Sheri Williams Pannell is a proud Riverside University High School alumna. She serves as artistic director for the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble (BAE) and also as a stage director, playwright, theater educator, performer, and a long-standing member of the Milwaukee theater community. Along with Pannell’s tenure also comes a new residency with Black Arts MKE.
Founded in 2013, Bronzeville Arts Ensemble strives to illuminate the black experience in America by developing and creating theater while also providing artistic and educational programming, collaborating with local and national theater communities, and inspiring healing and positive social change. Pannell shares, “Bronzeville Arts Ensemble is fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in partnership with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater over the past several years. Collaboration helps make theater happen, especially for relatively new companies like Bronzeville Arts.”
Pannell is currently preparing for a reading of a new work called “Milwaukee, Voices of Gun Violence.” This documentary theater/play is in collaboration with Mothers Against Gun Violence. It brings together interviews that help to tell the stories of survivors, someone who lost a loved one, someone who provided medical care, and close calls. The play brings attention to the complex and often unheard or forgotten narratives of gun violence, which shapes individuals, families, and communities. “I wanted to make sure that there was a variety of ethnic groups and diversity of geographical areas in the
stories that are being told. I wanted there to be a realistic and fair picture of how gun violence impacts all of us. Our goal is for this ‘docu-play’ to be part of the MKE Black Theater Festival, but it is all about how the audience reacts to the readings.”
Khloe’s Blues is taken from a book written by local artist La’ketta Caldwell. The book is being adapted into a play about “Colorism,” including the well-being of teenagers and tweens and focusing on how adults can support them and how the arts can heal. The play is inspired by the experiences of a young student in Milwaukee who was subjected to bullying because of the color of her skin. “Colorism is a form of racism that gives perceived favor to persons with lighter skin tones and less preference to persons with darker skin.”
Pannell is also preparing to direct Into the Woods at the Peck School of the Arts at UWM. Into the Woods brings to life some very familiar fairy tale characters who tell us their stories about who they are and why. “I can’t tell my stories without mentioning other people; we are all connected. It’s the footsteps, the shoulders, it’s the embrace and the pat on the back of encouragement from one another.”
When asked how she would consider her work to be part of giving back to the community, Pannell stated: “In the choices I make of the stories I tell as a theater practitioner, I believe that is a part of the giving because I am always searching for that story that is local, that makes people aware of a moment in our history or a person who should be celebrated. We do not want to forget that which is rich and positive about our own community.”
In reflecting on her experiences in MPS, Pannell had much to share. “MPS impacted me in a wonderfully positive way because I was able to attend Milwaukee Public Schools at a time when the arts were so richly supported. I was able to take music lessons and to be involved in musical organizations, the orchestra, the marching band, all-city orchestra, and the all-city band. The choral ensembles were amazing and the teachers in the district were some of the best music educators in the state.” She continued. “I am getting goosebumps thinking about the experience of the Biennial Music Festival—we performed a classical repertoire as well as contemporary and pop. I was holding my head high. All of our educators had such high standards. They loved what they were doing and they took music seriously. The Arts were an incentive to do your very best. We were all scholars.”
Pannell was asked what message she would share with fellow alumni. “If I had a chance to talk to alumni from Riverside University High School today, I would tell them, acknowledge your foundation! If you were able to glean any positive experience, or if any teacher invested in you—acknowledge them! Mention their name.”
In thinking about what to say to current students, Pannell reflected on memories of being that awkward high school person—a geek, a nerd! “It is all right to be different. It may not feel like it in the moment, but it is going to pay off. Be different, be on the outside. Where is it you want to be, and what do you need to do to get there? Hold fast [Langston Hughes] to your dreams. Nurture them, and know that it is alright to be different. That difference is going to make you stand out later. It will help you to go further in your chosen career.”
Pannell was asked to finish this phrase: I was inspired to inspire . . .
She pensively and thoughtfully said, “I inspire artists who are on the way to becoming—to not give up.”