Drama professor Jonathan Tazewell blends teaching and film in his life story
Filmmakers and moviegoers agree: it's the main character's story, the journey a person takes in the narrative, that makes a film interesting. The protagonist in this story, Jonathan E. Tazewell '84, has played several roles. The former schoolteacher turned admissions recruiter turned actor, filmmaker, and again teacher is far from completing his journey. Recently, he returned to Kenyon as a visiting assistant professor of drama.
"A liberal-arts education makes it more difficult, in a sense, to find your ultimate calling," says Tazewell. "Our society treasures those who find it early in life--famous athletes or people like Bill Gates--but the longer journey is not all bad."
For the Akron, Ohio, native, the journey began in the early 1980s. Although recruited as a soccer player and encouraged by his uncle, 1961 Kenyon alumnus Harold Bragg, Tazewell chose the College because of a push from his mother, Dorothy. Her pastor, H. Irving Mason, was a graduate of the Kenyon's seminary, Bexley Hall. Unable to attend the College herself (it was then an all-male institution), Dorothy was determined that one of her four boys would study there. "When the time came for me to consider colleges," says Tazewell, "my brothers already had other plans, so it fell to me to go to Kenyon. I applied to several larger schools, but I really wanted a place where I could fully explore my many interests as well as a place where I could get the academic challenges I wanted and felt I deserved." Those academic interests included art, chemistry, drama, English literature, German, French, mathematics, and political science. "I played soccer for only two years," recalls Tazewell, "because I wanted to devote more time to music, and especially to theater."
While following his father's advice to study something practical, Tazewell, a chemistry major, soon lost his heart to the theater, a path quietly supported by his mother. "My dad was a research chemist at Firestone Tire and Rubber, and I love science," he says. "But I knew well before graduation that I was not going to have a career in chemistry."
After graduation, Tazewell moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to teach middle- and upper-school mathematics and science at Abington Friends School.
"During my senior year at Kenyon, there were only fourteen black students at the College," he recalls. "I had expressed my feelings to Dean of Admissions John Anderson that Kenyon might work harder to increase this number. So, when I was contacted in 1986 about joining the admissions staff, I thought I should put my money where my mouth was."
Tazewell returned to his alma mater as assistant director of admissions, with the mission of finding and recruiting those black students who would thrive in the College's intellectual and social environment. Those efforts were successful. "We did increase the numbers," he says. "But, just as important, we created momentum and learned a lot about the process of identifying our potential students."
As in his student days, Tazewell immersed himself in drama, cofounding an improvisational comedy group, Fools on the Hill, and involving himself in the Kenyon College Dramatic Club (KCDC).
After three years in the College's admissions office, Tazewell thought it was time to pursue his aspirations for an acting career, so he returned to Philadelphia to join Arden Theater, a new company. He kept food on the table by teaching drama and English literature at Wilmington Friends School.
Graduate school seemed to be the next logical step. "I learned from a Kenyon friend that the California Institute for the Arts offered a master's degree in directing, film, theater, and video," Tazewell recalls. He eagerly enrolled, going on to complete his degree in 1993.
From there, Tazewell moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where many of his family members had relocated. With his youngest brother, Thomas, he formed Tiamat Productions, an independent video company that produces public-service announcements and other projects. Teaching was again a part of the journey, this time mathematics, science, and theater at Dudley High School.
Now back at the College for the third time, Tazewell is still engaged in the journey. In addition to teaching "Introduction to the Theater" and "Finding Your Story," a screenwriting course, in the fall semester, he will teach a course in acting and directing for the camera and direct the last KCDC production of the year, Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, in the spring. He also serves as the faculty advisor to several senior-thesis productions, two student-run theatrical groups, and a student pursuing a synoptic (self-designed) major in film studies.
While Tazewell seems always to have one foot in the education camp, the other foot is carrying his career as an independent filmmaker. With his older brother, Joseph, he is working on a screenplay they hope to coproduce as a feature film. A younger brother, Paul, a costume designer, will be the production designer on White Flight, a film about Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1970s that Tazewell is creating with 1985 Kenyon alumnus Patrick Shields, and My Ship, a Tazewell romance-drama about an African-American firefighter in love with a book publisher and how they deal with issues of class.
"When I think about all the many blessings I've gotten from my Kenyon education and my work experiences here," says Tazewell, "I know that I would never choose any other college. No place could have started me on a more interesting life journey."
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