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Cierra Watkins (Courtesy photo) Cierra Watkins (Courtesy photo)

Birthing a Black Renaissance at SDSU

Cierra Watkins brings to life her vision to lift Black student voices and culture through theatre
By Aaron Burgin

Cierra Watkins remembers the moment she fell in love with Broadway theater. 


Growing up singing in the choir of a predominantly Black Baptist church, Watkins always felt her voice was different from the other singers.


“When my mom took me to see my very first Broadway show, I realized I sang more like them,” said the Long Beach Wilson High School graduate. “I was more of a theatrical singer.”


“But the first (Broadway play) that I saw myself in was ‘Dreamgirls,’” said Watkins, who saw the film when she was 5 years old and saw the stage play at age 9. “That was the first one I saw where the people looked like me, their voices were jazzy like mine.”


Watkins’ passion for musical theater has only grown over the years, and after being accepted to the School of Theatre, Television and Film at San Diego State University, it was her dream to share and foster that passion among the Black student community. 


In 2021, she and fellow students Leilani Snow, who graduated in the spring, and Joshua Jones founded the Black Renaissance Theatre. In just over a year, it has blossomed into a collective of creatives who are amplifying Black voices and talent on stage, on-screen and behind the scenes of both stage productions and film.  


“When I got here I noticed there weren't a lot of black people … especially in the Theatre program,” Watkins said. “There was a sprinkle of us, quite literally.


“I wanted to create a safe space for Black students where we could feel free to tell our own stories, and we could feel free to be the main characters and not the stereotypes in our stories” added Watkins. “I wanted a space where we could all think creatively and really collaborate with each other because we are all very creative and very talented — that’s how we all got here. I wanted to create a space where I saw myself, and other people could see themselves.”


The student trio started Black Renaissance with a Zoom theater workshop. Watkins remembers hoping that “five to 10 people” would show up. Nearly 300 people logged onto Zoom. 


When students returned to campus in the fall 2021, the group held its first in-person production of “Detroit ’67,” a stage play by Dominique Morisseau, which Watkins directed. 


This spring, Black Renaissance hosted its second stage production, “Single Black Female,” a play based on the 2012 book by Tracy Brown, and with the assistance of SDSU TTF Director Niyi Coker, held the first Black Student Film Festival ever at SDSU. It featured 10 student productions, as well as a special screening by Senegalese filmmaker Mamadou Sena. 


RELATED: Student Directors Bring Black Stories to Center Stage


Their next stage production, “Phantoms: a one act play,” runs Oct. 21-23 at SDSU Rhapsody Hall.  


“It has been great to see the growth of our group over the past year,” Watkins said. “We have students who are not film or theater majors who are here because they’re passionate about the arts.” 


Coker called Watkins a change agent and said the creation of the Black Renaissance Theatre filled a noticeable absence on campus as relates to a Black presence in the university’s theater community. 


“In their determination to fill this gaping void in the university community experience, (Watkins and fellow students) created the Black Renaissance Theatre to enlighten, enrich and shape the worldview of this community in offering a thoroughly balanced and defined American cultural experience,” Coker said. 


Watkins credits the growth of Black Renaissance to several organizations on campus, including the Black Resource Center and her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. 


“We wouldn’t have had that huge turnout without their efforts and their continued support,” Watkins said. 


Black Renaissance Theatre represents just a sliver of Watkins' involvement. She was a member of SDSU Diamonds, the university’s black majorette corps, for three years, has been on staff at the Black Resource Center, and a Henrietta Goodwin Scholars Program mentor since 2020. She also has played an active role in her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta and in the National Pan-Hellenic Council, where she is currently serving as first vice president. 


“Whenever we need someone to sing the Black national anthem (James Weldon Johnson’s ’Lift Every Voice and Sing’), Cierra is there to do so,” said Brandon Gamble, the Black Resource Center director. “Whether she is studying, meeting with friends, or giving tours to family members around SDSU, she is always smiling. She’s a breath of fresh air.”


Watkins, who has a 3.65-grade point average, was recently named to the 10-person SDSU Homecoming Court in recognition of her leadership, school spirit, integrity and achievement on campus. 


“I was so thankful for everyone that helped me get to this moment in my life. I just hope to make them proud,” an enthusiastic Watkins said.


Watkins graduates in the spring and is applying to New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts for her master’s degree in fine arts, while at the same time pursuing her lifelong goal of becoming a Broadway actress. She said she is hopeful that the next generation of aspiring Black artists at SDSU will carry on the tradition forged with Black Renaissance Theatre. 


“I just hope they keep going and keep up the mission of really showcasing Black excellence and talent on this campus, letting students tell their own stories and revel in the truth that those stories tell and keep making stories that are for Black people and by Black people,” Watkins said. 


For more information about Black Renaissance Theatre, visit their pages on Instagram and Facebook