MJ on continuing to create art during a pandemic

MJ ’21, Photographs submitted by interviewee

MJ ’21 has always been a powerful musical and theatrical force on Wheaton’s campus. During the pandemic, she has shifted to other forms of creation, focusing specifically on filmmaking. 

“As a theatre major, you have no choice, but to turn to film right now,” said MJ. “I’ve never really created a film before, but I’ve started to work on some for class. 

MJ’s films are equal parts haunting and gorgeous. She explained that she has been working on several for classes she is currently in, diving deeper into her own trauma. 

“I’m giving myself a new voice,” said MJ.

MJ explained the details of one of her latest projects, a short film titled “Intentions.” To MJ, art shows parts of her story, as she gives part of herself to her characters, then builds them up. She explains that it is how she has begun to work through her trauma, with “Intentions” exploring both sides of a sexual assault through misinterpreted consent. She chose to use gender-neutral pronouns for the victim, highlighting the violence perpetrated against all genders. 

Matthew Clarke ’21, a co-star in “Intentions,” described working with MJ. “Working with MJ is always fun. MJ is so passionate about whatever she is working on so she’s always giving 110 percent and wants whatever the project is to be the best version it can be. She’s a great project leader and it’s always nice when she wants me to be a part of her team!” 

One of her other recent projects is another short film, a timelapse of a painting she created, with her voice singing acapella in the background. Professor O’Dell, Professor of Theater Design, described her voice as “killer.” 

“I’ve only been a part of one and a half mainstage productions,” said MJ. MJ was ensemble for “Once on This Island,” and was cast as Cassius in the canceled performance of “Julius Caesar.” 

Artie Street ’21, a co-worker with her on “Once on This Island,” described MJ. “MJ is a tour de force.  She is deliberate. She is real. She draws the best out of those she works with. She elevates the spaces she is present within and I would never pass on an opportunity to work with her.” 

MJ explained that when it comes to “Julius Caesar,” Cassius had somehow become her dream role. She talked about having been typecast as the villain at her community college, simply because of her vocal range. Seeing as “Julius Caesar” was not a musical, MJ was not expecting the role. She joked about her height, describing herself as “4’11 and three quarters,” remarking that she really admired the choices that the director, Joe Wilson, Jr, made. 

“He insisted that we make Cassius a woman, and then insisted on drawing talent out of me that he said was there the whole time,” said MJ. “I was so excited, I think I was off book in about two weeks, despite having never read this particular play before.” 

MJ grew nostalgic, explaining that her attachment to Shakespeare came from watching her sister perform. She described a little pop-up book with a stage on which she and her sister would act out plays. 

“I went from there to a community theatre, where people kind of always tell you that you’re doing amazing no matter what. Acting at Wheaton meant that no one had any obligation to tell me that I was doing well, and I was opening myself up to criticism for the first time,” said MJ. 

As well as the one and a half mainstages, MJ has been a part of several theatre classes, and she talked about Professor Burlington-Daniels casting her in her first serious scene, which made her realize she was being perceived as a serious actor. 

“I think it’s hard for me to see what everyone else does. I know as long as I’m still having fun and I can feel myself growing, I’m happy with what I’m doing,” suggests MJ. 

People who have previously had classes with MJ have described her with overwhelming positivity and utter confidence in her talent. Jordan Zimba ’20, MJ’s TA, and Lee Diamond ’21, a co-worker on multiple projects, spoke of her energy and creativity. 

“MJ just has a natural way of always being really committed, and really engaged in the moment, which meant that she was always present, always available to her teammates. She always had everyone’s backs. It’s a big gift to give,” said Professor O’Dell.

As she is studying remotely this semester, she is using the opportunity to combine art and theatre with a place that holds a special space in her heart, her community theatre. She describes a mural concept she is working on for the theatre, a representation suggestive of amplifying people of color’s voices within the space. 

“I love Wheaton, but this is where I need to be right now,” said MJ.