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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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UW theater professor Patrick Sims urges Madison to confront issues of race, culture and class
A theatrical challenge
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Credit:Jeff Miller / UW Communications

UW theater professor Patrick Sims can't resist playing around with his students. While helping them organize a field trip, he sees an opportunity for a laugh. It's a gamble, though. The subject at hand is a veritable powder keg: how "driving while black" can get a person into some serious trouble.

Sims goes in for the win.

"I am driving a black car," he says with a sly grin, his eyes twinkling behind wire-rimmed glasses. "Can't a black man drive a black car?"

Sims, 37, has never shied away from thorny racial and cultural issues. He addresses them on stage as an actor, in plays like Permanent Collection for the now-defunct Madison Repertory Theatre and his own one-man piece about James Cameron, a civil rights activist who survived a lynching. He does it in the classroom as he trains the next generation of actors. And he does it with businesses and academic departments, using theater's emotional power to explore issues of cultural competency through a project called Theater for Cultural and Social Awareness.

It's appropriate that Sims is directing University Theatre's upcoming production of Cloud 9 (UW Mitchell Theatre, April 18-May 4), a play about dying colonialism, twisting relationships, and shifting race and gender roles. A man plays a woman, a white man plays a black man, and 150 years pass in the span of only 25.

"It's a bizarre, crazy play," Sims says. "There are times I'm kicking myself, and there are times when I'm like, 'Yeah.' It's right up my alley in terms of my research vein. It's going to be a fun piece."

Fun is one way to put it. Mind-bending might be another. Like Sims, Cloud 9 doesn't tiptoe around sensitive subject matter. Over the course of two acts, rigid gender and race roles crumble as the characters struggle with homosexuality, bisexuality and issues involving marriage equality.

"Hopefully, as the play progresses, you'll lose sight of the fact that it's a man playing a woman and buy into the challenges that go into relationships, the conventional expectations of what men are supposed to do, what women are supposed to do," Sims says. "[Playwright Caryl Churchill] is really questioning orientation."

Discussing diversity

Sims was supposed to be a track star. Even in elementary school in Harvey, Ill., his gym teacher, who was also the high school track coach, plotted his route to the state championship.

Then something intervened, changing the course of Sims' life. That something was the speech and debate team.

The debate coach fired up his charges like they were the starting team for the Chicago Bulls. And Sims got to star in A Star Ain't Nothing But a Hole in Heaven, which was rewritten so he could play a lead role intended for a woman.

"That was the bug that bit me, and I haven't looked back," he says.

Sims likens his childhood to his favorite play, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Like the family at the center of this story, the Sims clan moved from the inner city to a "nicer" suburb - in this case, Riverside, a town on the southwest border of Chicago. When they arrived, a neighbor told them that, as the first African American family on the block, they really weren't welcome. But she'd do what she could to help, she added.

"By the time I graduated high school, that woman had been to just about every play I was in," Sims says. "And all it took was living next door and getting to know each other."

Sims had some epiphanies of his own when he left Chicago to attend Yale. He likes to tell his students that he didn't know he was black until he got to college.

"I didn't know how other people perceived me as African American," he recalls. "It was telling. For me, theater is the outlet to challenge people to think differently without becoming confrontational."

These experiences now fuel Sims' acting and directing career. They also inform the work he does with the Theater for Cultural and Social Awareness (TCSA), which began at UW-Milwaukee in the early 2000s. Sims was a graduate student there at the time. The director of UWM's office of diversity and compliance had grown tired of surly faculty members reading newspapers and basking in the glow of their cell phones during mandatory presentations about cultural competency. She turned to Sims and the theater department, who developed diversity-themed skits based on real-life situations. The project was an instant hit.

"People were responding. People were like, 'Why was this person doing that?'" Sims says. "Before you know it, we're tag-teaming this all across the state."

When Sims graduated, UWM asked him to run the program, and it wasn't long before heavy hitters like Harley-Davidson, Miller Brewing and WE Energies joined its corporate client list. When Sims joined the UW-Madison faculty in 2004, he brought TCSA with him. So these days, most of his work for the project involves the UW.

TCSA's secret ingredient is skillful actors, who get audiences thinking about issues they might otherwise avoid. In one popular vignette, "The Diversity Manual," a worker armed with an approved list of dos and don'ts finds that he's ill prepared to deal with certain issues because he hasn't bought into the notion of cultural competency. Some audience members can relate to this situation more than others, but nobody is punished for struggling to communicate with people from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The point, says Sims, is to get people to think and engage. This, in turn, spurs discussion.

"We don't go in to point fingers," he says. "We don't go in to say, 'This is what you need to do to become a racially savvy person.'"

Building trust and honesty

The scene's looking good, but it's still missing something.

"Stay in character," Sims says, striding toward Shannon Davis and Riley Falson, two of the grad students in his twice-weekly acting class. They're running lines on a scene from The Miss Firecracker Contest, which will double as their final exam for the semester. "We're really expecting something meaty here," he tells them.

In the hands of a different teacher, these words might carry a sharper sting. But Sims has an easygoing way with his students. Within moments, they're laughing with him.

"He's still the professor, but there's this collegiality about him," says Falson, who, like Davis, is in the cast of Cloud 9. "He's really about building your trust."

A few minutes later, the class razzes Sims for making a package of Pop-Tarts his lunch.

Sims' wife of 13 years, Petrolina, whom he met during freshman year at Yale, sees his appeal for students and audiences.

"I saw early on that he was very giving, very personable, and that shows up on stage, too," she says.

Sims won't discuss any of his performances or plays with her before she sees them. This doesn't exactly thrill her, but it helps Sims get a valuable perspective on his work.

"She's the most honest in terms of feedback after she's seen it," he explains.

The couple's 4-year-old son, Novian, has yet to see his dad perform, but he will one day.

"My son's a ham. It's in him," Sims says.

On the wall of his office in Vilas Hall, Sims has a copy of the infamous UW admissions brochure with an African American student Photoshopped into a sea of white students at Camp Randall. It was doctored in an effort to make the school seem racially diverse, but more than 10 years later, recruiting and retaining people of color is still a struggle. Sims is acutely aware that he's only the second African American professor to attain tenure in the theater department's history - the first in 30 years, no less.

"That's kind of sad, for the arts in particular," he says.

A different actor might have abandoned Madison for a more expansive role in a larger, more multicultural city. Truth be told, Sims has come close a couple of times. When he graduated from Yale, his first move was signing with an agent and trying to become, as he puts it, "the next Will Smith" in Los Angeles. That plan was scuttled by the Screen Actors Guild strike of the late 1990s. Nine years ago, he was faced with a choice: starting his second season with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the most coveted gigs in the classical acting universe, or joining the UW theater faculty and helming TCSA.

"I chose [Madison] because I got the best of both worlds," he says. "If I had just gone into acting, I wouldn't have the access and exposure I have now as someone who's still acting, and someone who's a teacher, and someone who does corporate work."

Making the commitment

So far, Sims has resisted overtures to helm his department - in part because he and Petrolina are considering having a second child - but he jumped at the opportunity to serve on the committee that just selected new UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

"That was a huge learning experience," he says. "I wanted to get a bird's-eye view of how the institution works. It was a different perspective on the arts."

The experience also helped him establish more connections with UW departments looking for efficient ways to grow and maintain cultural competency. What keeps him in Madison has a lot to do with a desire to improve things. He likes how the UW is willing to, as he puts it, "pony up and say 'Yeah, we've got some problems. Let's see what we can do about them.'" The city's devotion to the arts and cultural sensitivity also plays a role.

"If people like me, if we always leave, then nobody gets to stick around and be that beacon for the next person," Sims says. "You have to roll up your sleeves and say, 'I'm here, and I'm making the commitment.'"

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