Heard on campus: New audio drama details the lives of black professors

“Grounds…A Blackcast” is a 10-episode audio show centered around five black professors teaching at a small, private, predominantly white institution in the South. Charlottesville-based actor Will Jones (shown) lends his voice to Ivan Wilson, a scholar of Russian poetry.  Photo by Eze Amos “Grounds…A Blackcast” is a 10-episode audio show centered around five black professors teaching at a small, private, predominantly white institution in the South. Charlottesville-based actor Will Jones (shown) lends his voice to Ivan Wilson, a scholar of Russian poetry.  Photo by Eze Amos

Acting looks a bit different for Will Jones this summer. Instead of being onstage with the Charlottesville Players Guild, he’s sitting at home, in front of a microphone, wearing headphones so he can hear himself and his castmates as they read from their scripts for “Grounds…A Blackcast,” an original 10-episode audio drama.

Some aspects of the craft haven’t changed for Jones. He still gets into character by laughing, sighing, furrowing his brow, smiling broadly, gesticulating wildly, and using his body to affect the emotion in his voice.

And, perhaps most importantly, by voicing one of the five main characters in the podcast created by Leslie Scott-Jones, the Charlottesville-based actor is still making black theater.

Scott-Jones created “Grounds” after considering the history of black life in mainstream entertainment, starting with the controversial “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio-turned- television program and continuing with sitcoms like “Martin” and others.

These shows tend to “follow the same formula,” says Scott-Jones: the hijinks of the common man and his wife/girlfriend and best friend. Some have broken that mold and center on black women (“Living Single,” “Insecure”), or black college students (“A Different World,” “Dear White People”), but there’s room for more representations of black life.

“Grounds” is about five black professors at a small, private PWI (predominantly white institution) in the South, and the first episode premieres Thursday, June 11, on the Eugene Martin LLC SoundCloud page. Scott-Jones called upon some of her black Ph.D.-holding friends (including locals A.D. Carson and Munier Nazeer) to advise on the scripts. They shared their passion for educating their students and for research, as well as the unique challenges they face in academia, and how that affects their places in black communities. Black academics are often made to feel shut out of both worlds.

“It was the opportunity to write some really wonderful characters,” says Scott-Jones.

There’s Elijah Augustus Wright (played by Doug Spearman), a professor of civil engineering who is up for tenure. A gay man raised in a preacher’s home, he never mentions his family and hasn’t introduced his boyfriend of 10 years to his friends. Early on in the series, he’s accused of trading sexual favors for grades.

Ivan Wilson (voiced by Jones) is a professor of 17th-century Russian literature who met and married his wife while studying in Russia. He reads his own poetry at a local open mic night, and fears the U.S. government is watching him because of his ties to Russia.

Like Ivan, drug design and development professor Khai Muhammed Ali (James J. Johnson) thinks the government’s keeping an eye on him, but for different reasons: He’s a devout Muslim raised by a Black Panther father, and his research focuses on growing and testing cannabis for use in treating various health issues facing black communities.

Ethnomusicologist Kwasi Adofo Sika (Kevin Troy) is an expert on African influences within hip-hop, but he prefers to listen to English punk and The Beatles. Born in Ghana and raised in the U.K., he’s the only professor in this cohort who did not attend an HBCU for any of his degrees.

Parthenia Jacqueline “P.J.” Wiley-Reid (voiced by Scott-Jones), is a tenured professor and chair of the African and African American studies department. She and her husband have two children, and her signature color is red.

This variety is what made Spearman, whose acting credits include roles on “Girlfriends,” “The Hughleys,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” and “Noah’s Arc,” agree to lend his voice. Too often, black male roles are “either some kind of supervillain or superhero,” he says. “We’re very rarely the kind of guys that we are.” Even on shows heralded for their portrayals of black life, “the men are usually there as problems to be overcome, or fixed, or dealt with,” says Spearman, who adds that he struggles to think of any series where “a black guy is the lead and he’s not some kind of extreme” or stereotype. “This is a lot more middle ground,” he says, “a lot more relatable.”

Spearman says that Scott-Jones welcomes collaboration from the actors in order to achieve that relatability. He contributed some dialogue to what he says is “the best scene I’ve had in a long time,” in episode two, a conversation between Elijah and the university’s white president. “It’s full of righteous indignation and truth,” says Spearman. Elijah “[stands] up for himself in a way that I have not had a chance to play before…it’s a guy going up against the homophobic, color-phobic policies of the university.”

Jones valued the chance to make his audience laugh instead of cry for once. His favorite scene is one in which his character, Ivan, meets up with ethnomusicologist Kwasi before a Kendrick Lamar concert. Ivan cracks up and lovingly teases his friend, who is dressed in a white T-shirt and black-and-red plaid pants, saying he looks prepped to pogo at a punk show rather than a rap concert.

“Grounds,” says Spearman, gives black men a voice “in the myriad spectrum that being a black man comes in. We’re not monolithic.”

The show comments on black female experience, too: The inclusion of P.J. as the only female character magnifies “the trap that most black women find themselves in, of having to be mama to everybody, and forgetting they have to mama themselves, too,” says Scott-Jones. But that’s not to say P.J. gets no support from the men. This is “a community of black people that really do honor each other, care for each other.”

And in this moment, as the country continues to protest ongoing police killings of black people, these are necessary things not just to convey, but to uplift, says Scott-Jones.

“Representation matters,” she says. “And the more of the spectrum of blackness that can be shown, the better.”

Listen to or download episodes of Grounds here.

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