Kari Barclay’s Theater of Social Change

Each year, a percentage of Duke seniors take the opportunity to complete a senior project and graduate with Distinction. Some write critical theses or complete research projects. Others, like Theater Studies major Kari Barclay, take a more creative approach. For his Distinction project, Kari wrote An Indictment, an original play. The play capped off an impressive Duke career, during which he was active as a director both on and off campus. He was an Angier B. Duke Scholar and the recipient of a Humanity in Action Fellowship. Finally, in recognition of his creative accomplishments, he was chosen for the 2016 Louis Sudler Prize in Creative and Performing Arts.

An Indictment is more than just entertainment, it’s a comment on mass incarceration, the criminal justice system, and the history of race in America. In it, three prisoners hoping for a pardon decide to put on a play for President Obama when he visits their prison. It’s a humorous tale, Kari explains, but still hits some truths about the U.S. prison system.

Kari’s engagement with the prison system is not merely theatrical. In addition to an abiding interest in social justice, he has an uncle who is incarcerated. His second major was political science, so books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, with its broad, historical view of the racial roots of the system, further drew him in.

“Racial oppression doesn’t disappear, but it changes forms” he says. “The prison system has morphed through a lot of things. As soon as slavery was abolished, it was made legal in the case of prisons and criminals.”

Kari did extensive research into the prison system before he began writing his play. As part of that research, he worked with the Inside Outside Alliance, a Durham group that organizes protests and a letter-exchange program with local prisoners. In addition to material from Alexander’s book and presidential speeches, Kari’s play draws on the testimony of residents of the Durham County Jail.

The culmination of Kari’s senior project was a staged reading in early March. Friends and colleagues performed the play with scripts in hand, in front of an audience of Duke students. He enjoyed seeing their reactions to his work. “People were laughing and gasping at times. I really like when a play establishes that.”

What Kari is about is using theater as a model for social change. His involvements on campus as a director, producer and activist speak to that goal. He directed Me Too Monologues, a hugely successful show where Duke students perform revealing and often emotional monologues submitted anonymously by their peers. His work extended into the Durham scene, as well. He coordinated Bull City Dignity, a show about the ongoing gentrification of Durham, and he has worked at two professional theater companies in the area. It is for this body of work that Kari was given the Sudler Prize. Yet he refuses to claim all the credit. Theater, he stresses, is by its nature collaborative and the result of a lot of people’s work.

The play isn’t quite done, Kari says. For his own sake, he wants to keep making it better. But for now, he’s putting it aside to stew while he pursues other projects. His first stop in the summer will be to work with a friend in Connecticut on a play about police brutality. Then, he’ll attend a conference about social change and theater in Santiago, Chile, funded by his Sudler award. His final stop come fall will be Stanford University, where Kari will continue the work he has done at Duke, pursuing a PhD in Theater and Performance Studies.

“Either I go on to be a professor and use academia to keep directing, or go into the profit world to keep directing,” he muses. As long as it allows him to keep working, he says, it is exactly what he’s looking for.