Each Person Seen, Every Voice Heard

Independent Scholars

SUMMARY: Sierra Orr (’20) teaches that, through theatre and history, we have the power to build a better world

Sierra Orr on stage 

Sierra Orr has long known that she wanted to follow her path into theatre, to learn the languages and acquire the skills and historical depth to create a personal vision through the arts. More than that, Sierra wants to mentor and teach and empathize with others. She wants people to know they are needed and deserve to be understood.

Sierra feels a deep connection to Latin American cultures and Spanish language, Christianity, and what it means to be a minority and a global citizen. “In my own analysis,” she recalls, “I felt connected to Latin America because I only ever had teachers and professors of color in my Spanish classes.” Sierra became enamored of different communities, cultures, and norms in her studies abroad in Nicaragua. “That was the first time I had been out of the country,” she says. “I didn’t realize that things could be so different.” She did not really have a concept of those things growing up in NOVA, and the variety she encountered left her with a thirst for knowledge and an explorer-like attitude.

Sierra found herself drawn to people who were different from her, and learned empathy and compassion from them. She began drawing comparisons between their culture and history and her own. Sierra became deeply interested in Black history, particularly performative happiness and humor. At the 2018 Southern Regional Honors Council-Virginias Collegiate Honors Council joint annual conference in Arlington, Virginia, Sierra gave a talk on learning compassion through the performing arts. She shared her interests in African American and Latin American identities, and how these identities are shaped by multiple and competing influences of such things as religion, race and ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic factors, or intersectionality.

Sierra proposed using her growing understanding of African American and Latin American identities to design music and theater education programs to address the concerns and needs of not only people claiming these identities, but the whole community. Her hope was to learn how to create an inclusive classroom in which everyone feels known and represented on the stage. She also related how she hoped to study compassion and how one can learn and use it through theater education.

“Presenting my ideas meant more to me than to just study,” she remembers. “It helped me want to be seen and heard. The conference gave me an opportunity to present on something that I was incredibly invested in. I was inexperienced, but got to connect with people who had achieved doctoral degrees on the subject of my presentation. People wanted to hear it!”

Sierra also shared a poster on race as performance through the examples of Sarah Baartman (also known as Saartjie or the ‘Hottentot Venus’), minstrel shows, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Learning these important historical facts was heartbreaking,” she notes. “The brutal reality of history and how I am a product of that brutality. People came up to my board with tears in their eyes.” Since 2018, Sierra has done much more research into these topics. “Knowledge is empowering; it’s important to know where institutionalized racism came from. I recognize how miraculous it is that I am even here today, existing and thriving and finding humor and joy.”

Sierra performed in a number of James Madison University theatrical productions as an undergraduate, including the play Intimate Apparel, about a young African-American woman who travels to early twentieth-century New York City to become an independent woman; Green Day’s American Idiot, a musical based on the punk rock concept album of the same name; Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is enuf; the Madison New Works’ premiere production of Black Sky, written by Amanda L. Andrei; and Walls: An American Story, written and directed by JMU’s award-winning playwright Ingrid DeSanctis.

“Until my junior year I had a lot of difficulty finding my voice. I am Black, and it’s not a secret. If everybody sees it, then I might as well live in that truth.”

Sierra describes For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, as the first time she really took ownership of her art and craft. “If I want a space for Black people like me,” she recalls thinking, “I might have to make a space myself.” Independent Scholars and Theatre “carved out room to facilitate that process for sure, but I had to do the actual work. I got students to audition. It was something that I’d set my heart on. Many theater students recall it as their favorite moment at JMU, a chance to celebrate the beauty of Black women.”

Sierra’s final production was Walls: An American Story, a new work about an interracial couple that premiered at JMU. “Part of the process involved sitting in a room and working through things with a White advisor and a White production team.” The play is about relationships, politics, and social relations. “It was a really beautiful production,” says Sierra. “It was an opportunity for JMU to support and facilitate an environment that lifted up Black voices.” She remembers the process of talking to White peers about the reality behind their characters as really hard and awkward, but one that allowed space for many great conversations.

“I knew I wanted to be someplace that matched my energy. I wanted community, and I wanted to be in a theatre program. I wasn’t interested in being surrounded by sameness. I wanted to have empathy for people who looked different from me. This is a predominantly White institution, but it’s not all White. Don’t forget that there are Black people at JMU.”

Sierra’s advisor, JMU associate professor Ingrid DeSanctis, taught her that even when you are talented and great at what you do, you still need to find yourself and pave your own way. “I grew up with a very strong family unit, and a large extended family. It was new for me to be at JMU without them, and I had to form my own opinions about myself.” Ingrid DeSanctis believed in the Sierra’s capacity to do well and succeed. Sierra first worked with Professor DeSanctis in an intermediate acting class, which she found challenging but also rewarding. “She is so dedicated to empowering her Black students. She works hard to include them and empathize with them. Both of the productions I was in that she directed and/or wrote were about lifting up and celebrating Black voices. Without her I might never have performed on the Main Stage. She is a big part of the confidence that I have now.”

Dr. DeSanctis says that Sierra has a deep passion for life and a clear sense of herself and her place in the world. “Working with her as a director on Intimate Apparel and Walls was a joy. She enters the rehearsal space with curiosity, humor and passion. Walls was a new play I was writing and Sierra, and the entire cast, were instrumental in assisting me as a playwright. Sierra breathed life into the character of Abigail in Walls, who was a Black woman engaged to a White man, Carter. The character of Abigail is forever shaped by her performance, her insight and her humor. Sierra is luminous. When Sierra is around there is a lot of laughter and a lot of truth.”

“I appreciate how she invites others into honest conversation and creates space for those conversations to happen, as she did in her capstone project, with so much grace, empathy and fearlessness. She is a natural leader and I so appreciate her wisdom and self-awareness,” notes DeSanctis. Over the years, Sierra visited DeSanctis’ office many times to discuss important issues of the world. “I am so grateful for what I learned from her in those conversations. Sierra has spoken openly and honestly with me about being a Black woman at JMU and as her professor, her stories deeply impacted and changed me. She is strong young woman who moves from a place of confidence and grace and the kind of person you want to work with again and again. I hope our friendship will be for a lifetime. I cannot wait to see what she does in our world.”

Sierra explains that in theatre you can go to places you cannot visit in normal life. Theater has a deep connection to the past, present, and future and seeks to comment on those things. She found it especially rewarding to learn things in history classes and then use them in productions. “There’s a very didactic way in which information is shared in history. I find that I need to have facts linked to emotions, passions, or sensations. Everything is interdisciplinary; everything is connected. I’ve learned to pick things from different disciplines and put them together, find different ways of expressing myself, create opportunities and spaces for reflection.”

“Independent Scholars can be very broadening. It can open you up to a vast array of disciplines. I didn’t have a single niche, but it ultimately led me to much greater understanding. While other theater artists might have been thinking about how to embody the text of a particular production, I was growing in my understanding of a particular period of African American history, and also preparing for the real world, and being an empathetic teacher of others.”

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Published: Monday, March 1, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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