If you met Ile Haggins at a dinner party, she’d tell you that she’s an activist artist.
Haggins has directed plays and musicals for over 30 years, so that makes sense, but she’s also an associate teaching professor at UMKC in the School of Social Work.
Social work and directing plays may not seem related right away. Through formal education and years in social work, Haggins developed expertise in cultural competency, behavioral health, working with children and families, and substance abuse prevention & treatment. She brings all of that to her social work classes at UMKC, but that experience also helps her direct plays.
“My work has always been more than a job, it truly was a calling,” says Haggins.”I’ve figured out ways to blend the two things that I’m passionate about: my love of theater and the arts with my social work.”
Working with different personalities, while seeing the bigger picture and articulating your thoughts are all traits that help Haggins in the director’s chair but also serve her in social work and teaching. Having a full–time day job also helps her be selective with her theater projects, even if the days can sometimes be long.
“It’s a little rough to do eight hours at the university and then roll over to the theater for another three, four hours at night,” says Haggins. “But when I get to the theater it rejuvenates me and gets me charged up again.”
In the past Haggins thought she was doing well when she could do a production every six months but the recent shift in social awareness has made her as busy as she’s ever been. Now there are only short one to two month breaks between plays.
“There’s not only a recognition but a hunger for the stories of marginalized people to be told,” says Haggins. “So more theaters are looking for those stories.”
That’s where the activist part of ‘activist artist’ comes into play. When Haggins is looking for a show to direct, the story has to speak to her and have a social conscience.
Take the recent production of “Begetters” that Haggins directed, the play tells the story of an aging Black couple reflecting on their dysfunction and how it affected their now adult children. Haggins’ largely chooses plays like “Begetters” to give a more complete view of life in marginalized communities.
“Movies and television for so long depicted African Americans in a certain frame or light that normalized things that might be a part of our culture but are a very small part,” says Haggins. “Violence and broken families were normalized, but what we didn’t see was the love that’s there or traditions being passed on.”
Haggins has three more directing projects coming up. “Stew” at The Melting Pot Theater opens soon. That run will be followed by a production of “Skeleton Crew” at the Kansas City Actors Theater. “Skeleton Crew” is the story of four Black workers at an auto plant that is about to close down. After that Haggins will direct a production of “Little Shop of Horrors” for the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center. While the production of little shop is a slight divergence, Haggins looks forward to directing a musical that lends itself to a diverse cast with nontraditional casting.