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Peggy Jones, artist, playwright

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Peggy Jones’ play, “The Journey,” premiers Feb. 16 & 17 at Rose Theatre in Omaha (details below). She shares with LFF about getting into women’s studies via a feminist writing group, her inspirations , being the first woman to earn tenure in the UNO Department of Black Studies, writing this play and more…

Background/from NE?

I was born at the Norfolk Naval Station hospital in Virginia. My father was in the Navy and all of my siblings (but the last two who are Nebraskans) were born in different states. We moved to Spain when I was a toddler, so I spoke more Spanish than English when we returned to the United States. My parents were asked if they’d adopted me from overseas. They’d reply that I was theirs, I just wasn’t speaking English yet! We moved to Omaha when I was five years old and I’ve lived here ever since.

Did you have art in your grade schools?

Yes, I remember having art activities. I was also in the gifted program at my elementary school, so we did art as a part of that as well.

How did you get into women’s studies?

I was invited to join a feminist writing group in 2005 by my very good friend and mentor, Dr. Karen Falconer Al-Hindi, who is the director of Women’s and Gender Studies (WGST) at UNO. As a way to introduce myself, I wrote a piece that was the genesis of what would be my first solo publication in a book on African American Women’s Language. I wrote a chapter in the book titled: My Mother Tongue: A Linguistic Autoethnography, where I wrote about the power of language and intersections of race, gender, and class. I was also teaching in the spring semester Black Women in America, which is cross-listed in both my home department of Black Studies (BLST) and the WGST program. To be cross-listed, the faculty member teaching the course had to apply and be granted faculty status in WGST, which I did. Since 2010, I have been a member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Committee Member. We review applications and accept new faculty to program, new course approvals, assist with development of online offerings, and when it is held at UNO, help plan the No Limits! WGST annual student research conference session on gender exploration.

Playwriting?

I wrote the play to have a piece to share with an after school arts program at Skinner Magnet Center, led then by the incomparable teaching/artist Ms. Pat Miltner. The principal at the time, Mr. Elmer Crumbley, was incredibly supportive when I told him I wished to write the play about Aaron Douglas, the first Black graduate of the UNL Art Department in 1922. Considering that up until then, I’d only written academically and not creatively, made his support that much more special to me. I was also inspired after being privileged to get to lead a pre-show discussion of and then see Savion Glover perform his “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” at the Lied Center in Lincoln. The show was amazing with its blending of art forms.

Tell me about your work, what inspires you.

I think I’m most inspired by the world around me and sharing, in an affirmative manner, those parts which can often be stereotyped in ugly ways, such as race and gender identities.

Does feminism play a role in your work?

As the first woman to earn tenure in my department (Black Studies) last academic year and a passionate courtesy faculty member of the UNO WGST program, I’d have to say yes, absolutely. In all of my work, academic, creative, personal, I strive to help create environments when all humanity is equally valued.

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by Aaron Douglas, “Negro in an African Setting,” Aspects of Negro Life Series, 1934, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 199.4 cm. “The Journey” is about how Douglas decided to become an artist, along with exploring some of his personal relationships and American history after the Civil War.

Tell me about this upcoming show and why it’s important to you.

In addition to what I stated above, this play has given me another avenue to be a teacher of Black Studies in an entertaining way. I tried to emulate the Glover piece mentioned above. Since I’d never written a play, I sought out help. A good friend, Metro Community College English instructor Steve Lovett, gave me the best advice, which was to put two characters on the stage in my mind, and let them talk to each other. He also helped me decide how to develop the characters. I made the lead character an African griot, or storyteller/oral historian, who was also a shape-shifting trickster and a woman! Traditionally, griots are males. Making her female enabled me to play with gender relationships between the characters and show the audience a strong, creative, passionate woman, like I aspire to be!

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The Rose Theater and Performing Arts Center will be premiering “The Journey,” a play about Aaron Douglas, the first black graduate from the art department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1922. It will be performed by Young, Gifted, and Black, an ensemble of African-American youth that explores issues by performing the works of great African-American playwrights. “The Journey” was written by Peggy Jones, M.F.A., Associate Professor of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Prof. Jones received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council for this play. Performances will be on Saturday, Feb. 16 (4:30pm) and Sunday, Feb. 17 (4:30pm & 7:00pm). Rosetheatre.org.