Celebrating 10 years of memorable dance, rap and spoken word, Kashi Johnson’s innovative hip hop theatre course Act Like You Know takes the stage April 13-21 in Zoellner Arts Center.
Act Like You Know is among the first and earliest courses at Lehigh to apply a culturally germane pedagogy that invites students to consider, reflect on, think through, engage, empower and find their voice through the act of performance. Since 2007, Act Like You Know has educated 174 students, across wide-ranging programs, departments, fields and areas of study.
“This spring, we will produce a full-length play that pays homage to the class and its impact by re-presenting past performances in a fresh, new way. For me, one of the best parts will be weaving class alumni into the fabric of the play through their shared stories and experiences,” says Johnson, professor of theatre. “It’s been great to see the impact the class has had on my former students. Today, some are educators, some are professional actors and hip hop artists, and others who found their voice in the class now lead with this strength in their respective professions. It means everything to me to have created something that is still so meaningful to a lot of people. The legacy is strong.”
Johnson created Act Like You Know as a nontraditional college theatre course, where identity and social justice issues are remixed with devised hip hop performance techniques, culminating in a theatrical production as its final exam. It is the longest and oldest hip hop course to be formalized and offered on a continual basis at Lehigh. Each class that takes the course, which evolved from the Hip Hop Theatre Festival in 2006, is represented by a generation—1.0 being the first, 2.0 the second and so on.
“Originally, I created the class out of personal interest,” Johnson says. “I thought it would be a solitary experience, where I would teach it once or twice, but after talking with students, I realized the course was quickly becoming a destination for them. Now, my personal challenge is to always raise the bar from one generation to the next.”
The semester culminates in a live show before a large, enthusiastic audience of friends, family and peers. Former students return for this show, proudly calling out their generation numbers, obviously still in solidarity and relationship with one another and the course, she says.
Act Like You Know alumni have cultivated and launched successful careers and maintain constant communication about their professional success with Johnson. Hanging in her office are photos of past generations.
“I love to point out class alumni to my current students—a teacher, a lawyer, a CPA at Ernst & Young,” she says. “It’s a perpetual reminder that this class historically brings out the most diverse group of Lehigh students you’ve ever seen, all because of hip hop. I love to present that; it’s the before and after.”
For many students craving a different kind of academic experience, Act Like You Know provides a platform to speak truth to power, says Johnson.
“Hip hop is the Trojan horse that ushers everybody into the class, but when we’re there, learning about the culture and how it empowers self-expression, that’s the hook. There’s something for everybody if they’re brave enough to step out of their comfort zone and experience it.”