MCCC Theatre and Dance Students Bring Home Top Honors in ‘Devised Theatre’ at Kennedy Center College Theatre Festival

Student Angelina Hawke says, "Listening to someone's story and knowing they trusted me to interpret it was incredible.'

West Windsor, N.J. – Students in the Academic Theatre & Dance program at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) recently earned major bragging rights – and so much more – after being selected for the Excellence in Devised Theatre Award at the 2022 virtual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Region II. MCCC was the only community college among participants from two- and four-year schools to win a performance award.

The festival featured five days of theatre and dance workshops presented by world dancers, directors, and actors, culminating in a Devised Theatre Showcase of videotaped student performances. MCCC received the prestigious award for Scene Three of its original work, “The 9/11 Memorial Performance Project.”

The show was originally performed before a live audience at MCCC’s Studio Theatre in December and featured 19 students in three scenes. Students in the award-winning scene were Kyle Bethea, Cole Chulamanis, Hakim Hachicha, Angelina Hawke and Timika Young.

According to Professor Jody Gazenbeek-Person, Coordinator of MCCC’s Theatre and Dance Program, each student performed a monologue that captured powerful, painful memories of 9/11 and its aftermath, based on interviews they conducted with people who lived through that terrible day. Scene Three was multi-disciplinary, artfully weaving original music and dance into the performance. The backdrop was a dimly lit, bi-level stage with a black, rectangular abyss in the center, reminiscent of the gaping hole where the World Trade Towers once stood. Gazenbeek-Person was the advisor for the winning scene; advisors for the other two scenes were LouJ Stalsworth and Dan Spalluto.

Kennedy Center responder (competition judge) Terra Vandergaw, a Theatre professor at Ramapo College and a coordinator of the festival for seven years, said she was thrilled to have so many talented Mercer students participating in the festival and the regionally and nationally recognized Devised Theatre Showcase. She called their work a “moving collaborative creation incorporating community partnership with sensitivity and integrity…The piece was impactful both for its sophistication of execution as well as for the meaningful process the students engaged in.”

Vandergaw added, “The fact that it was the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and the students were able to create such a moving and beautiful piece of theatre during the pandemic made it all the more remarkable.”

MCCC performer Hakim Hachicha, a second-year Architecture student, told the story of “Justin,” who was a student at Rutgers in 2001. Justin’s message, performed by Hachicha with passion and anger, was strongly anti-war: “I never felt better after a fight,” he said. “I didn’t see how this was going to end any better. There is no upside to endless war. If there’s anything I can give from my generation to your generation and the next, it’s please don’t choose atrocity in the wake of tragedy. Choose something else. Choose something else.”

According to Hachicha, the responders praised their piece as a classic work of devised theatre and congratulated the students on adding elements of dance and live music. But the piece also hit the judges on an emotional level. "Some of the responders were in tears talking about the piece," he said.

Angelina Hawke, a second-year student who is studying Psychology and Dance, was focused on her contribution as a dancer. Her challenge was translating the words of “Gayle” a dancer who was just starting out with the famed Merce Cunningham Dance Company on 9/11, into dance.

“Gayle wanted it to focus on painting as part of her healing process,” Hawke recalled. “So, my dance is about painting. I looked for specific quotes from the interview and translated them into movements. My body was like the tree she was painting. My hand was the paintbrush.”

Hawke notes that she was also required to speak Gayle’s words on stage – something she had never done before. Jody told me, ‘You’re playing the person you interviewed, and you have to say it just like they said it.’ I worked on my voice, and I improved as time went on. By show time, I felt very confident in what I was doing.”

The seeds of the project were sown early in the fall semester. “Listening to my students, I realized they had no palpable context for the events that occurred that day in 2001,” Gazenbeek-Person said. “We decided to create a piece that would fill an important gap in their understanding.”

Gazenbeek-Person notes that they pursued the project step by step. Before the students conducted their interviews, they developed questions in groups after looking at the techniques of other interviewers.

“Students were free to use whichever questions they wanted,” he said. “Even those who were initially nervous about interviewing people on such a sensitive topic gradually grew more comfortable. These conversations created a bridge between an older and younger generation. Every one of the interviewees wrote to tell me how professional the students were.”

The interviews soon turned into a script that incorporated approaches to documentary theatre, with each student presenting their interviewee’s words verbatim.

Hachicha said the process taught him a lot about empathy and the art of listening to people’s stories. “Everyone wants to be heard. I realized the power of that. If you really listen and absorb, it can translate into a meaningful work of art.”

Hachicha recalls a magical transformation from concept to performance. “During the interview phase, we were still figuring it out. Then, the piece almost started forming itself. We began to see a natural flow from one person to the next, with music as the transition. By the end, it just made sense,” he said.

“Our performance was unique,” he added. “I really congratulate Professor Person for allowing us that freedom. A lot of directors have a set vision, and the actors facilitate it. Jody created a structure for us to blast off from.”

Hawke considered the experience educational, exciting and surprising “I’ve only ever discussed 9/11 within my own family. Being able to listen to someone else’s story and knowing that they trusted me to interpret it on stage was incredible. This has exceeded anything I imagined doing at Mercer,” she said.

Hachicha and Hawke agree that the project has relevance for their future careers. “As an architect, I will be creating a vision and translating it into a physical medium,” Hachicha notes. Hawke added, “I love the idea of dance as therapy. It can be a huge form of self-expression.”

The college has been invited to participate in the Kennedy Center Festival for the past three years. “It’s an honor just to be invited,” Gazenbeek-Person observes, adding that the themes for all three years of Mercer’s entries have been somber: mass incarceration in 2019, which won an award for Ensemble Acting; love gone wrong in 2020; and this year’s focus on 9/11.

Gazenbeek-Person notes that devised theatre gives students the space to be creative. “Performers have power in the creation. They work collaboratively, writing, producing, directing and acting. As their advisor, I provided some structure and made recommendations, but it’s their work,” he said.

Unlike other areas of MCCC that were forced to shut down in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, the Theatre Program carried on, creating a six-foot grid system in the college’s Studio Theatre that enabled students to meet in person. “We were able to have up to 12 students on stage at one time safely spaced. That allowed us to do all of our acting work,” Gazenbeek-Person said. “The students got their vaccines and limited their in-person friend circle to their fellow actors. It was worth it to them to make sacrifices so they could work together.”

The Kennedy Center award is deeply meaningful to Gazenbeek-Person, who notes, "When I started teaching at Mercer 16 years ago, I was amazed by the amount of talent I found. I committed myself to creating one of the strongest theatre and dance programs of any community college in the country. My goal was to help students develop their craft, so that they could break into the world of entertainment."

With two major awards in the past three years, the program is getting the kind of buzz that brings more and more performing arts students to the college. But perhaps even more persuasive are the numerous alumni who are now working actors, featured on network and cable TV,  Netflix, Prime, Hulu and in theaters nationwide. 

The award-winning performance can be viewed on YouTube here.

More about the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Region II, is available here.

Theatre Program Curriculum

Dance Program Curriculum

Return to Current News

MCCC Home Page




From left: Hakim Hachicha (Lawrenceville), Kyle Bethea (Hamilton), Angelina Hawke (Hamilton), Cole Chulamanis (Hamilton), and Professor Jody Gazenbeek-Person (Theater Advisor). Not pictured: Timika Young (relocated to Los Angeles to pursue her career in acting).


The Kennedy Center award-winning "9/11 Memorial Performance Project" was presented at MCCC's Studio Theatre in December. Pictured are Angelina Hawke, Hakim Hachicha (foreground) and Timika Young.