Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast

Theater, Social Justice, and the Power of Storytelling with Abigail Ramsay

April 26, 2021 FulbrightD&I Season 1 Episode 12
Theater, Social Justice, and the Power of Storytelling with Abigail Ramsay
Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
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Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
Theater, Social Justice, and the Power of Storytelling with Abigail Ramsay
Apr 26, 2021 Season 1 Episode 12

In this episode of Fulbright Forward, Fulbright alumna of the U.S. Student Program to Jamaica, Abigail Ramsay, helps us explore the power of theater and storytelling in ways that go beyond entertainment. Through a rich sharing of her experiences in Jamaica and beyond, Abigail shares how theater and storytelling can be and perhaps should be seen more as mediums for critical community building that help individuals, especially those damaged by structural marginalization and oppression, heal their trauma, realize their power, and more readily reimagine a more just future. We also learn more about Abigail, and how her experience as a Black Jamaican American woman first born in London and raised in New York City, with original expectations to go into the sciences, found herself in Jamaica and all the things she learned from that time abroad. Check out links below to Abigail's project, Downtown Girls Theatre Collective!



Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Fulbright Forward, Fulbright alumna of the U.S. Student Program to Jamaica, Abigail Ramsay, helps us explore the power of theater and storytelling in ways that go beyond entertainment. Through a rich sharing of her experiences in Jamaica and beyond, Abigail shares how theater and storytelling can be and perhaps should be seen more as mediums for critical community building that help individuals, especially those damaged by structural marginalization and oppression, heal their trauma, realize their power, and more readily reimagine a more just future. We also learn more about Abigail, and how her experience as a Black Jamaican American woman first born in London and raised in New York City, with original expectations to go into the sciences, found herself in Jamaica and all the things she learned from that time abroad. Check out links below to Abigail's project, Downtown Girls Theatre Collective!



Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  0:07  
You have the power to decide what it is. You have the brains to decide what it is, and you have the voice to decide what it is. You shouldn't let anyone tell you what story needs to be told or how it needs to be told. When you get to that space where you actually know who you are, then it's just like you're unstoppable. And that's what you can do with theater by opening up people's understanding of the power of their story and the power of their voice. Welcome to another episode of Fulbright Forward a diversity podcast. I'm Jeremy Gombin-Sperling, the Fulbright diversity and inclusion liaison for Western Hemisphere programs. The quote I just read comes from today's Fulbright forward guest Abigail Ramsay, an actor, arts educator, manager, writer, and facilitator, who integrate social justice thinking and praxis into all that she does. Abigail also earned a grant as a US Fulbrighter to Jamaica from 2018 to 2019. During her grant year, followed by a second year living in Jamaica, she started and continues to support a variety of community-based theatre projects such as the Downtown Girls Theatre Collective, a theatre initiative that brings together girls from three different neighborhoods in downtown Kingston to empower, educate, and transform the lives of teenage girls who participate.

On today's episode, Abigail helps us explore the power of theater and storytelling in ways that go beyond entertainment. Through her rich stories and experiences. Abigail shares how theater and storytelling can be and perhaps should be seen more as mediums for critical community building to help individuals, especially those damaged by structural marginalization and oppression, heal their trauma, realize their power, and more readily reimagine a more just future. We also learn more about Abigail, and how her experiences as a black Jamaican American woman first born in London and raised in New York City, with original expectations to go into the sciences, found herself in Jamaica and all the things she learned from that experience. I hope y'all enjoy this episode as much as I did recording it with Abigail. Abigail, thank you so much for being part of this episode of Fulbright forward.

Abigail Ramsay  1:57  
Thank you for inviting me, this is such a pleasure.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  2:00  
As I mentioned in the intro, we really are focusing this episode on your work regarding theatre and performance and just the main dimensions that you've taken to it throughout your career. So I just would like to know, and I'm sure our audience would too. Can you just tell us more about your background and who you are?

Abigail Ramsay  2:17  
Sure. All right. Thank you. Well, my name is Abigail Ramsey. I'm from New York City. And I think it's important to note especially the direction our conversation is going. I was born in England. I was born in London to Jamaican parents who left Jamaica, my dad in 1954, my mother in 1965, for opportunities to study in London. I was born in London, but I did grow up and spent most of my life in New York City. I was a baby when they decided to take up probably a State Department residency opportunity that just came up and my mother had six months to make a decision. And she's like, Okay, let's do it, like, after many, many years of London and moved to a bankrupt New York City, and I always like, you know, imagine what that was like for my parents see, though, just you know, this is their third country. And this is the situation that they're landing in. So that does shape a lot of my existence. And it shapes a lot of who I am. But I'm very much a New Yorker. I've just come back from Jamaica after two incredible years. And I am now in Georgia, where my parents retired because they were looking for more warmth, but they didn't want it to be Florida. They did the state of Bob. And it's what an incredible time to be in Georgia. It's all I have to say. Mostly I'm here because I'm just being of service to my parents and their caretaker, who's my sister. So I'm living my best life. And I guess a little bit about me. So you know, the funny thing is, I had spent my entire life thinking I was going to be a doctor. I was a very sciency kid. My mother is a very science woman, very, very logical, very scientific. She's a nurse, she, when she went to England, she, she trained at some of the highest kind of like secondary institutions, you know, the Great Ormond Street for Sick Children, Queen Charlotte hospital to really get technical training. So like we grew up with a mother who was very, very technical, and very, very good at the work that she did. So it was always expected that I was going to be a doctor. But I also loved dance. And I always figured that if there was a way to mix dance and you know, medicine, this would be like, perfect. My mother always used to love telling the story that I was three years old when I demanded ballet classes, like so. And I remember specifically I had gone to a recital. And I was like, That's it. That's it, you know? That's, you know, and also like she always tell stories, like I taught myself to play the violin, well we had to teach ourselves to play the violin long story. It was a part of the school system, we had to have an instrument. But at this point, like I grew up playing the piano, I taught myself how to play the guitar when I was a kid. So like, I always had this musical side, and

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  5:11  
Yeah, t's in your blood.

Abigail Ramsay  5:12  
Yeah, it's in the bud. And my aunt who had died, my dad always said she was a prodigy. She was a, particularly the organs. So it might be also something that's in the family. But and also the Africanness of, you know, kind of like ritual and of communion is through music and through dance. So there is something even larger than my family that is probably expressing itself through my body. So these are things that were like, not that I wanted to do is like I was compelled to do it. And then I got to university. And I don't know what happened. And here I am. And I always say it's because there wasn't any ballet classes at Brown University. You know, I did all the other classes, but there was no ballet classes. So I wanted to do something I wanted to kind of scratch that itch. itch or, fill that need. So I started doing theater and, and I also was writing poetry in high school, I think like reciting the poetry kind of also blended into theater. And when I left, I told my parents that I would not be pursuing medical school, I would be going to, like, you would have to understand, like how Jamaican immigrant parents when you tell them that they have gotten their child to an Ivy League school. And they're not, she's not continuing the next four years looking at medicine, she is doing theater, something she has never done before. And she's always been very quiet that everyone's like, what? But I had gotten to the final round of NYU, their theater program. All all of a sudden, people are like, Oh, wait, what, and then I got this Phila-, this, I got this fellowship in Philadelphia. And while I was there, I got accepted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I had wanted to actually go to Jamaica, right after college, I had wanted to like learn Jamaican folk dances and learn folk songs, I wanted to see how it was how it manifested itself on the island, and not just as immigrants, you know, seeing the songs as a part of their memory, and you're seeing people having an experience, but I don't know what that experience is. I wanted to have that firsthand experience. And my parents were like, no. Like, you were born in England! Why don't you just go to London? And I think for them, you know, they, they went to they, they went to school in England, so something that they knew. And so they wrote to all the drama schools, this is pre-internet. So you had to write them and save, they sent their perspectives back and I read all of them. And the Royal Academy was the one that sounded most like the program that was at NYU. And I'm like, it has royal in the name. So I'm sure it's not bad. Let's, let's do this. So when I got in, it was super proud. So they they've been very, very supportive. And yeah, so I moved to England, three years to study. And then two years, I stayed on two years, because I was eligible to live and work there. And I wanted to kind of, you know, see what it was like, as a young-- starting out my career there. And I had a great agent. So it just made sense. You know, when you leave drama school, you have a very clear idea. I had an agent who was very generous with information, she really was pushing me she was an ambitious woman, she recognized that I also was ambitious, and I had high hopes. She was very realistic in terms of she's like, never shoot to be the A-list actor always see the B-list actor, the people who don't know their name, but they're constantly working. And they have a very interesting, long career. You know, she gave, and one of the actually most important pieces of advice. She's like, yes, it's fun to hang out with other actors. And of course, you know, you know, a lot of actors, but it's more important to hang out with the playwrights, you know, it really has, that was transformational information that she gave me. She got me to some great auditions. And, you know, people would call her and tell me what an amazing actor I was, and just kind of like a phenomenal actress. But they couldn't tire me. They didn't know what to do with me. They didn't know how to use me. I thought it was very sweet of her to tell me that. But it was also super frustrating. Because I had just spent three years living in England and not seeing black people on TV, which I thought was insane. Like, I know that there are black people in England because my parents lived there in the, in the 50s. You know, it was just and also like I had uncles who were in the Royal Air Force or the army for Britain, you know, who were in England in the 40s. And you know, there has been a long history of diversity that was just completely washed out, denied.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  9:57  
Yeah, I mean, especially considering the policies of the time which were like, if my understandingis correct of that time period of of the ways in which Britain opened up their borders to many of the former colonized places that they were once at to allow folks to be there. And so these communities came and really built up so much of postwar Britain in that way to like very much responsible for the revitalization in many ways.

Abigail Ramsay  10:18  
And that's it, they were brought there to build, they were bought there to serve. So that's always like, that's, as you say, that's like the most important part, there are people who gave up so much and gained a lot. I mean, there's obviously there's, you know, you hear stories of my parents, friends and family, you know, who were able to send so much money home, because we're making a lot more money, then, you know, just the economic situation as it wasn't Jamaica. So but yes, but they were there to serve to build that nation. But the representation wasn't there necessarily. Or it was divided, I would go to, you know, areas that were kind of like the the African, the West Indian community, and then you would seek theater that was vastly different than what you would see like in the West End, or at the National Theatre, or the RSC. It was it was, it changed a lot. Now, you know, the beauty is like, you know, I watched my classmates as they get more and more work. But when I was there, it was difficult. I wrote somebody recently, and I said that I've been fortunate enough to work in the arts for 20 years. And I have worked as an educator, as an arts manager and a performer in seven countries outside of Jamaica, the United Kingdom and the United States. And I was just like, I took that moment. Like that, that's actually incredible. But like, I'm so busily, so busy hustling the half the time, don't spend enough time to really stop and say, my God, that's really quite amazing. Like, how lucky have I been to have met so many different people, and have so many different experiences? I mean granted I still would love the money. Like, don't get me wrong. But you know, I, I have to, you know, step back and just kind of appreciate all that I've seen. And I do want to actually get to a question that you had said, 

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  12:09  
Which one?

Abigail Ramsay  12:10  
This is about theater, like how you would describe theater I. think I'm thinking from the idea of the concept of being in so many places, and interacting with so many people. And having such varied experiences, you never know what the next experience is going to be like. When I thought a theater, what I described it was as a shared and holy experience of witnessing another person or group of people's story. Like we are witnesses, as the audience as a spectator, we are witnesses, we, It is our responsibility to be a very dedicated witness, if that's an expression, when you go into a space, you become a willing participant in, it's pretty much the oldest ritual that human beings have, like across cultures, that ritual of storytelling, of sharing, and you have to be present, because we are, we are our bodies are there in the space, we're breathing the same air, we're experiencing the same physical conditions, we're staring into the eyes. And sometimes those eyes are staring back at us, depending on the type of show. We are in communion with one another. And we've made an agreement to be bonded together in that experience for the remainder of the piece. So it is, it is a holy experience, to step into a theater and witness what people are trying to communicate. I have to say my family was like, pick up like craziest person, I'm like, I'm not here to be entertained. Like, don't entertain me, you know, like, it's like, it's like I, I don't want that kind of superficial experience. Like I want that connection with another human being, I want a connection with an idea or a story. And even if the person I'm connecting with is a horrible person, like at least to have the perspective to like, examine what I've seen and what it is about that human.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  14:13  
If I'm hearing this, it's also the way that theatre and performance can actually create a space for us to have critical dialogue. 

Abigail Ramsay  14:21  

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  14:22  
You know, not necessarily perhaps it may not be this way of how you and I are communicating in this moment, but the idea that dialogue can happen in different ways and forms. And that it can create moments of challenge, it can create moments of rethinking, you know, so I like when you were sharing that idea of theater as connection, that was something that was resonating with me.

Abigail Ramsay  14:42  
That's right. That's right.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  14:44  
Do you feel that there any misconceptions or things that you just like want folks to know even from you know, from your own experience about like, what theatre and education, the performing arts, you know, its potential what it can do. And I guess from the stories like things that you have learned that you would like to share with others for their just sort of understanding or edification?

Abigail Ramsay  15:04  
Oh, wow.

Um, emmm.

Gosh, it's such a great question. Um, I mean, I think it all comes down to I always say, as I said, I don't like to be entertained, you know, I like to share something. And in that sharing, you have a, you, you get an opportunity to kind of choose how you are taking that in and how, you know, the information. I suppose, when you're entertained, is lovely. But, you know, it's you forget it after a while, you know, I like something to resonate with me. And I think, I think it's, let me just talk about, like, some things I've seen that, you know, have been so powerful. And hopefully that like, answers your question. I worked for a Girl Empowerment Theatre Company, which a lot of that, that experience then lended and moved, how I ended up applying for the Fulbright. And this is where I took the girls to Bosnia. So like, I came into a small theatre company where girls were telling their story. And it was, it was quite incredible. And I remember I walked in, you know, I came in as an intern here, it was like a 40 year old intern, it was ridiculous. But it sounded like something, you know, these jobs don't come along that often. So it was just kind of like, let's, let's do this. This seems like a way that I could get into like this space. And one of the first things the executive director is like, do you want to go with us to the UN as we do this? And I was like, Oh, yeah, like, that sounds amazing. We went to the performance, and I saw these girls, and it was a mix of girls. Some girls were, you know, from very affluent backgrounds, some girls were from middle class backgrounds, some girls were from very, very economically disadvantaged backgrounds. And they were all telling their stories. The amazing thing about it, you hear it's and you're seeing girls who you would never expect to be getting up and talking about their stories at the UN. No one's gonna listen to so and so from the South Bronx, you know, who grew up not having enough food to eat. No one wants to know that that exists in New York City, you know? So the fact that there were people brave enough to actually put that on, and girls were brave enough to talk about their experiences, it was so powerful. And then to see the reaction of people hearing those stories for the first time. It was always, it was that moment where people were like, I cannot believe I just witnessed this. And the girls, very, there was just ultra talented human beings. And they wrote pieces about what it looks like firsthand to deal with gun violence, and like, kind of like the social and economic implications of gangs and gun violence. So that kind of thing that they talked about. I mean, this is really difficult. They talked about sexual exploitation. And some of the stories are, oh, my God, there were a number of like human rights issues, these girls researched, wrote about wrote, from their experience wrote from an experience that they might not have known about, it was very powerful. So I was there for three and a half years. And like the the first few years, we were traveling, we got State Department grants, and I was their Director of Global Partnership. So that was, that was my job to kind of like, and I'm learning on the job. So like everybody on the job. So one of the first things we did, we went to England, we did the summit, against sexual violence in conflict zones. they were really trying to make sure that that's no longer a thing. And we got to meet Angelina Jolie, she was there. So that was really cool. That's really cool.

Some celebrity sightings, of course.

Exactly! So that that was beautiful. And the girls, you know, did their pieces. And, again, the audience were just moved, you know, and not only just the traveling, that we took these girls from New York City to talk about specific issues that were global issues. And I'll talk about that in a second. We also did that for like, apparently, for gun violence laws that were trying to be passed on the local government level. Like sometimes we were asked to bring these pieces to really kind of show how important, what the human impact is of gun violence. You know what I mean? So these girls stories, what they wrote, talking about it, sharing as, they were hugely impactful for lawmakers to kind of use to, to show people the human face behind. You know, the issues that they were fighting for.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  19:08  
I guess, like one thing that's even fitting with me too, is how we share our stories. And that balance between, if this makes sense between like, our own kind of catharsis and healing, and the tension of possibly reliving our trauma. And I don't have an answer. But it's something I guess it's it's something I'm thinking about as you're sharing as well, too, you know, where it's like it's undoubted the impact this is having, and it's just some it's just something I guess, attention is on my mind, even. I bring it up only because I I'm so curious to hear your thoughts and also recognizing, you know, the limits of conversation. But yeah,

Abigail Ramsay  19:45  
Yeah, I mean we had real experiences around that we had a number of real experiences around that. And you know, you know, and I think this is something that's very importan with social justice, you know, like you go in with ideas, this is going to be fantastic. We're going to change the world and then you look at kind of like, what are the potential ways that you're actually causing damage? You know, and a lot of times, unless you're experiencing it firsthand, there's no way that you could know unless you're like smart like yourself that this is going to, this is going to like come up and it and it did. And it did. And that was something that I was very mindful of, with the two programs I was trying to do in Jamaica, that I really wanted to connect with therapists, because I'm not a therapist. Like, it's just like, I'll tell you, like, I cannot help you. You know, it's just like, I could be compassionate and empathetic, but I mean, that's the end of what I would be able to help for-- do for somebody in a situation. So that was like one of the most important things for me that I, we had emergency kind of people who are able to kind of step in and step up in case something like that happened, where if someone was triggered by their story. We went to a number of places in Trinidad, was the pilot program that the organization had developed. And one of the girls, young women who went, she made a very, very brave choice to talk about her personal experience. Until this day, I'm like, I know how difficult it was. But I think it was something that when other girls heard her story, they started texting our girls, like saying, I haven't told anyone this, but you know, and the girls would get like, like almost 100 texts, just about girls like confessing about something they haven't spoken about. But she had to really, we had to really make sure that she was like, in a cocoon of love and positivity, because it was, it was such a brave act that she did, knowing that it might be something that, you know, brought her, you know, into a place that she didn't want to be especially being so far from home.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  21:48  
Yeah, I mean, it just makes me think about like, like you're saying, it's like, you know, if we are going to as educators, and especially like, you know, thinking about, if we may not share the experience with someone who's sharing something so deep, like being prepared to offer the support, and the community needed, because like that sharing is going to have impact that could be could be healing, but also damaging, right? It's not either, or it can be all it's all of it sometimes all at once. 

Abigail Ramsay  22:14  
Mmm hmmm. Wish I had the answers. You know, hopefully, you know, this is something that you know, I can because it's it's you can't do the work without like a real solution to that.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  22:26  
I would just love to ask about about your Fulbright experience, you know, kind of what brought you to pursue the project that you did, what was the project and just sort of, umm, and I know we'll get into as well to, what were the original goals and intentions of the work?

Abigail Ramsay  22:43  
Okay. Yes, I went back to read I hope I still have it open, because I went back to read, but like, that sounded amazing. What a great project that was

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  22:54  
You mean, you mean, your original application?

Abigail Ramsay  22:56  
Yes, yeah, I was just like, this is wonderful. I have to like, try that. But now it's not like I actually, you know, and I guess I'm going to start by saying that sometimes you learn the lessons you're supposed to learn, not the ones that you think you're going into learn. And the program that I really wanted to do. You know, it literally came out of I was like, the year I applied. It was such a crazy year. I was, we were going to Trinidad back and forth for work, you know, a lot of work around that. I had just bought an apartment that needed a little like a little touching up. So I was kind of like dealing with the renovation with my incredible super who's kind of helping me spruce it up. I was also in three plays at the same time. So all of these things were-- I wasn't in three places at the same time. But all three things were happening at the same time. 

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  23:44  

Abigail Ramsay  23:44  
And one of the plays got picked up for the National Black Theatre Festival. And so I had to do another play. But we were rehearsing in Harlem. And and I'm walking through Harlem, like overwhelmed and just unhappy and not feeling satisfied. Like this should be the best time of my life. Why am I not satisfied? And I'm like Abigail like think think what is the most important thing you can do? And I was like, it kept coming back to my family. My dad has been described as a grio. He has 94 years of lang--, of stories of what it was like growing up in country, rural Jamaica going to like this wonderful boarding school and then eventually moving to England. He has this very kind of vast experience. His mother traveled, she lived at the beginning of the 1900s lived in seven countries, including traveling around the United States and Canada with the head of what would be the United food company. So like she had incredible stories of the people she met my dad has incredible stories of like history, and I'm like this is ridiculous. You know, I here I am doing all these different things and we have this mine, this gold mine, you know, and I shouldn't be like I want to do something for for myself. If I have kids, I don't know. Just something for the family, you know, to kind of preserve all of this. So that and then I went a little further and I thought about going back to my programmatic brain and doing like the girl empowerment now to something bigger, like, Wait a second, when I'm at my worst, I remember that in 1919, mty grandmother was like, leaving Cuba, going to New York City with his wealthy family, not -- she's from originally a tiny part of Jamaica that no one's ever heard of, even nowadays, in Jamaica. What an incredible, like, badass thing this young woman did at that age? And I'm like, you know, I come from a family of warriors. I, you know, my mother, she, like, left her tiny part in Jamaica, moved to England and just, like, crushed it. She was valedictorians of the schools that she went to, you know, crushed it. I'm like, why am I complaining about my sad and sorry life, like, you know, I had this in my background. So I'm like, if we could take this and use it as a tool of really kind of like, first of all connection, but also personally, for people to kind of really connect to something deeper within themselves, you know, this would be incredible. The program did not happen. But like, what I am actually, you know, the beautiful thing is, like, as I say, you learn what you need to learn. I eventually, especially in my second year in Jamaica, connected with an African re- it's an African retention. So basically, the early, most of the early enslaved people came were from the Akan tradition, which is like Ghana, and kind of like around there, but this is very particular religious tradition, and religious and cultural tradition. And a lot of times when you think of the Caribbean and like African reten-, retained religions, you think of Santeria, you think of Voodoo Voodoo, from Haiti, 


You know, there's so many different, like, those are, like Yoruban-based religion, so like, kind of like Nigeria, so Akan, was something that was in Jamaica, you know, and still is. And I, and I started to just go to the sessions, and I got welcomed into the community. So I'm learning a lot more about like, the religion, and how much of the religion that that is so much a part of, the understanding of where you're coming from, the understanding of the people who preceded you. So like, at the time, it was like, a personal thing that I thought would be a great idea. And now I see that it is actually embedded into a larger culture. So I am trying to figure out ways of like, with a lot more information that I, you know, attained over the past two years, you know, to really kind of make it into something a little more official. I don't know, I don't know what that is, but at least I have a lot more information behind it, you know, so but that's, that's how we started it was, it was very personal is very much the, the exploits of my family that I wanted to document or make sense of, or you know, see what we could do. 

And I definitely needed that extra year, I needed the extra year to just chill out, just kind of, like, get information, learn about it at the pace of Jamaica, you know, because I always say Jamaica unfolds, you know, like, every single week, there's like, a new level of understanding that you get, and, you know, part of that has to do with trust. Part of that has to do with your understanding your love, you know, of culture of where you are, but it does take time. And it does take that that energy and, and and that's where the also the African retention and learning about, you know, like traditional African kind of interactions also helps as well, because then you realize that there's something very purposeful about the way that people interact that is very different from, you know, coming from New York City. One of the things that I ended up doing just by, I went downtown, I found this place. And I still don't even know like how I did that, like I must have been guided. I literally don't know how I found it because it's behind closed doors. I heard that they were doing something I went down there, I spoke to them, I convinced them that I should be a part of it. And lo and behold, I was with a group of young women and we started a group for young women in what used to be called Southside Tel Aviv, which is now Parade Gardens, which is a very tough neighborhood, but also a neighborhood that has a history of arts activism. So it was actually a really lovely fit.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  29:26  
Could you just walk us through, I would just love to hear more about it, could you just walk us through kind of like, what that project was exactly? You know, what did it what it entailed for you and as you've shared to like, it seems like many of these projects have tried to also live on in different ways.

Abigail Ramsay  29:41  
Yeah, so basically, when I went down to that, and the place is called like, the group is called Empress Circle. And it started out of a fantastic Rastafarian organization called Lifeyard, which is specifically for, well mostly for men, mostly for young boys and they were looking for a dedicated, it was so as a very male energy, and they were looking for a female energy in that space. We got the Empress Circle started, which is the young women that area and, and it's very interesting, you know, because they wanted them to be, it's language that's coming from like social justice in New York I was like how do I?  They're like we want them to behave like ladies and I'm like, well, they don't have to behave like, ladies. But I hear what you're saying, I hear what you're saying I read, you know, how

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  30:25  
Right, right, how are you defining this term? And what does it mean? Yeah, yeah,

Abigail Ramsay  30:28  
Exactly, exactly. Downtown Kingston, very famous. Bob Marley, all the famous people, you know, they came through downtown Kingston, he came from the country came through Downtown Kingston, like, so it has that kind of cachet. But it also has the other side of it of like wars between neighborhoods, and very rarely do people go through various neighborhoods. And with I think, almost with the other program I did, which was the second program, which started not to get too confusing, but it was a theater program I did for the second year, it was the same issue, you got these girls together and there was holy war. Every week would come in, and we'd have a different workshop that the girls would do different activities, and they would ask them what they would like to do as well, because some girls wanted to do mixed martial arts.They did not want to work with flowers. So we tried to kind of bring in as much as that we were able to do. Like, I've never been a part of a program, and I think this is the thing about theater as well. When you have a group of people constantly working towards a common goal, eventually, they settle down. It seems like it takes forever, but then all of a sudden, it's quickly boom, you know, they have formed. By the end of it, it was just such a shame that COVID happened, because we never quite figured out how to do it again. And also like the the young women who were starting it, they also had their careers that they were also starting up as well. So that was that was one of them, that was Empress Circle. Let's see my program that I eventually did my second year was the girl empowerment Theatre Company. That was incredible. The first iteration, we got three separate neighborhoods, and we got girls in three separate neighborhoods and brought them into the place. Again, it was like every week was a battle. And like all three neighborhoods, you could tell which girl was from which neighborhoods like originally it was supposed to be Denham Town was where it was supposed to be. But then there was a war in Denhman Town. So they didn't want to bring me into a place where there was an active war. And so we we would transport the girls from downtown into Trenchtown. And then we'd get girls from Parade Gardens where Empress Circle was and brought them into Trenchtown. And the girls from Denham Town, they're always like, they were in their uniform, they were like immaculately dressed like I wanted to go to their homes, because I was just like you guys like so well turned out. But then others were not so much as you know, and you could tell that there was a lot of hardship, a lot of very, not great things happening in their life at all. And also the setup of these garrison towns, you know, like they're, they're run by Don's, you know, there's a lot of exploitation in those communities. And you know, it's just, yeah. There's so much stuff going on in the background that it's just very hard to kind of like sometimes be present, because you can just only imagine. 

But eventually, oh my and it took a long time. Eventually we got the girls to work together. I'll never forget our last session, we were doing the 16 days of activism. And lo and behold, I'm talking to the girls. And for the first time ever, and they were not able to concentrate some of the girls were not able to concentrate. When they spoke, they were so brilliant, at like taking that information, translating into their lived experience, then talking about like examples of why this is a thing, you know, and why we need to kind of, you know, speak out for girls, and what are the issues that they want to speak out on? It wa,s it was one of the most transfixing lessons I had. Because we had spent so much time just trying to get them to be to not fight, you know. And then when they stopped finally, they had so much to say. And it is a big regret that it never, we never got to the point where we got them to actually put it into but we just weren't there in terms of building trust.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  34:22  
I, I guess like what I'm curious about is just like how you navigated trying to as a community almost it sounds like, right? LIke cultivating trust, knowing that these sort of barriers and almost like historic sort of challenges, traumas are existing in some of the communities and also entering yourself as both someone who you know, has history and heritage in Jamaica, Jamaica, and also is coming as this US person on the Fulbright like, I'm just curious, like, what was that experience like and how did it all sort of your work with theater help navigate that kind of dynamic?

Abigail Ramsay  35:00  
That's a great question. I think with every single whether it's Jamaica or anywhere else, the first thing that we do when you form a group is to have the participants come up with the rules. So they came up with the rules. And there were there were like some rules that were non-negotiable for me. And, and I had to make it make sense with my understanding of where to, what it's like to be in Jamaica right now, and who I was working with. And the number one rule for me was, you speak in the language that makes sense to you,.I don't know Patois. I've gotten a lot better. And also, like my family's from the country, they're not from like a deeper urban environment. So like that language is different. So like, I would let the girls know, number one, I am the one who doesn't know how to speak Patois. You do not make concessions for me. The only concession that you make is you just speak slowly, if I don't understand you. You know, and you know, so that was number one, you speak the language that makes most sense to you. There's no language policing, because in the larger community, there is. It's a very classist society. So in some respects, I wanted to make sure that we were in the space where the girls didn't feel any more oppressed, you know, and didn't feel oppressed by me being in the space. So they knew that I was like, the crazy person with the accent, who would attempt to speak Patois every now and then. So there was, or do some dancehall step every now and then, like, I was not going to stop them from doing, some steps were a bit much, but I was not going to stop them, saying that the way you move, your body is kind of like, you know, offensive, like. They, they could do whatever they want, and I was going to try, and they were open and it was okay, if they laughed at me, you know. I might pretend to cry. Like, you know, just so like, at least we could get that off the table, in terms of like, who I am and who you are in the space. Again, that there was another one, I should have looked at it before I am what what happens in the room stays in the room. You know what I mean? There's, this, absolutely don't tell anybody's business, you know, and we went through a lot of, you know, exercises around that, what does that actually mean? That you, so you had to teach them what trust meant, you know? You know, because like, you could say that we're building trust. But if you have no concept of what that actually looks like, and it's absolutely pointless. So we had to go through that. And you know, kind of like, just talk about different scenarios, talk about, you know, things from your life, you know. 

I made them do warm ups, which the warm up would sometimes take all three hours of the session, because it was like pulling teeth at times, but you, you'd have Group A is doing a vocal warmup, Group B was doing a physical warmup, Group C was doing a storytelling warm up, you know, and that was a way to kind of like, try to get them to play together a bit more and just get to the concept of like, we are doing theater, but it's not like I'm coming in and teaching you Shakespeare. Like that's not the type of theater we're doing. You are, you already are the expert of what you know. You are the expert on how you move in the space, you are the expert of your stories. You already know what the issues are, and you actually know what the issues are. But if you actually like really examine it from different levels, and different, you know, it's-- you kind of come together, and you kind of problem solve. And you also create, you know, you are creating something. It doesn't have to be a solution. But it could be a new way of looking at it, it could just be a story to, you know, to then tell again,. You have the power to decide what it is, you have the brains to decide what it is. And I think that's the most important thing, and you have the voice to decide what it is. You know, you shouldn't let anyone tell you what story needs to be told or how it needs to be told. Because if even if you think about it, and like going back to my original idea of having that intergenerational, a lot of times we're in a space where people are telling you who you are. And you don't know that that is true. That's not true. You know, that's not how you see yourself in the world. And but sometimes it just becomes too much. And it's just like, when you get to that space where you actually know who you are. Then it's just like you're unstoppable. And and, you know, that's what you can do with theater by opening up people's understanding of the power of their story and the power of their voice.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  39:22  
Yeah, like and I think just underlying thing there is like it's just kind of those issues systematically instructionally of power, right that I think it's like for folks who are,whether you know who folks who are racially marginalized, gender, marginal, marginalized because of their gender, their class and of course, the intersections of that there. It's like that is a history of being told this is who you are versus the space of I actually can define who I am for myself like that, that, that that's also I think, you know, such an important thing to kind of hold. I struggle with that word sometimes about finding solutions. Because of how deeply embedded some of the social problems we're facing globally are. That's because a lot of really, you know complicated but not impossible to understand histories. But it is to say that it's like, you know, sometimes the search for a, we may not we may not necessarily find a solution. But there can be pathways. And there can be ways to reimagine.

Abigail Ramsay  40:19
Yes, yes, yes, that's perfect. You don't necessarily get to the end result, but, but it's kind of like, look at something and frame it a different way, or go at it a different way.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  40:32
This podcast is named Fulbright Forward, the intention there is really around thinking about how we can continue to ensure that Fulbright is able to maximize it's ability within its own constraints to be thoughtful, to be inclusive, and to keep learning and growing from those who are part of the program. I'm curious, like, do you, is there something you'd like the audience to take away from today's conversation, or something that's important to you to think about how we continue to move Fulbright Forward?

Abigal Ramsay  40:59
That's a great question. Just thinking about what would have helped me. I did notice that with everyone else who was in my cohort or who were trying to help me, they all came from academic backgrounds. My background, you know it's not "academic" you know what I mean, you know? So, navigating schools, navigating you know, certain things was like wait what? I'm supposed to do what right now? It reminds me of like one of the reasons why I loved that Girl Empowerment Theater. Because there was so many women who were from wealthy backgrounds who were running the program, and there's always an issue of like when you come from a privileged space, you know, working where there are people who are not so privileged, there are issues that come up of that. But there's also the beautiful side of kids who would have never have had access to information were getting access to information. They were hearing about it, and they were figuring out ways that they could navigate a system through someone who had access, cause one of the most important and amazing things I saw was for me I felt like, I did not know how to navigate certain things. I'm not saying it would have helped or not helped in terms of the relationship I had with the host institution. I think it would have helped for me so I could make better decisions. I graduated in 1995 and drama school in 1999 like, the world was different then! Just to have a little, like a finger point. Like I don't need much! You show me and I'm already gone, I'm already there. I do want to just add because I think it's really important, because like my habit is to get real bogged down with the work and the projects and the things like that. I had a lot of great opportunities to hang out with my family who live in Jamaica. I spent a lot of time with my family in Jamaica. I went to the little village where my Dad and his Dad and his mother are from. I even found the house where my grandmother grew up in that hasn't been in existence. Like she left the house in the 1920s or something. So only the footprint was left, and it was even more rural. The road was so bad that even locals asked me how on Earth I got there. I met some extraordinary people. One of them that I met and we are still trying to figure out ways of funding a program she wants to do. She's a shopkeep in the tiny village that my Dad's from. And the shop is literally a shack, no bathrooms, nothing like that. People living in very humble situations, recognizing that outside of the city, there are very few programs, so they do not get the opportunities. And you know like, just trying to figure out down the road, how do we work together. So there's this on, so with my African spirituality and traditional group, and learning there with the various organizations and the people I had met. My cousin who also had a Fulbright. She has a nonprofit looking at environmental spaces, and cultural practices around the environment. So we were able to do theater around that. Another wonderful person I met who was part of National Integrity Action. I did theater pieces around, uh, working and interview skills with guys who the teacher said, that if I had met them 5 months ago, you would have never have gotten a word out. They were so kind of like, a lot of pent up anger and energy. And we just spent the entire class laughing at the skits they did around scenarios that they gave. You know so there were a lot of magical, magical moments, and exceptional people that I met. I feel like I'm still forming, I'm still moving from the person that was like "I need to get the project done. I'm a terrible person." To like "God, I am not a person," and this is a very social justice thing. "I am not a machine. I'm a human being." It's not about the end result, it's not about working all the time. It's about all that soft skills, all the negotation to get into certain spaces. I constantly pushed myself in thoughtful ways. And these are things that are my personality that I never took time to notice. And you know, being in Jamaica especially when things were going wrong, and the way I was handling it, my ability to and say "Am I at fault? Is this something I did wrong? You know, and that judgement of no, maybe it wasn't or Yes, yes it was, and this is how you need to do something better, or maybe you need to get some advice on the situation. You know, I am a lot more thoughtful than I think I am in life. So it really kind of, those small parts of my personality that I would often push aside, it made me realize the things that create who I am as an individual, and that's actually kind of cool.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling  46:19
That's yeah, that's awesome. Thank you for sharing that. I just want to say thank you so much for being part of this conversation, for being part of this project. It really means a lot to us to just have your story and to hear everything that you have to share. So again, Abigail, we really appreciate you being part of Fulbright Forward and thank you so much.

Abigail Ramsay: 46:43
Thank you, Jeremy! This has been so much fun. Thank you.

Jeremy Gombin-Sperling
And that’s all for this episode of Fulbright Forward. Thank you so much for listening. To learn more about one of Abigail’s theater projects from Jamaica, Downtown Girls Theatre Collective, check out this episode’s page on our podcast’s website with Buzzsprout. Remember that you can subscribe to Fulbright Forward through your favorite podcast app like Apple Podcasts or Spotify, as well as follow the podcast on Instagram. Again, I’m Jeremy Gombin-Sperling, Fulbright Americas Diversity and Inclusion Liaison. Be well, stay safe, and until next time.