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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Purple Players explore intersection of labor and expressive arts

College project gives voice to SU service employees

Feb. 24, 2010, by Rob Enslin

Like most service employees at Syracuse University, Gertrude Danzy (left) comes to work each day and diligently goes about her business. Danzy, a custodian on campus for some 15 years, is one of many unsung heroes whose contributions to the University are substantial, although rarely recognized. “For most of us, 90 percent of our lives are spent working,” she said during a recent phone conversation. “People need to realize that those of us who clean the toilets, handle the fix-it problems, and prepare the food are just as much a part of the SU community as the faculty and students.”

Steve Parks and John Burdick, professors in The College of Arts and Sciences, agree. Last spring, they partnered with members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to form the Purple Players, a small community arts performance group composed of SU workers. The group’s purpose, says Parks, is to create a civic dialogue on campus about the importance of SU service employees. “We hope the Purple Players will help everyone understand how important these people are to the SU community,” says Parks, associate professor of writing and rhetoric and executive director of New City Community Press. “As part of the creative process, we ask the employees to share their experiences, on- and off-campus, about working in their communities and with SU students. Based on the dialogue, we work with them to create a script that is mounted as a small play.”

The Purple Players are designed to give voice to people who, like Danzy, might not otherwise be heard. “It’s like lightning in a bottle,” observes John Burdick, professor of anthropology and director of the Advocacy and Activism Project of the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration. “There’s movement and energy in the group that is exciting to watch.” Burdick hopes the players will eventually combine live performance with other visual and literary arts.

The idea for the Purple Players originated in 2008, when Parks and Burdick co-organized the Ray Smith Symposium, whose theme that year was “Art Works: The Role of Arts in U.S. Workers’ Struggles.” Danzy was one of eight SU service employees who performed in a reader’s theater event on the symposium’s opening night. “I’m a huge activist in issues concerning senior citizens, children, and labor unions, so I needed that symposium in more ways than you can imagine,” admits Danzy, who was presented the Unsung Hero Award earlier that year at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Dinner at the Carrier Dome. After the symposium, Danzy and four co-workers decided they wanted to continue telling their stories, but felt they needed help in creating a process or platform. The rights to the original script for the symposium were tied to writer-director Marty Pottenger, who had participated in the opening night of the event, and the group decided they wanted greater autonomy. “It occurred to us that we should put together our own script,” recalls Danzy. “I’m glad we did.”

Since then, the Purple Players have teamed up with writing and rhetoric majors from Parks’ working-class writing course and with Leslie Noble, an adjunct faculty member and administrator in the SU drama department, and are looking forward to making their spring 2010 debut. “Everyone has a story to tell,” affirms Parks, adding that the group’s name refers to the official color of SEIU, to which Danzy and her fellow performers belong. “By sharing our personal and collective experiences, we can ultimately shape the choices we make as a society.”

The Purple Players’ premiere will fall nearly a century after the famous “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where dozens of female textile workers rallied for better wages and conditions under the slogan, “We want bread, but we want roses, too.” The strike and the “bread and roses” theme (taken from a line in a 1911 poem by James Oppenheim) have since inspired many socially conscious organizations and publications. “I took photographs of my mother dying from cancer in the hospital and submitted them with a poem to Bread and Roses Cultural Project,” remembers Danzy, alluding to the SEIU program benefitting Latina and African American women. “They not only were put on display at the New York State Fair, but also were published with Steve’s help. That experience reminded me I am a strong leader and an activist, but that I also need to keep listening and to keep an open mind. The Purple Players help me do this.”