Mary Naoum

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Gillian Jakab, Community Culture Editor
Published April 8, 2014

As a child, Music, Theatre & Dance senior Mary Naoum was singing and dancing before she could create coherent sentences, much to the entertainment of her older siblings who encouraged her with piano accompaniment. With her long-running love of performing and the arts, Naoum came to the University not to pursue her own path to stardom, but to learn how her craft could be used to empower others and affect change in communities.

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Naoum will receive a Bachelor of Theatre Arts with a concentration in Performing Arts Management and a minor in Community Action and Social Change (CASC) in May. Her academic career has been a fusion of arts and social justice, but she is quick to say that most of her learning and inspiration has come outside the classroom.

After volunteering with Detroit Partnership her freshman year, Naoum sought out an internship with Motor City Lyric Opera, a nonprofit arts organization in Detroit. She also volunteered with its Opera on Wheels program, which brings an operatic production to different elementary schools in the city.

Naoum said the experience made her recognize the potential of art in education.

“Whoa, opera’s great, music is great, but what I really like is the positive impact it has on these students and the empowering process,” she said.

Excited by this type of work, Naoum moved on to the Prison Creative Arts Project with English Prof. Buzz Alexander. The class produced a play with young men in juvenile detention. Naoum singlehandedly brought one young man from a hangdog refuser in the corner to a full-on participant who now and dreams of an acting career.

“That’s when I really realized I’m not just doing this for fun, combining ‘social justice’ and ‘theatre,’” Naoum said. “The combination of those two things is actually incredibly powerful.”

Naoum involved herself with Michigan Performance Outreach Workshop (MPOW) from its inception. MPOW is a student organization that holds a free field trip event on campus for Detroit public school students and has an outreach Shakespeare puppet troupe for younger students, among other things.

“We do improv, a capella, dance, beat making — all different kinds of creative expression,” Naoum said. “It’s challenging because in schools you’re constantly having to put information into your head and you’re not challenged to think for yourself. It’s an opportunity to say to the kids: this is all you, nothing you’re going to do is wrong, and everything you’re doing is creative and original.”

Tireless and eager to do more, Naoum worked for Matrix Theatre Company, a community empowerment theatre in southwest Detroit. Participating in marches and community events, Matrix brings its giant, beautiful puppets of leaders in civil rights, disability rights and other movements to teach people about their history and brave leaders. Their education program focuses on a social theme, such as environmental justice, teaching the kids about the issue, and then facilitating the children’s creation and production of original plays centered on it.

“It’s this awesome fusion of learning about social justice issues and then also being social justice through having the kids be in charge of creating these plays empowering themselves around these issues that they just learned about, and then performing them,” she said.

Citing Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” as a perfect example of using artistic expression to incite open-mindedness, Naoum explained why the arts can be a powerful tool for social change.

“Here’s a Black artist using hip-hop music to transform people’s beliefs and understandings of growing up in a low-income urban area. Not by literally preaching: ‘stop doing drugs and stop stealing, be better.’ He tells a narrative that embodies his own coming of age … that can be shared with others to help them transform their existence.”

After graduation, Naoum will take a year to live and work in Detroit, and then head to a masters program at the School of Social Work. Naoum shares some advice for undergrads:

“Get involved in organizations. My advice for everything is just to listen. Listen to the people you’re working with. What they want and think. It’s never about you — well I guess in some regards its about both of you; it’s about getting everybody involved.”