Kennesaw State students’ interdisciplinary project engages incarcerated youths in storytelling

KENNESAW, Ga. | Apr 24, 2023

When Zy Justice arrived at Kennesaw State University in Fall 2018, she knew she wanted to major in criminal justice. She didn’t expect her studies to include training in acting.

Nonetheless, Justice recently sat in a black-walled room with a mixed group of theatre and criminal justice majors participating in a dramatic reading of selections from the play version “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds, a novel about the code of vengeance governing the streets where the main character lives. 

Justice and her classmates are involved in the New Connections Collision Project — inspired by the Alliance Theatre’s Palefsky Collision Project — as part of a class called Applied Theater in Community. Senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies Margaret Pendergrass and her long-time collaborator, Alliance Theatre artist Rodney Lamar Williams, came up with the project four years ago when asked to develop a theater program for youth in the care of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).  

Pendergrass said associate professor of criminal justice Tanja Link played a critical role in solidifying the connection between the TPS department and the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. Link helped students from her department prepare for the outreach aspect of the project and offered the idea of bringing KSU students and DJJ students together for a transformative experience.

“I serve as a co-project manager and academic advisor, helping grow a sustainable and scalable structure for the initiative,” said Link, also the assistant chair in sociology and criminal justice. “I was lucky enough to join Margaret a few years back and contribute the idea of bringing the two groups of young people together.”

For this year’s project, the students performed “Long Way Down” for a special group of DJJ youths who have graduated high school or earned a GED while incarcerated. In the weeks since the mid-March reading, the KSU students have worked with those youths helping them to explore the themes of the novel and connect those to their personal stories through journaling and creative writing. 

“Part of the process of working with youth in the juvenile justice system has been preparing KSU students and faculty to be ‘in the room,’ whether in person or through a virtual classroom. It takes a lot of emails, training, and collaboration,” said Pendergrass. “But it’s worth it. The real transformation happens in the class, and it’s as transformative or more so for our students than for those who are in the system.”

Photo of Marlon Burnley, Margaret Pendergrass, and Amanda Washington in theater space
Standing: Assistant professor of theatre Marlon Burnley; sitting L to R: Margaret Pendergrass and assistant professor of theatre Amanda Washington

After earning a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting, Pendergrass started working with people in marginalized communities such as at-risk youth and developmentally disabled people. She discovered teaching and storytelling went hand in hand.

“Teaching is so much about theater and so much about finding the story between us in the room,” she said. “What interests me most is providing structures that help people access the power of their own voice, amplifying that voice and giving them space to do that.”

This semester, Pendergrass’ students have experienced transformations as well, adjusting expectations and changing their own personal stories.

In the class the day students read the play, Justice delivered her lines when they came up, and later said she marveled at playing a part in a dramatic reading—all part of an evolution in which she has come out of her shell and stoked her desire to help people in the criminal justice system.

“It has definitely gotten me out of my comfort zone,” Justice said. “To take my criminal justice knowledge and incorporate it with theater was a different experience, and I've fallen in love with it.”    

Senior theatre and performance studies major Kristian Martinez of Augusta read the part of the main character and narrator, Will. The story focuses on Will’s decision whether to kill the person who has just killed his brother. Martinez planned on a career in voice acting, but the storytelling and education components of the class have led him to consider a path into education.

“Working with the young people in the juvenile justice system, we’re giving them a little glimpse of our world and we’re getting insights into theirs,” he said. “It’s amazing to feel their energy of engaging with the world through arts.”

Senior theatre and performance studies major Issa Solís of New Orleans works as a student assistant with Pendergrass, starting two years ago with the 24-Hour Play Festival, in which students have 24 hours to write, stage and produce a play. Solis also collaborated with Pendergrass to help with the Odyssey Project, a performance project exploring Homer’s “The Odyssey” with incarcerated adults through storytelling and poetry. 

Originally thinking she’d become an actor, Solís now wants to pursue graduate school for an MFA in directing, and then to work in community theater doing what she’s doing with this project. And she pointed out the true benefit—each participant discovers that their story matters and is given the tools to tell it.

“I couldn't deny the importance of storytelling of marginalized communities because when you think about it, representation normalizes it all,” she said. “Theater is an opportunity for everybody else to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes. If you were to hear the story of a teenager within the Department of Juvenile Justice, that would completely change your perspective of somebody who's living in that system. All those stories are important.”

Justice sees a little bit of herself in the people the class works with in the juvenile justice system, and in the story of “Long Way Down.” She grew up in difficult circumstances in Marietta, the oldest of 10 siblings and thus the one to set the right example—and make the right choices.

“I just want to use what I've been through to let others know that it's okay to have experienced trauma,” she said. “It's okay for your childhood to not have been the greatest, but I'm personally going to use this pain for good.”

—   By Dave Shelles
Photos by Darnell Wilburn Jr.


Related Stories

A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit