According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word flourish means “to grow luxuriantly” or “to reach a height of development or influence;” that sentiment remains true for The University of Alabama (UA) theater-based club of the same name.
The Flourish is a student organization working within UA’s Rowand-Johnson Hall as a safe space for both Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and the LGBTQ+ community. The goal of the club is to create room for those voices in all forms of artistic expression.
Christian Hatcher, the founder and president of the Flourish and a senior double majoring in criminal justice and acting, said these are the voices that are lacking accurate representation in modern-day media.
“I think most people in this country are ignorant about the Black experience, and the only way they can see black people is through all the different [kinds of] media,” Hatcher said.
The group accomplishes this by producing either entirely new content or putting a spin on pre-existing content with an intentional flourish of diversity. This content can range from short films to art pieces to one-act plays.
Raven Jeannette Cotton, a senior acting major and Flourish member, said it is especially important for stories with diversity at its core to be told at The University of Alabama, considering Tuscaloosa’s history.
“We not only want to raise awareness for people of color, but we want to raise awareness for [the] LGBTQ+ [community] as well because Tuscaloosa [doesn’t] really accept the ‘love is love’ scenario,” Cotton said. “We need to care for all people, instead of just one race, one kind.”
The Flourish’s board is composed of several different artistic advisors, including theatre, choir, dance and technical directing. Prior to COVID-19, the Flourish’s members would pitch artistic ideas to a board member, and the council would decide if they could produce it. After the show is pitched and approved by the board, open auditions for Flourish members are held for the piece and then rehearsals begin.
Luvada Harrison, an assistant professor of musical theatre and the Flourish’s faculty advisor, noted that The Flourish is an excellent opportunity for students to premiere all kinds of original work and get involved in ways they may not have been able to before.
“[The Flourish] is there to provide an opportunity to students across disciplines to work together [and] each bring their own talents to the group,” Harrison said. “It’s provided an outlet for young playwrights to see or hear their works read and possibly performed, which then gives opportunities to acting students who may not be cast in a show. This is to put a positive light on the black experience, and through these different projects bring about some understanding.”
After each show, Hatcher conducts an open-ended forum with the cast and crew called a “talkback,” to discuss the themes and inspirations for the piece.
“The project for us wasn’t so much about the feedback we were gonna get, but the conversations it would start,” Hatcher said. “That’s why I wanted to base the organization around the idea of ‘changing the narrative’ and starting those conversations with the different produced shows that we’ve done.”
Cotton recalled past experiences with theatre companies in the area and their reliance on tokenism, “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate).”
“Having one Black person in a musical or a play [was considered] diversity,” Cotton said. “Just [having] enough to show that, hey, we can showcase other people of color as well.”
Cotton also noted that her leading role of Mrs. Dickson in The University of Alabama’s Theatre and Dance department’s production of “Intimate Apparel” in Fall 2019 was a landmark moment for diversity.
“We ended up being the first Black play with a female lead to ever be produced onstage at UA,” Cotton said. “We need to strive to make more historical moments like this here at UA. Whether it’s a play or musical they need to strive to [make] history and make people want to come see theatre, no matter what race, religion or ethnicity you are.”
Harrison said she is very proud of the work The Flourish has done and hopes for the club’s prosperous future.
“They work hard and they are giving back to the university as a whole, not just the theatre department,” she said.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic, The Flourish is looking for ways to produce art in a creative but socially distant and safe fashion.
Over the 2020 winter break, the club recorded two original stories, “Return to Sender” and “You Are Not the Father,” written by Hatcher and Christian Tripp, the organization’s head of theatre, to be released as radio shows. They are still looking for a place to broadcast them.
“Changing the narrative can be anything [from] casting [POC] in places of importance or talking specific subject matter,” Hatcher said. “There are lots of different ways to change the narrative, as long as it promotes the idea that stereotypes are not a full person.”