9th Annual Racial Justice Conference Showcases Film by Applied Theatre Alum

\CUNY SPS MAAT 9th Annual Racial Justice Conference with Dr. Williams MAAT alum Ariyan Johnson

The MA in Applied Theatre (MAAT) program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) hosted its 9th annual Racial Justice Conference in Spring 2024. Each year since its inception, this conference has explored a distinctive topic aimed at building and cultivating racial equality within theatre and beyond.

This year’s Racial Justice Conference, held April 15, featured an on-campus screening of Spiritual Cyphers: Hip Hop + The Church, a documentary film directed by MAAT alum Ariyan Johnson (Class of ’14).

Hip Hop + The Church poster, documentary directed by CUNY SPS alum Ariyan JohnsonSpiritual Cyphers: Hip Hop + The Church presents an autobiographical story about Johnson's experiences with hip-hop and the Church. The 2023 documentary, released last year as hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary, is a coming-of-age journey that discusses the turbulent times of the late 1980s-90s through interviews from pastors, historians, artists, and pioneer women dance artists who fought against gender biases. The film also focuses on women’s acceptance within the Church and hip-hop. Until this documentary, the role of African American women dancers in hip-hop’s history or how hip-hop culture intersects with spirituality was not discussed much.

Directly after the in-person screening, the event shifted to a hybrid discussion, allowing a virtual live-streaming audience to join. MAAT faculty member Dr. H. "Herukhuti" Sharif Williams (pictured above left) moderated the ensuing roundtable format.

CUNY SPS MA in Applied Theatre alum Ariyan JohnsonDuring the post-screening conversation, Johnson explained how ceremonies in Black churches have evolved to include more expansive forms of worship, including hip-hop. “The Black church was always very instrumental for survival for Black people.” Johnson said, “But the place of worship was often under threat. And so, there are some restrictions that were embedded [in the church] for survival. But then as time went on, and when you when you start to live, you want to shift from survival to thrive.”

Dr. Williams and Johnson also discussed the intersectionality of Black spirituality, dance scholarship, and applied theatre, offering frank explorations of Black struggles as well as the Black church’s role in providing sanctuary.

Chris Vine, the academic director for the MAAT program, shared his enthusiasm about the Annual Racial Justice Conference and his gratitude for those involved with its production.

“Each year, we offer the CUNY SPS community a probing and in-depth look at how the performing arts can foster racial equity. I was so proud to welcome home our esteemed alum-filmmaker, Ariyan Johnson,” Vine said. “This year, we faced some new and daunting challenges with budgetary constraints. I am especially grateful to Dr. Williams, the conference’s organizer and moderator, who circumnavigated those restrictions and still delivered an exciting and thought-provoking program.”

To read a fascinating in-depth interview with the multi-talented Ariyan Johnson, please visit our award-winning blog.

About the Master of Arts in Applied Theatre

The MA in Applied Theatre degree program, the first program of its kind in the United States, uses theatre as a medium for education, community development, and the pursuit of social justice. The goal of the program is to educate scholar-practitioners to become future leaders in the field of applied theatre. Applied Theatre involves the use of theatre and drama in a wide variety of nontraditional contexts and venues, such as in teaching, the justice system, health care, the political arena, community development, museums, and social service agencies.

About the CUNY School of Professional Studies

As New York's leading online school since 2006, the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) offers the most online bachelor's and master's degree options at the City University of New York, and serves as the University's first undergraduate all-transfer college. With 26 degrees and numerous other non-degree and grant-funded workplace learning programs, CUNY SPS meets the needs of adults who wish to finish a bachelor's degree, progress from an associate's degree, earn a master's degree or certificate in a specialized field, and advance in the workplace or change careers. Consistently ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report for its online offerings, CUNY SPS has emerged as a nationwide leader in online education. The School's renowned and affordable online programs ensure that busy working adults may fulfill their educational goals on their own time and schedule.

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