogue on race?” through their presentation of an original production titled “From the Back of the Bus.” The Alliance for Community Enrichment and the Student Association sponsored the show on Saturday April 16, while sociology department senior interns Tilaina Yu, Jonelle Williams and Anna Fong set the event up with associate professor of sociology Elaine Cleeton. Founder and director of The Media Unit Walt Shepperd began the show with some thoughtful words. “It’s time to start talking about race, racism and racial healing,” he said. “Don’t let this stop here. Use this forum to get you thinking.”

“From the Back of the Bus” started in 1996 and it portrays the tension between teens of different races in America. The play focuses on four teens dealing with various experiences of discrimination. Aquila—played by Shannon Williams—is a black girl who explained that, because of her skin color, she was bullied and given unequal opportunities. Zen—played by Rebecca Matos—discussed her feelings on being the only Puerto Rican student in her high school. Holden—played by Elijah Sheridan—is a white male who complained about not getting the same opportunities for college scholarships as minorities. Finally, Deion Patterson played Malik—the bus driver—who contemplated the definition of what it means to be a “real man.”

In the talkback after the show, the actors were asked how they were able to play such raw characters. Coincidentally—as she and Shepperd explained—Matos was able to play her character because, in reality, she was the only Puerto Rican student in her school until last year. Sheridan admitted that he wasn’t very much like his character at all and it was difficult channeling someone like Holden because he was raised to never judge anyone without getting to know them.

On the other hand, Patterson and Williams recognized more similarities to their characters than Sheridan. Patterson confessed that he constantly thinks about what it means to be a “real man,” while Williams explained that she was treated differently because of her lighter skin.

The show also featured a lot of singing and dancing by the students—with some powerful solos by Matos and Williams. The show concluded with the actors dancing to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” and they encouraged the audience to join in with them.

During the discussion after the show, there was talk about people of different races and genders getting their “fair share” in life, as well as what it means to be a “real man” and a male role model. As Shepperd explained, “[The Media Unit’s] job is to create a safe and comfortable space that will enable people to talk, to share, to reflect, take it home.”

The most important part about this show, however, was the effect it left on the audience. The Media Unit encourages students and viewers to “not let [the discussion] end here.” According to Shepperd, “All of the [Media Unit’s] shows are done on topics of teen concern.” Other topics that The Media Unit’s shows have covered include AIDS and LGBTQ+ conversations.

“We have found that humor and satire are the best approaches,” Shepperd said. The audience was receptive to the topic, as they shared personal stories along with their comments on the issues of race and identity that were brought up in the play. With the help of The Media Unit, the conversation hopefully won’t just stop at the Knight Spot. Hopefully, the audience will share these topics and start their own dialogue of race so that others can join in, too.