During her time in the theater, Associate Professor Kathryn Bentley, Department of Theater and Dance, has helped tell the stories of others. Her many projects include her groundbreaking work in North American theater, where she introduced the traditions of descendants of slaves to English and Dutch colonists in Suriname, and her current project addressing the impossible body image standards held in contemporary culture. In her pieces, she intends to create spaces for sharing and healing.
In the summer of 2010, Professor Bentley traveled to Suriname, a small South American nation near the Caribbean Sea, where she explored the traditional Afro-Surinamese Du Theatre. There, Bentley met with theater experts who would become valuable to her research. She said, “I was awed by the richness of tradition and the ties to history that the people of Suriname have maintained.”
At that time, nothing had yet been written of the Du Theatre in English. This alone was a cause of immediate interest for Bentley: “The excitement with the research was centered upon the fact that this was something I knew absolutely nothing about!” she said. Not only has Du Theatre been largely unexplored in English, little of Suriname or its art have been revealed in the U.S., according to Bentley. She adds that studying the Du, a tradition created by the Afro-Surinamese slaves of Dutch colonists, “can contribute significantly to the scholarship about slavery theatre. Similar to its American counterpart, for instance, Surinamese slavery theatre provided an artistic means of social commentary.”
The following year, Bentley received a seed grant from SIUE to continue her studies of the Du, and she traveled again to Suriname. After conducting extensive interviews and archival research, Bentley created and produced an original Du piece, “Forbidden Love: Na Mini Du,” co-written and directed with Surinamese writer/director Tolin Alexander. The short piece featured a cast of Afro-Surinamese actors,
Surinamese drummers, and SIUE students. It was performed in both English and the Surinamese language, Sranan Tongo, to an audience of more than 300 at Suriname’s CCS Theatre in the capital of Paramaribo. The cast later reunited to perform at SIUE and at a University of Maryland conference.
Of the piece, Bentley said, “This was an absolutely invigorating experience for me. Working on this project refocused who I am as an artist. It reminded me of the vastness our capabilities as artists. It reminded me that I have the skills and the responsibility to help others tell their stories.”
Yet, the Du Theatre project is just one means by which Bentley conveys stories of the African-American diaspora. In 2014, she presented before the Performing the World conference in New York, for the Black Theatre Workshop production of “And the Verdict Is ... A Campus Response to the Trayvon Martin Case.” She further discussed the role of women in the Du Theatre at the Association for Theater in Higher Education. Even more productions focusing on social issues have emerged from SIUE's Black Theatre Workshop, where Bentley has served as artistic director since 2006.