Breaking the Fourth Wall

a group of students on the stage wearing all black, all with serious facial expressions
The cast of "We Wear the Masks"
Student Production Addresses Racism, Privilege, and Agency

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, . . .

These opening lines from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” came to life in September on the Rhodes campus as a group of students performed a theatrical piece influenced by that name in McCoy Theatre. Written by English and theater major Brittney Threatt ’17, the production, We Wear the Masks, was an intense examination of the racial strife at the forefront of today’s national conversation, performed for a full house. Fittingly, Dunbar was one of the nation’s first widely recognized African American poets.

“It is as much a poetic piece as it is a piece of dramatic work,” Threatt says of her play. “The point was for everyone in the room to confront race, lines of privilege, silence, voice, agency, responsibility, and apathy.”

Combining a variety of dramatic forms, including dialogue, soliloquies, and poems, the performance served to do what Threatt describes as “breaking the fourth wall.” 

“Talking directly to the audience is called breaking the fourth wall. As the play went on, we moved the stage further and further into the audience area so that the audience and the actors were in the same space. There was no way not to be a part of it,” she says. “We all have walls. We all have our own privileges. I had to tear down my own walls. It’s great to have conversations about race, but who is responsible for speaking? And who has the privilege not to speak? These are the issues the play addresses.”

The first play Threatt wrote is slated for performance in January at Hattiloo Theatre’s new Development Center. Titled Memphis Clean, the play looks at the civil rights movement in the city prior to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.