Professor Nicole Hodges Persley needs to be an early bird if she wants to see her family before managing a trifecta of responsibilities for the day. She makes her daughter’s lunch, drops her off at school, and then makes it to Starbucks with her husband every morning before heading to her office at the University.
Hodges Persley said she’s never limited herself to any field: she’s made it her life’s work to flourish in every department she’s interested in. She is currently the acting chair of graduate studies in the Department of Theatre, teaching an African American Theater and Performance class, working on two books, and preparing to direct Amri Baraka’s "Dutchman" at Just Off Broadway Theater in Kansas City, Mo.
For Hodges Persley, managing of all her work is difficult, but that's why it's been so rewarding.
“I tell undergrads to really seek out knowledge across campus, not just in your area of interest, so that you can find tools to build a life you want to live in,” Hodges Persley said. “I've never limited myself by a category or a disciplinary focus. Everything is relative if you work to make connections. But, you do have to work. I tell my students that there is no magical unicorn that shows up with your perfect life at your door.”
Hodges Persley’s drive to continuously learn and create stems from a fear of being stagnant.
“I've learned that the moment I stop learning, I'm stagnant,” Hodges Persley said. “I have to keep learning.”
The idea of being herself without answering to anyone has fueled her ambitions to be a part of the theater program.
“Theater is a space that allowed me to be my full self without apology,” Hodges Persley said. “I think that everyone deserves to be who they are without having to validate themselves through someone else's value judgement of their humanity. Using theater as a space to make openings for freedom has been exciting to me since I was in my first play in fifth grade.”
Hodges Persley said being in a position to help students have a vision for themselves that is free of anxiety from judgement requires her to have patience, vision, organization, determination and inspiration.
Isabella Hampton, a student in Hodges Persley’s theater class, said she has positively impacted her theater experience, as well as her personal goals.
“Her personality is the type that makes you feel a lot taller and stronger and more capable every time you leave a conversation with her,” Hampton said. “Nicole has helped me the most in really pushing me to understand that I have to write my own narrative, and she has given me a lot of resources to do so. I think that that's probably what I appreciate about her the most is that she's as much nurturing and kind and she is someone who motivates people to be better.”
Her upcoming book, "Sampling and Remixing Hip-hop in Contemporary Theater and Performance," has allowed her to lecture globally on how hip-hop has affected the arts. She is also one of the founders of the Hip-hop Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B Dubois Research Institute.
“I find sharing knowledge rewarding,” Hodges Persley said. “I am inspired by colleagues and artists who are dedicated to creating new knowledge to make the world a better place. This interdisciplinary training has allowed me to contribute to multiple conversations in the academy. I am in a theater department by choice because this is a space where we improvise and devise to imagine new ways of being. I've been a professional in the performing arts since I was 19 years old and I am always excited to learn.”
Because learning is such an exciting process for Hodges Persley, it’s just as rewarding to see a student of hers enjoy that as well.
"I love seeing a light bulb go [off] with a student who you can see doubts the validity of something you're teaching,” Hodges Persley said. “Watching a student decide to happen to their lives instead of letting life happen to them. Watching students 'lean in' is magical.”
Hampton said she finds Hodges Persley’s teaching a way to help her do this.
“To have such a motivative and dedicated professor that looks like me is extremely valuable,” Hampton said. “Visibility is important, and when I see her pave a road that I might choose to walk on in the future, I feel like I'm in the right hands."
Hodges Persley said she hopes in the near future to get a show together in Kansas City to bring to Broadway. She’s currently working with her team at KCMeltingpot Theater, where she serves as associate artistic director, to accomplish this.
With everything that Hodges Persley manages day to day, her goal is to foster confidence in her students to be able to make differences.
“Serving my department and inspiring students to be the change they want to see in the world is my mission,” she said.