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‘Jump out and seize the moment,’ CSUSB theatre major says after winning prestigious national award

Dea Armstrong’s essay on former slave, abolitionist and playwright William Wells Brown marked the first time a Cal State San Bernardino student won a Black Theatre Network research award. “Stepping out of my comfort zone and really applying myself has made all of this come true,” she said.

Published December 7, 2023

Dea Armstrong standing in front of the Performing Arts Box Office













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.”



CSUSB theatre production selected for prestigious Festival 56
The theatre arts department celebrates a major achievement with their musical, "Anansi's Carnival Adventure,” selected as one of four productions for the prestigious Festival 56, organized by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival program, taking place from Feb. 11-17.
The cast of “Anansi’s Carnival Adventure” posing in their colorful costumes and masks.
The cast of “Anansi’s Carnival Adventure” posing in their colorful costumes and masks.

The Cal State San Bernardino theatre arts department is celebrating a remarkable achievement as their musical, "Anansi's Carnival Adventure," received a prestigious invitation from Region 8 of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival program. Selected as one of only four productions, the play will be featured at the regional Festival 56, named in honor of its 56th year. This is a significant milestone for the theatre arts department, marking their first invitation to participate in Festival 56 since 2006. The festival is scheduled to take place Feb. 11-17 at Glendale Community College in Glendale, Calif.

In the play, a Caribbean town witnesses the abrupt sale of its adjacent forest to developers. What ensues is an adventure involving a boy named Felipe, an Afro-Latina spider called Anansi and a group of wild animal companions. This motley group endeavors to find Hurracan, the God of Wind, and convince him to expel the developers and save the forest.

"When I read the description of the play, I thought, 'Oh, this would be fantastic!' It’s for young audiences, perfectly suited to the actors,” said Kathryn Ervin, director of the production and professor of theatre arts. “It’s a delightful play, and we have a great cast of students."

The journey to securing the rights to perform the production involved communication with the playwright, Alberto Justiniano, and the composer, Gary Rue, who graciously agreed to allow CSUSB to perform the production.

Interestingly, the backdrop against which the play is set aligns with a year-long investigation by the department of anthropology into the Afro-Latino connection. Moreover, Andre Harrington, chair of the theatre department, specializes in masks – aligning perfectly with the play’s costume needs. Ervin emphasized the fortunate alignment of these and other elements, underscoring how seamlessly they came together to set the stage for this production.

Reflecting on the preparation for the festival, Ervin spoke about the joy experienced by the actors and crew during rehearsals. "With such a zany, silly play, it’s a great opportunity to be really inventive," she said, describing the actors’ portrayal of animals, such as foxes, turtles and bats.

The production’s impact on the audience, especially the younger viewers, has been heartwarming. Ervin recounted a touching moment involving a young audience member who came back several times with his parents. According to his mother, he told her he wished he could watch the play every night, which delighted the cast and crew.  

As the spotlight shines on the theatre arts program as they prepare to present “Anansi’s Carnival Adventure” at Festival 56, the anticipation for their performance is met with a blend of enthusiasm, pride and a shared love for the art of theater.



Johanna Smith, Professor, Theatre Arts, at California State University
Johanna Smith, Professor, Theatre Arts, at California State University

Professor Johanna Smith Wins The Nancy Staub Award

The Nancy Staub Award For Excellence in Publications on the Art of Puppetry

This award was established by UNIMA USA in 2022, to honor books, articles, or dissertations which are exemplary contributions that forward the field of puppetry by documenting important histories, contributing importantly to theory or practice, and by sharing prime research. The award is named in honor of Nancy Lohman Staub, an original member of UNIMA-USA and Special Citation Winner, who has contributed to understanding of world puppetry though fostering the museum collection at the Center for Puppetry Arts Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, leadership in UNIMA-International (as Vice President and member of the Research, Publication, Heritage, and Social Justice Commissions and Member of Honor), and her extensive writing on puppetry.

Professor Smith's 2019 book Puppetry in Theatre and Arts Education: Head, Hands and Heart is an excellent workbook that provides strategies, techniques and activities for integrating the puppetry arts into  K through 12 curriculum—a comprehensive pedagogical tool geared to the needs of educators. It shows puppetry arts can fulfill the Educational Standards for Theatre based on the California Visual and Performing Arts Framework (and comparable standards are found in every state in the U. S). The work makes a compelling argument for puppetry arts in educational curricula, while also focusing on the importance of assessment of student achievement.

Congratulations Professor Smith on this prestigious award.

Puppetry in Theatre and Arts Education: Head, Hands and Heart - Connecting the art of puppetry with deeper learning for children, this workbook offers a comprehensive guide on how to bring puppetry into the classroom. It places puppet design, construction and manipulation at the heart of arts education and as a key contributor to 'manual intelligence' in young people.

Packed with practical, illustrated exercises using materials and technology readily available to teachers, Puppetry in Theatre and Arts Education shows you how the craft can enliven and enrich any classroom environment, and offers helpful links between puppetry, the curriculum and other aspects of education.

Informed by developments in assessments and cognitive research, this book features approachable puppetry activities, educational strategies and lesson plans for teachers that expand any syllabus and unlock new methods of learning, including:

  • Making puppets from basic materials and everyday objects
  • Puppetizing children's literature
  • Puppetizing science
  • Film-making with puppets



Cal State San Bernardino alumna ValLimar Jansen is a recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Gold Medallion.

As a renowned professional singer and performer who has toured the world, Cal State San Bernardino alumna ValLimar Jansen is a recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Gold Medallion.

Distinguished CSUSB alumna to receive prestigious theater award

Fri, February 07, 2020

As a renowned professional singer and performer who has toured the world, Cal State San Bernardino alumna ValLimar Jansen is a recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Gold Medallion.

Jansen, who earned her bachelor’s degree in theater arts from CSUSB in 1990, will be honored during the Region 8 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) at Cal State Fullerton from Tuesday-Saturday, Feb. 11-15.

The Kennedy Center Gold Medallion is given to individuals or organizations that have made extraordinary contributions to the teaching and producing of theater and who have significantly dedicated their time, artistry and enthusiasm to the development of the KCACTF.

According to The Kennedy Center website, “recipients have demonstrated a strong commitment to the values and goals of KCACTF and to excellence in educational theatre. It is the most prestigious regional award given by KCACTF and is considered one of the great honors in theatre education.”

Jansen has professionally performed and toured around the globe, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, Belgium, St. Maarten, St. Kitts, Bonaire, Ghana, Israel, Japan, Singapore and China.

One of her most notable projects was a one-woman musical about the life of American singer and actress Ethel Waters, which Jansen starred and co-authored with her CSUSB theater professor and mentor, the late William Slout. Jansen received a special commendation from The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for the performance.

Jansen remained active with KCACTF-Region 8 for many years, serving on the board, managing the Excellence in Education Awards, responding to productions, assisting with new play development, and consulting on matters of diversity. When her schedule permits, she continues to serve on the team for respondent training. According to an email announcing Jansen’s award, responding to productions is still her favorite way to serve KCACTF-Region 8.

With more than 120 unique performances annually, Jansen, who has sung sacred music since she was five years old, has developed her signature blend of dramatic art, music, movement, prayer and inspirational exhortation. Her biggest international audiences were at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, and then in Panama City, Panama. At the Loreto/Angora International Papal Event in Italy, Jansen and her husband, Frank, performed for more than 300,000 people and the event was broadcast on Italian television, EWTN and across the world. She has also produced and/or co-produced 14 CDs and has nine published works.

After Jansen completed her bachelor’s at CSUSB, she earned her master’s degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her goals are to complete a Master of Divinity in theology and a Doctor of Ministry in preaching.
To learn more about ValLimar Jansen, visit her website at
Visit The Kennedy Center website to learn more about its programs.



Kathryn Ervin

Kathryn Ervin, a professor in the CSUSB Department of Theatre Arts, was one of only 10 people inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre this past weekend at the historic Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. Photo: Robert A. Whitehead/CSUSB

Cal State San Bernardino professor inducted into College of Fellows of American Theatre

Mon, April 30, 2018

Kathryn Ervin, a professor in the Cal State San Bernardino’s Department of Theatre Arts, was one of only 10 people inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre this past weekend at the historic Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.

“It was an honor to become part of this group of wonderful colleagues. Over the weekend I was reminded again and again of the impact of artists and educators,” said Ervin. “The stories that changed us change the students on our campus and others like ours; they impact professional artists in regional theatres; they make playwrights and designers and people who use the arts to heal and uplift. It was fun to be with such an inspired group.”Investiture in the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, which originated in 1965 within the American Educational Theatre Association, is one of the highest honors bestowed on educators and professionals in the educational and theatre community.

“Our new Fellows are a wonderful mix of accomplished artists from both the professional theatre and academia that make up the American Theatre,” said Karen Berman, dean of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre.

In addition to being inducted, Ervin was also able to see “the beautiful work of students participating in the National Finals at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and had a chance to meet the next generation of theatre collaborators.

”She also got to hear a talk from Luis Valdez, a Fellow who is a longtime leader in Chicano theatre and is the founder of El Teatro Campesino. He  wrote and directed “Zoot Suit” in Los Angeles and on Broadway, and was also the writer and director of the film “La Bamba.” Ervin described his talk as “a stirring address.”

Ervin, who received her bachelor’s from Wayne State University and Master of Fine Arts from Illinois State University, has been a professor at CSUSB since 1989, serving three times as chair of the theatre department. Ervin teaches courses in directing, acting, creative drama and African American theatre, film and culture.

“Like so many artists, my work in theatre began because of a play I saw that made me want to be a part of creating theatre,” said Ervin, who was inducted into the College with longtime friend, Michael Dinwiddie.

“Michael Dinwiddie … and I began our careers in theatre together as high school students in Detroit!” she said. “We created a theatre company called SATORI and performed throughout the city for several years. It was a wonderful training ground and many company members went on to successful careers in the arts.”

Ervin is an active member in a number of professional organizations, including the California Educational Theatre Association, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the California Arts Project, in which she is a fellow.From 1988 through 1994, Ervin served as secretary, then vice president, then president of the Black Theatre Network, the national organization for artists, scholars and individuals with an interest in celebrating the beauty and complexity of black life onstage. She was granted the Black Theatre Network Lifetime Membership Award in 2010, recognizing her service to the organization.

In 2004, Ervin received the Excellence in Education Award by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, and in 2005, she was given the Pioneer Achievement Award from the San Bernardino chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also served as co-editor of the book titled “African American Scenebook.”

As a director, some of her past productions include “THE WIZ,” “Novio Boy” and “HAMLET: the artist formerly known as PRINCE of Denmark.” She also guest directed “Intimate Apparel” at the University of California, Riverside in 2010 and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at her alma mater of Illinois State in 2007. Her original production of the hip hop opera “Keep Hedz Ringin’” by Rickerby Hinds was a finalist at the American College Theatre Festival in Utah and presented as part of the NYC Hip Hop Theatre Festival in 2002.

The primary purpose of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, which serves as an autonomous nonprofit organization, is to promote and encourage the highest standards of research, writing and creativity in educational and professional theatre through honoring distinguished service and notable accomplishment by individuals of recognized national stature.

Visit the College of Fellows of the American Theatre website to learn more about the award and the college.For more information on Cal State San Bernardino, contact the university’s Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007 and visit