By Elizabeth Field
The Kalamazoo Promise has given over 4,000 students the opportunity to go to college tuition-free since it began in 2005. Janai Travis, 28, is one Promise recipient who is using her theatre performance degree from WMU to give back.
Travis, a first-generation college student, is giving back to the Kalamazoo community in the form of activism, performing arts, and through her role as the coordinating program director at Educating for Freedom in Schools, a non-profit organization.
“If there’s not passion or purpose, I’m probably not involved,” Travis said.
EFIS is an organization that serves youth, predominantly African-American, Latino, and low-income youth, in the area. The after-school literacy program is currently housed at Spring Valley Elementary, where Travis supervises four interns who serve K-5 youth.
Founded in 2008, EFIS is a local extension of the Children’s Defense Fund, a national child advocacy organization. EFIS is funded by donations from community partners and individual donors.
Travis joined EFIS in 2010. “I just love their approach with culturally relevant literacy, leadership, empowerment, art,” Travis said.
Travis incorporates her artistry with the youth by leading an activity called Harambee, which means “all pull together” in Swahili. During Harambee, Travis, her interns, and the youth all sing, dance, cheer, and chant together.
“She’s really enthusiastic about everything she does,” said Amber Jager, one of the EFIS interns who is supervised by Travis. “She keeps it real all the time. She just has that personality where she stays true to who she is.”
Travis usually starts off Harambee with a chant that begins: “Freedom schools, how are you feeling?” But Monday afternoon, she only got out, “Freedom schools-” before she was interrupted by eager young voices.
“You wanna ask?” Travis said.
“How are you feeling?!” several voices shout back.
“Fantastic! Terrific! Grrreat! All day long!” The group then stomped its many feet and said, “Whoa,” as each individual moved their hands and upper bodies around in a circle.
When the group went through the chant a second time, Travis encouraged a scholar to lead. “Come with it, come with it, loud as you can, let’s go!” she said.
Travis is also a co-founder of the Face Off Theatre Company, which became the theatre wing of the Black Arts and Cultural Center in July, 2016. In addition to her work with Face Off, she also acts and directs independently.
Monteze Morales, a writer and fellow artist, met Travis as an undergraduate student at WMU and they’ve been friends for ten years. “Right now, we’re working on our second play together, ‘Confessions of a Mixed Chick.’ It’s based on a true story. I came to Janai and she took my story, and she just made this play absolutely phenomenal.”
Travis directed the play she co-wrote with Morales, which aims to raise HIV and AIDS awareness. The cast prepared for its Dec. 7 performance at the Wesley Foundation, 820 Rankin Ave.
During rehearsal Monday night in a small room at the Bernhard Center, Travis prompted off-script actors with lines when they called for them, took notes on her laptop, and encouraged them to stay in character.
“Line,” one of the actors called after a brief pause, a blank stare, and laughter.
“Stay in it, stay in it,” Travis said before reading the line, her voice was calm and direct.
“She gets the job done,” Morales said. “She is not playing.”
“She is someone that I really look up to in the arts because she is able to like switch on and switch off,” said Brianna Butler, an actress in the play Travis is directing. “She’ll be talking to you, go into character, come back out, go back into character, and I’m like how does she do that?”
“She’s a good inspiration to me, as far as the arts come,” Butler said.
Travis identifies as an activist and continues to use her role at Face Off to pursue social justice in the community.
“We’ve partnered with the Black Arts and Cultural Center to showcase artistry,” Travis said. Her goal is to highlight the voices of women and people of color.
“Just getting narratives out there that are authentic to storytelling and what’s going on in society and our world,” Travis said, “and [questioning] what are our roles — and not stage roles, but real roles in the real world.”
Face Off Theatre Company’s next show will be “Detroit 67” in January 2017.