Dave Navalinsky, an assistant professor of Dramatic Arts at UNC, grew concerned when he realized the student-athletes he taught were feeling stigmatized by the negative press the past few years. So he did what we would expect a drama professor to do: he wrote a play about it.
At 6’9”, Navalinsky stands taller than even most college basketball players. One may therefore assume he was a basketball star himself and thus has an affinity for athletes. However, that isn’t the case at all.
“My student-athlete career—if you could call it that—ended it 8th grade with a record of about 12 – 1000. Most, if not all, those few wins were on the 8th-grade basketball team, and I rarely played,” he joked during an interview.
After high school, Navalinsky started taking classes at Lorain Community College, in Ohio, without knowing what he wanted to do with his life. He was working lighting for a local band, when he learned his college offered a class on stage lighting. Surprised to find a class that aligned so well with his talents, he enrolled and then discovered a stagecraft class, which also interested him. Not long after, he transferred to Baldwin Wallace and completed a degree in stagecraft, with an emphasis on lighting design.
Eventually, Navalinsky also completed an MFA in technical direction and went on to teach at the University of Mississippi and then at the University of Texas at Arlington. He came to UNC in 2011 to become the Director of Undergraduate Production and teach the introductory stagecraft class.
“This is the first place where I’ve taught pretty much exclusively non-[theater] majors, and so I’m used to really knowing my students,” he explained, “Even though most of the students in my class now are not majors, they’re still my students, and they’re still precious to me.”
Navalinsky’s relationships with some of the student-athletes in his classes allowed him to see their frustration with the media’s sensationalism and the resulting stereotyping they experienced, and their frustration ultimately compelled him to write his new play. “Other people talking about my students and messing with my students was unacceptable,” he asserted.
Still a work in progress, “Priceless Gem: An Athlete Story” was made possible by a $4,000 junior faculty grant he won in December 2013. After the IRB approved him to carry out research involving human subjects, Navalinsky spent four months conducting interviews with over thirty athletes from almost all of UNC’s varsity sports. Two assistants/co-writers then helped him create four composite characters based on the anonymous interview transcripts.
“Priceless Gem” begins with a soliloquy from Jason, a football player. “There is more to us than just playing on Saturdays,” he exclaims. Over the course of the approximately one-hour play, he and the three other athletes endeavor to articulate what that “more” really is. They reflect on the challenges and privileges of being a student-athlete at UNC today, in the wake of the recent controversies. At its most heartbreaking moments, the play depicts the student-athletes’ lamentations on the increased stereotyping they now face.
“People think, like, if you’re a good athlete, then you’re not that smart. But I actually enjoy learning,” Jaimie, a women’s basketball player, tells us. Later in the play, she reveals, “When I’m in a classroom for the first time, I almost want to prove myself, or prove to other people, I can read — better than a 4th-grader.”
Marcus, a swimmer, affirms Jamie’s sentiments and recalls being subjected to students’ joking about athletes’ illiteracy. “It just creates that stigma that typical athletes aren’t that smart,” he bemoans.
Although the play involves little action, “Priceless Gem” maintains viewers’ attention by baring the four athletes’ emotions and thoughts, as the athletes express their struggles to be “just like any other college student” while at the same time occupying prominent positions on campus. By providing that lens into the student-athlete experience, Navalinsky has made a valuable contribution to the public discussion over the role of athletics in higher education
“Priceless Gem” unquestionably accomplishes the goal Navalinsky set for the play. “As I was reading things in the newspaper, the student-athletes’ voice was the one voice I wasn’t hearing,” he explained, “and I thought I could use theater to help provide that voice.”
Navalinsky will be presenting a free public reading of Priceless Gem Monday, January 12th at 7 PM, in the Center for Dramatic Art’s Kenan Theater. A brief Q&A will follow.