Making Change and Building Community: Theatre Group Gets Second Act
Author: Danielle Strickland
Nancy and Phil Kukura ’57 recognize art as a powerful connector of communities and a way to celebrate and share cultures. Through a generous gift to Common Thread Theatre Collective, a partnership between Davidson College and North Carolina A&T University, the Kukuras will advance both goals.
Following a successful inaugural season in 2022, Common Thread Theatre Collective will continue to create professional, engaging productions that focus on the inclusive voices and stories often missing from American mainstream theatre.
“When we heard about this program, we were really taken with the wonderful possibilities of bringing people with different backgrounds together and collaborating to make something work and work well,” Phil said. “The first season was very successful, and we wanted to help make it a go for season two.”
The Kukuras understand how financial support can catapult the arts. Phil has been a singer his entire life, including during his time at Davidson. They regularly enjoy concerts and theatre performances near their home in Melrose, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, where Nancy for many years led an arts grants program under the direction of the town mayor. She also helped establish a ballet company in the area.
“A little bit of capital can really do something for an artistic organization that has everything but the wherewithal,” Phil said. “We’ve seen it so many times.”
Just as important to the pair is the idea of building community and lifting up people from diverse backgrounds, an area they see as needing a lot more attention in today’s world.
“When I first met Phil, he told me about things he had been involved in—a few sit-ins, other things in the desegregation movement,” Nancy said. “This was during his time in graduate school, when I was a bit younger living in Boston, before the busing crisis. I had the good fortune to attend the first public high school in the country that was dedicated to sending girls to college, and it drew students from all different parts of Boston. Similar to my Camp Fire Girls group, which was fully integrated.”
The Kukuras remain concerned about the many threats to our society, issues often seen as “old” but that are still present in everyday life.
“There are many things we thought we were past in our history, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Phil said. “Many wise people have said if you want to keep people in the gutter, someone has to be there with them to hold them down. That means those people don’t get to get out either. Our society was doing that to itself, and we’re still doing that in some places. Those repressive conditions aren’t a thing of the past—they exist now.”
The Kukuras don’t just talk about change. They’ve dedicated time, resources and a good deal of their careers to it. Both taught at Bunker Hill, Massachusetts’ largest community college, for many years—40 years teaching history for him; 25 teaching writing for her—and Phil was a founding faculty member.
“We were set up for people to find ways to lead fuller lives,” Phil said. “One of our primary missions was to bring people of diverse backgrounds into the college. Even in the face of COVID, it has continued to grow, and we have nearly 20,000 students now from every background you can imagine. We used to joke that we had an entirely different student population every 4-6 years. We are set up to do what community colleges are supposed to do.”
Soon after Nancy and Phil met in graduate school and were married, Nancy came to know her new husband’s circle of friends, many who came into his life at Davidson College and have remained in his life through relocations, military service, career changes and more.
“Within two or three years of getting married, I had met the major players in Phi’s life,” she said, “and I was really taken with the intense level of goodness and intellectual capacity his friends from Davidson had. The only thing I knew before was that the college was big in basketball. So my connection got much stronger through close friends.”
Phil says he started college “with a fine set” of classmates, and the friendships have been rewarding and long-lasting. Similarly, the faculty created a quality environment for him—influential teachers like Sam Maloney, Frontis Johnston, Brad Thompson, George Abernethy.
“I regretted not having more initiative in approaching faculty at the time,” Phil said, “but they were very respectful, hospitable and generous with their time. I learned so much from them, well beyond academics.”
Today’s students, on campus some 65 years after Phil Kukura, are not so different. They grow and learn alongside extraordinary faculty and each other, and they are interested in leaving the world better than they found it. Thanks to the generous support of those who came before, their experiences are made richer every day, and they have boundless opportunities to improve their communities.
Two shows are planned for the Summer 2023 season of Common Thread Theatre Collective. “Clyde’s” runs June 16-July 25, and “how to make an American son” runs July 14-23, both in the Barber Theatre, Cunningham Theatre Center. Visit the website for more information and to buy tickets.