Good guides make all the difference for difficult journeys. With the UW Odyssey Project, a program dedicated to helping low-income adults begin their higher education journeys and break generational poverty, Baron Kelly PhD’03 uses the humanities to help students strengthen their skills and find their voices.
Kelly, a four-time Fulbright Scholar and inductee of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, began teaching drama for Odyssey students when he finished his UW doctorate in theater research in 2003. Between acting all over the country, serving as a cultural specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, and lecturing internationally, Kelly periodically returned to campus to teach Odyssey workshops until 2020, when he became a full-time faculty member at the UW. Now a professor in the Department of Theatre and Drama and for the Odyssey Project, Kelly uses drama to build confidence, promote understanding, and inspire change.
Empathy is a major focus of Kelly’s drama exercises. “We need more empathy in the world today,” he says. “People aren’t listening and really listening. I call it radical empathy.”
One of Kelly’s practices requires participants to partner up: one person communicates verbally, and the other communicates through body language only. “All of a sudden, a story begins to well up inside of the person,” Kelly says. “It starts to create a dialogue where people go under the social mask and start to relate to each other and just be.”
Understanding and empathy are natural outputs for an actor taking on a role, whether a scene is based on a real story or is pure fiction. Just as you might figuratively walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to better understand what another person faces each day, an actor takes on the words, feelings, actions, and obstacles of a character in a play.
For many Odyssey students, it’s not a stretch to imagine the hardship or barriers felt by characters in plays like A Raisin in the Sun. Written by Lorraine Hansberry x’52 and initially staged in 1959, Raisin was the first play written by an African American woman to open on Broadway. The plot reflects Hansberry’s own life story — it centers on a Black family trying to decide how to spend their father’s life insurance money. Each character has his or her own idea for the best way to achieve, or dismiss, the American dream in the face of 1950s racism.
“That was the first time in a Broadway theater when a curtain had gone up with a white audience viewing how a Black family on the South Side of Chicago was dealing with things,” Kelly explains. “Even though it’s dated, it’s a classic. This play is one way to get people to understand the challenges that people have had and are still facing today.”
“Discrimination, issues of housing, parents and children, just dealing with surviving: these scenes will resonate with the lives of the folks in the class,” he says.
Odyssey students also explore works from Maya Angelou, plays like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and scenes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Kelly explains that, from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr., “the core of where the words are coming from is the same across the ages.”
See pictures of Kelly working with Odyssey students below.