About Iya Awotunde Judyie Al-Bilali
Photo Credit: Regine Romain
Once upon a time
I was born into the world renowned Black cultural mecca known as Harlem, the granddaughter of courageous West Indian immigrants and the daughter of self-determined first-generation New Yorkers. I have been a theater artist, producer, author, educator and culture bearer at the forefront of Black creativity for over forty years.
in a Time that is Now
My abundant career is a passionate intersection of arts for social change, Pan-African aesthetics and the development of multigenerational, multicultural, multigendered and multilingual creative communities globally. Consistently forging my own unique path in arts and education, as an undergraduate at UMass Amherst I designed an academic program in African American Performing Arts, receiving my degree Cum Laude. Earning my MFA in Theater, also at UMass Amherst, I founded dark moon collective, a theater company of Black students from throughout the Five Colleges and Pioneer Valley community.
She came to Earth in the beginning
I have taught in NYU's Educational Theatre Program, the MA in Applied Theatre Program at CUNY, at Amherst College, Hampshire College and while traveling around the world with the University of Virginia's Semester at Sea program. I am currently Associate Professor of Theater for Social Transformation at my alma mater, UMass Amherst where I continue to focus on the power of the arts to heal, uplift and strengthen communities.
so there could be a Beginning
Known to my students as Prof J or Iya J, my on-going creative research project ‘Art, Legacy & Community’ is designed to inform the entire UMass campus of its rich 50-year history of Black scholarship and cultural innovation that put UMass Amherst on the map in higher education. All of my teaching, service and research at UMass emphasizes the role of student activism supported by the dynamic energy of performing and visual arts towards establishing an environment of true equity, meaningful diversity and genuine inclusion on the campus.
She forgot who she was and in her forgetting, Time began
In the spirit of theater for social transformation my Devised Theater classes are reinvented every year. A variety of compelling topics ranging from a theatrical exploration of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: A Lyric, to producing a campus wide Rights of Spring Festival in 2021 amidst massive public health challenges (https://www.rightsofspringumass.com), to juxtaposing the uprising of #BlackLivesMatter in Ferguson, MO with the classic Greek drama Sophocles’ Antigone, to touring an original piece about the UMass Amherst campus slogan ‘Be Revolutionary’, to generating dramatic material for a major production with Ping Chong + Co., Collidescope 2.0: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America.
this is the story of how She remembered
Brown Paper Studio is my trademarked Applied Theater methodology, developed in post-apartheid South Africa to express young people’s vision for their newly democratic country. Created in 2004 at the University of the Western Cape while I was a Fulbright Senior Scholar, Brown Paper Studio has continued to grow internationally. Since 2013 Brown Paper Studio is offered as theater curriculum at UMass Amherst.
this is the story of the end of Time
Working most of my life as an independent theater artist, also known as a Free Black Woman, I have had to create opportunities to maintain momentum in my career. I know that my first resource is always human, my people, my art family. The next resource is to value our collective time. Finally, the money always comes. I am the recipient of numerous awards including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation, the UMass President’s Creative Economy Initiatives Fund and the MacDowell Colony.
She wanted to find her Great Love
My most recent creative research stream explores how cultural myths underlying both traditional and contemporary festivals influence social development. Given my passion for the African continent I focused on celebrations in Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana making several trips to West Africa since 2016. Brown Paper Studio was launched as a pilot program in Osu Presec Secondary School in Accra in 2019 with future plans to solidly ground the work in Ghana.
what She had to learn is
I am the author of two books, For the Feeling: Love & Transformation from New York to Cape Town, a memoir about my experiences living in South Africa and Halcyon Days, a book of haiku poetry. My work with Brown Paper Studio is featured in the award-winning book Black Acting Methods: A Critical Approach and online in www.imaginedTheatres.com/south-africa/
She is her Great Love
My current book project Between Tattoos: A Biomythography in Three Acts as follows: ‘A space time traveler incarnates during humanity’s great awakening to oppose the forces of tyrannical transhumanism and to share a message of victory through creativity’. The writing blends elements of Afro-Futurism, Applied Theater practice, the struggles and triumphs of Black female faculty in academe, a family memoir and a love story into one wild ride.
it is the happiest of endings
My creative life and spiritual practices are deeply connected. An initiated priest in the Ifa-Orisa tradition, I hold the title Iyanifa. This sacred role was made even more meaningful in recent years through my connection with Re/Emergence Collective, an extended art family who graciously named me as their artistic godmother. Along with two generations of Brown Paper Studio company members on two continents I am honored to collaborate with artists, scholars and activists who are boldly establishing our new societies.
that never ends...
Epilogue from For the Feeling: Love & Transformation from New York to Cape Town