Cornell poet’s play “Trap Door” opens an aperture into Ithaca history

“Trap Door,” a “headphone walking play” that opens May 20 in downtown Ithaca, invites audiences to notice the streets they travel, said Cornell poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon.

“Meandering these streets, one might happen upon a landmark site or a name easily recognized. But how many stories go untold? Which ones have slipped into gaps in history? What place do such silences hold in shaping a community?” said Van Clief-Stefanon, associate professor of literatures in English and lead writer of the play. “‘Trap Door offers an aperture: one the walking play format encourages us to pass through, allowing us to see our surroundings in a new light.”

This unconventional theater experience takes participants through geographical Ithaca and back through the city’s Black histories. The play premieres Thursday, May 20 and will run Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May 21 to May 30, with walks beginning every 15 minutes at The History Center, 110 N. Tioga Street in downtown Ithaca. Tickets are available at

“Trap Door” is the theater’s third headphone walking play, a form pioneered in this region by The Cherry. The project, partnering with Tompkins County History Center and Cherry Arts, received an Engaged Research Grant.

“The idea of a moving audience trying to listen opened a lot of possibilities for thinking about the piece,” Van Clief-Stefanon said. “We’re living in a devastating, exhausting, violent, chaotic, noisy time. Eventually, I ended up thinking about the piece as moving not necessarily from historical site to historical site, but instead from murmur to murmuration.”

Van Clief-Stefanon’s students in the Freshman Writing Seminar “In the House: Black Artists Configuring Home” discussed the idea of a walking play, and contributed notes, archive insights and potential scripts to its creation.

“At the end of the semester, students created maps of their thinking and the directions it took,” Van Clief-Stefanon said. “We talked about addresses and address and read texts such as Toni Morrison’s ‘A Mercy,’ Honoree Jeffers’ ‘The Age of Phillis,’ and Saidiya Hartman’s ‘Wayward Lives.’ Our conversations about defining home helped shape the structure of this iteration of the play.”

“Trap Door” blends intersecting conversations, Van Clief-Stefanon said. Cornell Creative Writing Program graduate Jasmine Reid contributed writing. From Ithaca College, Cynthia Henderson, professor of theater arts, directed the production and Baruch Whitehead, associate professor of music education and founding director of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, contributed music.

“A friendship between two women reveals itself as the audience walks through the piece, but it won’t be done until people add their own voices and stories,” Van Clief-Stefanon said.

This headphone walking play marks the beginning of a two-year project in collaboration with the Tompkins County History Center and other Ithaca organizations, Van Clief-Stefanon said: “This iteration of ‘Trap Door’ is hopefully the beginning of a much longer conversation.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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