June 28, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Abby Koning and Professor Stephanie Sandberg create a play about race in Grand Rapids.

Nia, a young African-American pharmacy technician worked in a pharmacy in Grand Rapids. One day, a Caucasian woman came to get her prescriptions filled, and Nia offered to wait on her. "I’ll wait," the woman said. After the woman had idled for a while in the store, Nia offered her services again, and this time the woman reluctantly accepted. But she wouldn’t allow Nia to put her prescriptions in a brown bag, insisting on a white one. And she wouldn’t accept her change from Nia’s hand.

The story is not memorable because it was unique, said Calvin junior Abby Koning, but because it is representative. "This is a very common story of people in the checkout line not getting their change back in their hand," she said.

Many stories

Nia’s story was one of the many Koning heard through her work over the past two summers as a fellow of the McGregor Undergraduate Research Program for the Humanities and Social Sciences. A large part of Koning's work was transcribing the 150 interviews communication arts and sciences professor Stephanie Sandberg recorded over a one-year period with Grand Rapids residents on the subject of race.

Koning, an English major and international development studies minor, has also heard from people who make arrangements by phone to see an apartment—only to find that it has been rented when they appear in person. She's heard about why Division Ave. also bears the name "Martin Luther King Boulevard." She’s heard about the African-American college professor who noticed that a police cruiser was shadowing him the entire time he was jogging.

From these stories, or ethnographic research, the professor and student and a team of professional actors are creating a play, which already has a title: Lines: the Lived Experience of Race.

"You pull the material for the script right out of the interviews," Koning described the process of making an ethnographic play. "You don’t change anybody’s words. You use the actual words."

Lines is "a kind of collage play that depicts the real lives and real issues and real experience of living in this city and dealing with one of our most pervasive problems: racism," Sandberg said. "It is not a play about racism," Koning clarified. "It is a play about the experience of 'race,' not the experience of 'racism.'"

Kinds of lines

The play’s title refers to the geographic, economic and other lines that separate people of different races in Grand Rapids. Then there are the lines of perception, said Koning, adding, "That’s the most slippery one." The people interviewed for the project often said that racism isn’t expressed overtly in Grand Rapids, she said: "Whenever somebody behaves toward you in a way that’s negative, you never know if it’s racially related, so that creates an enormous amount of stress."

In addition to all the transcribing, Koning (who is earning a McGregor stipend throughout the project) also conducted some of the interviews. She’s enjoyed that process: "Some people are more willing to talk than others, and, if you’re not careful, people will tend to go into the abstract and not tell their story as much—which makes sense because I’m a stranger," she said. "You have to be able to read people, is the thing."

She also enjoys her other duties on the project, which include researching historical imagery at the Grand Rapids Public Library historical collection and working with the project’s devising team to produce the script for the production. The devising team is composed of local actors from diverse racial backgrounds. "We want to model the community that we promote in our team," Koning said. The experiences of the actors will probably also be included in the play, and the team is attending anti-racism training through the Institutes for Healing Racism. "We are getting all of our stuff out on the table and talking about it," Koning said.

The skills for justice

A student learns a whole array of skills through a project like Lines, said Sandberg: "It's vital to teach students about this kind of qualitative interpretive research and to teach them how they might use scholarship to promote social justice. I want to teach this kind of research methodology to the next generation of artists so that they can carry on with the work," she said. "Also, I think that it's just great to work in tandem with someone who is eager to learn and has tons of youthful energy to bring to the project. It's fun to bounce ideas off of her and to see her grow as a person through the process."

For Koning, who grew up in Jenison, Mich., the Lines project has been a revelation: "I’ve seen some of the city, but I’ve never realized how strange Grand Rapids was in terms of race relations," she said. Unfortunately, when the completed version of Lines will be performed in late September, she will be studying on Calvin’s semester program in Hungary

In the meantime, she’s loving the process: "This is great. This is, like, what I want to do with my life … It is a lot of typing," she said.

Junior English major Abby Koning

Professor Stephanie Sandberg

Recent stories