I walked into the Wien Blackbox Theatre in The Quick Center for the Arts to see Theatre Fairfield’s performance of “Project X” by Judy Tate, with very limited knowledge about what I was about to experience. However, I left with the urgent need to encourage every member of the Fairfield community to see it. It told stories of the Fairfield community that we don’t typically hear, including stories of microaggressions, racism, classicism and simply what it means to be a student here.
It also unearthed much of which the University seems to repeatedly sweep under the rug. The team that had created and brought “Project X” to life, sought to overturn that rug completely and tackle the problem with shovels in hand.
Before attending, all I had heard about it was that it was a play written for Fairfield, and that was about it. So, when I walked in and saw two colored cards on my seat, a pen and a message projected on a screen behind the stage with the instructions to write, “What do you expect from this performance?”
I didn’t know what to write.
Then, all of a sudden, the lights cut.
“Breathe,” an unknown voice said over the audience, “The cast of ‘Project X’ is inviting you to breathe.”
The voice continued to instruct the audience to breathe in and out. And then, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday then started to play.
The audience was silent as one by one the actors stepped out from behind the stage and looked out to the audience, just staring at us, as the music continued to play.
The music ended and the actors started speaking over each other, their lines overlapping and blurring into one congealed mess of confusion. I could only make out one man’s voice dressed as a Jesuit (Rob Esposito ‘94) repeating over and over again that the Jesuits participated in the ownership of enslaved people. But, the other voices of the other actors, Jill Bodach, lecturer in the Fairfield University English Department, Krystal Flores ‘25, Kai Halm ‘25, Lissbeth Larrea Ortiz ‘24, Alyssa Suarez ‘25 and Amal White ‘11, were lost in the fray before it all stopped at once.
Pure silence echoed across the room before the actors began to explain the show. “Project X” was a show written for Fairfield, by Fairfield. It was created by hundreds of hours of interviews with members of the Fairfield community. The actors would be reading the lines of what actual students, faculty and staff had said in interviews during and after the summer of 2020–particularly, after President Mark Nemec Ph.D, released a statement following the murder of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out across the nation.
They stated that Fairfield University ran away from the problem, as many members of the Fairfield Community voiced frustrations with the President’s statement and his refusal to say “Black Lives Matter.”
They continued with the letter later on, but now looked to the audience, asking us what we were expecting from them. They asked, and then walked around to collect our little pieces of paper, reading some of the words or phrases written on the papers.
“Inspiration” one said, “I want to learn,” said another, with the last stating, “To support my fellow people of color.”
The lights cut again and each actor went back and forth to introduce themselves and the roles they’d be reading.
Without picking any specific story out, what stood out most was the overlapping identities. One line stated they were a Christian “first and foremost,” while another stated they identified with both the LGBT+ and Black communities. Another said they identified with the theatre community most of all.
But, what resonated the most, was finally hearing all of my feelings on stage in front of me. “Fairfield is its own little bubble” one student stated, with another adding, “It was hard to find my community at Fairfield.”
These are all feelings that I’ve felt; feelings that I know my friends and roommates and classmates have felt. But, for once, I didn’t have to try and find the words to say what I was feeling, here they were being spoken aloud in front of me.
The lack of anonymity in this aspect made the influence of these stories more impactful. The unnamed comment could be from a classmate, a professor of yours or even someone you pass by every day.
The stories continued on until the Jesuit spoke up and told his story. What stood out to me was his statement that there is no service of faith that doesn’t require the promotion of justice. I wrote it down quickly, circling it and circling it.
The lights cut again and the actors jumped into a fake admissions tour, with the same script the tour guides repeat again to hundreds of tours each year. The “Modern Jesuit Catholic University” with these amenities, ranked here on nine different lists and with these sorts of students.
The tour stopped, the actors returned to their places and lines were read about what students felt about campus and the campus community.
Students stated that Fairfield is like “90210,” where students just pretend to be wealthy or express entitlement in other ways. Students have expensive cars, expensive bags and mention their boats offhandedly in class-reflections.
The stories halted and all the actors began to walk around the stage repeating, “All white and wealth, all white and wealth” over and over again.
Then the letter from the president mentioned earlier in the show was broadcasted on the screen in total and read to the audience.
While the letter was being read, the actors would jump in and disagree with what the president was saying.
After the line, “I write today to share some personal thoughts regarding the tragic deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, other instances of violence and discrimination in our society” one actor shouted in, “Just say murders.”
Or after the line, “What is of great dismay to me is the persistence of racial inequities and injustice in our society” an actor would say, “Great dismay… okay?”
They cut the letter reading off before it finished and added some of the Fairfield community’s sentiments to the letter.
“I think Fairfield missed an opportunity” one actor read, adding that despite the letter being nine paragraphs long, they believed President Nemec’s letter was written in such a way as to not offend certain members who might be reading it.
The show moves on through more student statements until it all stops to flash headlines surrounding the “Ghetto Party” thrown on campus in Feb. of 2016, and the students’ frustration that none of the students involved were punished for their actions.
One actor jumped to state that she didn’t believe the “Ghetto Party” mattered, because it happened so long ago.
Other actors jump in to highlight the fact this one instance is just the tip of the iceberg to the stories of racism students have experienced on campus.
One student tells a story about how on their first day of school, a student asked them if they’ve seen someone get shot because they’re from Brooklyn. A Black student stated they were called the N-word and had public safety called on them on Halloween while another Black student stated they were stopped on their bike at 2:00 a.m. and asked, “Do you belong here?” by a Public Safety officer.
The play then shifts to a section discussing the hidden history of slavery in Fairfield. They flash a slideshow of all of the buildings and street names with the old families of Fairfield: Barlow, Jennings, Ludlowe and others that we’ve seen all around town.
They then began to list all of the names of the slaves owned by members of these families and how much they cost; how much the human life costs. They don’t have the time to read them all, the actors’ voices overlapping once more as names are passed out to each of us with one of the names written on it.
“Let their names live in our hearts,” they say, after the listing of names has finished, pausing for a moment of silent prayer as the lights dim.
The play wraps up with dialogue surrounding what can be done next. One student states that training should be given to wealthy students on how to gain empathy and awareness.
Another student adds that, “Fairfield has to put their foot to the pedal” and make the effort. Those actions speak louder than words.
The lights cut out, the audience is yet again asked to breathe in deeply and the play ends with a standing ovation.
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