When CSUSB theatre arts major Dea Armstrong learned the essay she wrote about former slave, abolitionist and playwright William Wells Brown had won first place in a national competition, she did not think it was possible.

At the urging of her mentor, CSUSB assistant professor of acting and directing Kristi Papailler, Armstrong submitted her essay, “First-Person Accounts and the Importance of William Wells Brown’s Work,” to the Undergraduate Division of the Black Theatre Network’s (BTN) S. Randolph Edmonds Young Scholars Competition in March, and in June, learned she won.

This is the first time a CSUSB student has won a BTN research award, which includes a monetary prize and the possibility of being published in the Black Theatre Review, the BTN’s journal. Armstrong also presented her work at the BTN Annual Conference in St. Louis, Mo., in late July.

“I would encourage other Black students, artists, essay writers, anyone entering scholarship competitions, to definitely jump out and seize the moment because this was not something that I ever could have thought was possible unless I talked to my professors about it,” Armstrong said. “Stepping out of my comfort zone and really applying myself has made all of this come true.”

Papailler, Armstrong’s mentor, praised her efforts. “Dea’s scholarship and her paper ‘First Person Accounts and the Importance of William Wells Brown’s Work’ is outstanding,” she said. “Ms. Armstrong’s research and analysis is new, unique and presents a valuable perspective appreciated by emerging and seasoned scholars in the field,” she said. “Placing first in the prestigious national S. Randolph Edmonds Young Scholars Award competition represents what no doubt is the first of many recognitions of (her) work.” 

Papailler played an integral role in Armstrong’s achievement. “My interest in him was first sparked in my African American Literature of Identity course that Professor Papailler was teaching,” Armstrong said. “We had read and discussed his play, ‘The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom.’ He was writing about his background and experiences, and I don’t know what it was about him, but something just clicked. I thought to myself, ‘I have to know more about him.’” 

At that point, Papailler encouraged Armstrong to do more research.

“She pushed me to learn more and to read his memoir, which I did. I found that reading his memoir, I got incredibly emotional,” Armstrong said. “The way that he wrote about his own experiences was incredibly poignant. It was really touching, but also really disturbing. That really pushed me to continue to write my essay, which started off as a basic essay format for my class. Then, later on I was encouraged to continue writing it, to edit it and to submit it to this competition.”

Armstrong was particularly disturbed when reading about the brutality Brown experienced and witnessed as a slave at the hands of white slaveowners. “I wrote my essay because I wanted people to read it and feel the same way that I did reading his memoirs. I wanted them to feel emotional and enlightened by what was being said, what was being written. So, I’m glad that people have read my essay and have felt the same way, have had the same reactions,” she said.

Armstrong’s entry into the theater scene was almost accidental. Her sister Deanni was acting in a production at their high school, Grand Terrace High. “Because we’re twins, I was supposed to stay close and watch out for her. I was always sitting in the theater during the rehearsals and one day the guest director came by and asked if I wanted to be the stage manager. I was like, ‘Sure, why not? I’m going to be here. I might as well do something.’ That was my jumpstart into theater.”

It was also the jumpstart of what she hopes is a lifelong career. She works part-time as a student assistant in the Department of Theatre Arts scene shop, has worked on numerous CSUSB theater productions in various capacities and has spent the last two summers gaining additional stage production experience at the Redlands Theatre Festival.

“Theatre inspires me because I’ve always loved art and throwing myself into art,” she said. “I just really love creating things. It took me a while to realize that I could join a group of people who want to create something and it doesn’t just have to be me. It can be a team of people working on one project and putting art out there. I’ve found that I really enjoy the collaborative process of theater arts. That’s the main inspiration – this collaborative effort.”

That kind of collaborative spirit followed Armstrong when she presented an abstract of her paper during the S. Randolph Edmonds Young Scholars award ceremony in late July at the 37th annual Black Theatre Network Conference in St. Louis.

The only CSUSB student at the conference, Armstrong was accompanied by Papailler, as well as CSUSB emerita professor of theater arts Kathryn Ervin, a BTN board member and BTN past-president, and CSUSB professor of theater arts and department chair Andre Harrington, immediate past-president of BTN. 

“The three professors had a ‘dress rehearsal’ for me so I could present the abstract and they could give me feedback on it, which was definitely helpful. It soothed my nerves about the whole presentation,” she said, adding that her talk was well-received.

“Everyone at the conference felt inviting and wanted me to join in, and it felt good to be out in a new experience. I learned a lot,” she said. “It felt good being around other Black professors and academics and designers and directors and actors.”

Armstrong plans to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts with an emphasis in technical design.

“I recommend that the most important thing about research and scholarship competition is passion and curiosity, which sort of go hand in hand,” she said. “Love something enough and have enough curiosity to pour that love into it.”