Willa J. Taylor

Willa J. Taylor: Youth Advocacy and Social Justice Through Theatre

by Khalid Y. Long

Willa J. Taylor, the Walter Director of Education and Community Engagement at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, collaborates with educators and community partners across the Chicagoland area to cultivate transformational learning experiences through arts-based programming. In addition to her role at the Goodman Theatre, Taylor is an adjunct professor at DePaul University where she teaches dramaturgy, and theatre for young audiences. A writer and a per-former with an emphasis on storytelling, she also believes deeply in the power of the theatre as a tool for social change. At the core of her work is the confluence of social justice and youth advocacy through the arts. Asked about the power of theatre arts and its role in society, she responds with a question she's asked herself countless times: "How do I make a space using all of what I've learned over the years to help people just have conversation around some of these difficult issues?"

Taylor's upbringing played a vital role in her work that sits at the intersection of theatre, youth advo-cacy, and social justice. Born and raised in segre-gated Dallas, Texas, she attended Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School and later James Madison High School until her senior year when schools were integrated. At that time, she was transferred to Skyline High School, a brand-new school located in an all-White neighborhood, built for the purpose of integration, where she would be a member of the inaugural senior class. She states, "For me it was bittersweet. I had sat-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter with my nana and had walked the picket lines with my dad. I knew what this victory meant--not just for me but for the city: no more second-class citizenship and more, and better opportunities. Students from all over the city were bussed to Sky-line and the 1,200 students in my class were as diverse as the United Nations. It opened a new world to me and introduced me to customs and foods and music I had only read about. Now I had friends who were Black, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Puerto Rican, and White."

Although segregation was limiting for Black com-munities and thus the goal of integration was to increase opportunities for Black and Latino students in Texas, Taylor did take notice of the high-quality education she had received already because of having what she calls "fierce, fierce, Black teachers" during her time at the all-Black schools. Also, be-cause of segregation, Taylor's entire family lived in the same community in South Dallas. "My dentist lived a block over. My pediatrician lived two blocks over. Everybody, including all my cousins, lived in a six-block radius of where I lived." Taylor's mother was a public-school librarian, and her father was a Pullman porter-turned-cook on the railroad. Her maternal grandparents, who also lived in the same neighborhood, were pillars of the community. "My papa was an AME preacher, and my nana was the preacher's wife and headed a missionary board"....(continued)

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Khalid Y. Long, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of theatre and coordinator of theatre studies at Columbia College Chicago. A freelance dramaturg, his recent credits include the world premiere of Tyla Abercrumbie's Relentless (TimeLine Theatre, Chicago, IL), Lynn Nottage's Sweat (Paramount Theatre, Aurora, IL), Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie (RepStage, Columbia, MD), and August Wilson's Two Trains Running (Court The-atre, Chicago). He is currently working on his book: An Architect of Contemporary Black Femin-ist Theatre: Glenda Dickerson, Transnational Feminism, and the Kitchen Prayer Series (under contract with University of Iowa Press)


Spring 2022

This article is featured in
Vol. 27, No. 3

Also in this issue:

  • Broadway's Banner Season for Black Playwrights

  • Planting New Seeds in August Wilson's Ground

  • Editor's Notes: The Seismic Shift

  • In Memoriam: Sidney Poitier, Paul Carter Harrison, Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, Cliff Frazier and Eddy Morisseau

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    Willa J. Taylor in action as the Walter Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Goodman Theatre.

    Willa Taylor with her wife Mary Morten, president of the Morten Group.