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Remembering diversity: The ‘Magic’ of beauty, strength in Muhlenberg College festival

There’s a little magic in all of us.

That’s the theme of “Magic,” being presented in the Mnemonic Theatre Festival at Muhlenberg College.

“Magic,” written and directed by Kiyaana Cox Jones, is intended to encourage women of color to acknowledge their strength and beauty. The play is presented free online, March 18-21.

“Magic” is the first of seven productions through May in the theater festival.

The name of the festival, mnemonic, refers to a pattern of letters, ideas or associations that assists in remembering something.

Cox Jones, a 2008 Howard University graduate, was born and raised in Newark, N.J., and was Assistant Director of Multicultural Life for three years at Muhlenberg, teaching courses in diversity and equitable learning.

In February, Cox Jones moved to Carrollton, Va., to fill an inaugural position similar to that at Muhlenberg in the Isle of Wight School District. She recently premiered the district’s first Black History Program.

“I decided to teach grades K-12 because I realized that I wanted to catch [students] when they were younger to start having the conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Cox Jones in a phone interview.

In “Magic,” the main character, whose name is Magic, is a young female on a journey to find her “it.”

“It’s a production that empowers women. Their ‘it’ is simply their magic,” says Cox Jones. “It reminds little girls that look like me to embrace their magic.”

Cox Jones believes that society tells women of color they aren’t beautiful enough, or are too dark or too light, or that their hair is wrong. Or they’re accused of being angry black women.

“But in reality, they are so extraordinary,” Cox Jones says.

In the play, the main character has a traumatic experience which causes her magic to go dormant. Her ancestors come to life to help Magic reclaim it. The memories of the ancestors celebrate black female storytellers, artists and performers.

There’s one character, Doctor Enchantment, a therapist, who’s not a person of color. “She is white. I was intentional in doing that because I wanted a role of an ally,” says Cox Jones.

Instead of pointing out what is wrong with Magic, the therapist talks about her qualities. She uplifts and supports Magic, thus encouraging her on her journey. “There is no diagnosis, only promotion and motivation,” Cox Jones says.

Cox Jones is a student at Bethlehem’s International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School. Restorative Practices is an emerging social science about how to strengthen relationships between individuals. The method serves as reconciliation between victims and offenders, with the goal to improve human behavior, reduce violence and strengthen civil society.

“I decided to take what I was learning there and implement it into my theater project,” says Cox Jones. “Theater becomes a conduit of healing. Through the process, the actors go on a healing journey to think of places where they have not been restored. And this topic is being a black woman and what does that mean and what kind of harm have you experienced?

“How can you use this process to address the harm? [The actors] use the script and the performance as a healing conduit for someone else watching it.”

The play, though written recently, was formulated by Cox Jones years ago. She jotted the idea on a sticky note and affixed it to a wall, intending to write about it one day.

“I was inspired by the Black Girl Magic movement [popularized by CaShawn Thompson in 2013] because I’m a dark-skinned girl who didn’t always think I was pretty. I had to find my beauty. My mother was very influential in that.”

Cox Jones says “Magic” is in memory of her mother, JeNette Harris, and serves as a declaration of love for her daughter, Savannah-Grace, and her sister, Amiracle Harris.

Her family has inspired her in many ways. “I have four sons, and two years ago, had my first daughter.”

She has two siblings, one of whom she and her husband have custody, Amiracle Harris.

Last year, Cox Jones’ mother died. “My heart was broken. I didn’t have a desire to write or do anything. Then someone said to me, ‘I think your mother spent the last two years with your daughter, preparing her to comfort you while you mourn.’

“I realized writing was another form of my healing. So I used this to create what would be a love letter from my mother to me, my daughter, and my sister.”

It evolved into “Magic,” an inspirational love letter to every little girl of color.

The 90-minute performance has a cast of 14. Krystal Hall, a senior theater major at Muhlenberg College, is playing the title character of Magic.

Two performers are high school students: Imani Smith, a senior at Phillipsburg High School, and Victoria Gardner, sophomore at Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts.

“I wanted to bridge the gap between our high school students and our college students so that they would be able to inspire each other,” says Cox Jones.

Some cast members live off-campus or in different states. Zoom was used for recording, sound cues, spotlights and other production details. Each actor had green screens and lighting delivered to their homes. There were virtual costume fittings and virtual costume parades to ensure wardrobe accuracy.

The costume designer is Muhlenberg resident designer Alexis Gurst. “She has done an amazing job,” says Cox Jones.

“Magic” includes two dance numbers. One is a blend of hip-hop, African dance, jazz and modern, in a montage of female empowerment songs spanning from the 1990s to today.

The second dance includes neo-soul songs centered around Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” and Nina Simone’s song, “Four Women.” The choreographer is Randall Anthony Smith, Professor of Dance at Muhlenberg College.

The piece utilizes multi-media elements, including clips from news stories and the actors’ own videos reflecting on the process.

Cox Jones credits Muhlenberg theater department production manager, Jessica Bien.

“Jess would be considered an ally,” says Cox Jones. “Outside of school, we’re really great friends. We’ve had very courageous discussions about race.”

When asked what audiences can expect after viewing “Magic,” Cox Jones says, “They would walk away with an awareness about how important it is to uplift and celebrate women of color.”

“Magic,” 7 p.m. March 19; 3 p.m. March 20 and 21. Free. Register 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday - Friday: www.muhlenberg.edu/seeashow; 484-664-3333. Information on the seven productions in the festival: www.muhlenberg.edu/seeashow

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO “Magic” playwright-director Kiyaana Cox Jones utilized Zoom to rehearse her play for Muhlenberg College. The play is available online March 19, 20 and 21.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Playwright-director Kiyaana Cox Jones