Rituals, Theatre, and Transformative Goodness

Adinkra symbol of transformation.

Adinkra symbol of transformation.

By Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen

The first time I met theatre expert Paul Carter Harrison, he distinguished “theatre” from “drama” as theatre being the story that always contained some form of ritual and symbolism whereas drama simply told a story.  It was a bit more complicated than that, but I still remember that discussion.  It made me think of essays I read about how theatre began among us humans as rituals and performances designed to appease the gods or God.  Theatre was birthed in belief, in belief in something higher and more potent than ourselves, and that we all had a responsibility to this entity or entities higher than ourselves.  This thought has popped in my head off and on for the last two weeks…and today I think I discovered why this notion of ritual as theatre and theatre as ritual all designed to bring favor from the gods or God is so potent and timely…

Today I met a fiftyish White woman from Minnesota who told me that several cities in Minnesota solved their transportation problems by “building freeways through Black neighborhoods and business districts.”  Then she said, “they destroyed those neighborhoods.  There is a documentary about this but I can’t remember the name of it.” I then mentioned a former classmate who was writing his thesis about such a topic.  She was genuinely angry about it and talked about how unethical it all was.  “I’ll take Atlanta’s traffic to that kind of destruction any day of the week,” she said.

After she and I exchanged a few mutual comments about the late Minneapolis-born Prince, she asked me what was my discipline and I told her “History” and that my dissertation topic was about theatre.  Then she mentioned the Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota and our conversation was off to the races.  I also had a conversation with a young man from South Africa that had moved here and lived on my side of town.  “I love it, here!” he said.  He and I had a conversation that ranged from the problems of the old South African government to recent politics to the status of women.  He also mentioned that he had a hard time with sexism since everyone came from the body of a woman.  I reiterated that I always meet talented, respectful young Black people every single day.  So what does this have to do with theatre and rituals?

Here is something I would like you to think about, and it ties in with theatre as ritual, and the rituals found in theatre and everyday life.  When one attends the theatre, one typically leaves with a different perspective.  No one leaves a theatre the same way that they came in.  Sitting in the dark of that theatre and watching performers suspend reality and portray characters other than themselves is in and of itself a ritual for performer and audience member alike.  One is literally transformed by witnessing what is done on stage.  One can get into the habit of going to the theatre, but a ritual is not a habit.  A habit is something you do almost by reflex, almost involuntarily, and it may or may not have any particular benefit to you.  You just do it because, well, you’re in the habit of doing it; and that might not be a bad thing, but a habit does not originate from the same source as a ritual.

A ritual is deliberately done; it follows a deliberate pattern in order to produce specific results.  Rituals create order, or at least make us feel that there is some order to the universe and the world we inhabit even in the midst of chaos, which is why human beings created rituals in the first place; and also why human beings can become so alarmed when certain rituals are not followed to the letter.

Today I discovered my own ritual.  Someone asked me how I end up having these stimulating conversations with people who are often complete strangers like the woman from Minnesota and the young man from South Africa.  Well, maybe it is because I don’t really meet strangers.  Yet, it is also due to my determination to not become a news junkie that feeds on bad news and controversy.  And to avoid bad news and controversy these days, one must deliberately turn off the television and internet and smart phone, and look for the truth, or at least find some balance between the real truth and the truth that is often manufactured for us.  So consider this…

The word “theatre” comes from a Greek word meaning “the seeing place.”  The seeing place was where you went to witness performers deliver the truth and wisdom.  Well, the truth is that, in spite of what you see in the media, there are so many nice, thoughtful people out there. Most of these people will never be on the news.  You have to look for them where you are; and you often find what you deliberately look for.  Make that a ritual.  Àṣé.

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

 

This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: https://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

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Sayonara 2015…Changes in 2016

by Leslye Joy Allen

“Self Portrait” by Copyright © 2015 Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

“Self Portrait” by Copyright © 2015 Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2015 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

I lost a lot and gained a lot in the year 2015. When this happens you reassess what makes sense in your life, and what you need to let go of. So, with that said…

I lost my dissertation advisor Dr. Clifford M. Kuhn, who died of a massive heart attack in November 2015. Yet, I learned that I had the support of the wonderful faculty of the History Department at Georgia State University; and I thank them all. I had to agree to stop teaching for at least a couple of semesters in order to fulfill the requirements of a dissertation fellowship, but that is okay—I won that dissertation fellowship.

I had the love and support of supremely talented actor Margo Moorer—one of many members of my extensive theatre family—who ensured that I witnessed the phenomenal stage play “Uprising.” Margo and that cast were superb in this great play and she generously pressed some money in my hand when I was dead broke.  I should also acknowledge that Margo was one of the first members of Atlanta’s theatre community to show up when my Mama passed in 2013.  Her fellow actor and co-star LaParee Young said it best, “Margo will be there for you.”  LaParee was damn right.  THANK YOU MARGO!  She also insisted that I meet the author of “Uprising” Gabrielle Fulton, who is a brilliant playwright whose literary and artistic maturity are far beyond her years.

As an only child, I naturally have “adopted” brothers and sisters. I could not let this year go by without thanking my long-time “adopted” brother (and fellow only child) Marc Freeman for covering me, praying for me, and for letting me hear some amazing music that no one else has heard.  He is an amazing composer and producer. We have been friends for fifty years and counting.  I must thank Wafa who is my “sister from another mother,” and who has covered my behind more times than I can count.  I also have to thank my cousins Saundi, Yolanda (Yandi), Lorena, and Cynthia for reminding me that I am loved and for showing up to make sure that I knew it.  My cousin Saundi lost her Mom (my Aunt Sara) this year, but I have one of her angel ornaments to remind me of her.  I thank Claude and Don, my “adopted” brothers and favorite couple for always making me laugh and for reminding me that only children often inherit loving siblings late in life.  

I thank Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado—the Historian in Heels—for “talking me back from the ledge” so to speak, as she understood/understands the stress and frustration that comes with being a doctoral candidate; and I must give a special shout to the GSU History Department’s Business Manager Paula Sorrell for getting all that paperwork handled so that I could get paid on time; and I also must thank Paula for always remaining cool when she is dealing with crazy Ph.D. candidates like myself.

I thank all of my former students who are too numerous to mention by name. They remind me that the future is in good hands. I also thank the young men and women who have chosen me as their mentor.  It is an honor to be chosen by such wonderful young people from everywhere around the United States, and from as far away as Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Antigua, and Québec.  All of my students, protégés and protégées will change the world.  

This year I participated as a historical consultant in the directorial debut of Keith Arthur Bolden, a brilliant actor and artistic director of the phenomenal Spriggs Burroughs Ensemble of Spelman College. I thank Keith for inviting me along on his very special journey. Okay, I give up!  Margo, Keith and several other performance artists have called me a dramaturge, and I am finally accepting the label.

I must give super props to my adopted “Baby Sister,” the phenomenally talented actor Nevaina Rhodes (pronounced “Nih-Von-Yah”), who is also a drama coach and founder of Real Actors Workshop (RAW).  She also remains the only person I can honestly call a bona fide prayer warrior. Her midday prayers at 12:00 Noon every weekday are a revelation. I know of no one who prays with as much intensity or belief or talent…and she and I have also laughed at some supreme silliness—that is always a blessing!

I met and befriended talented young Black male doctoral scholars like Jerquil “JC” Campbell and Malcom Devoe (his Malcom does not have that second “L”), and talented young doctoral scholars like Jessica Ramadhin, Cinnamon Mittan, and Corrianne Bazemore-James. Cori was my roommate during “The Compact for Faculty Diversity: Institute on Teaching and Mentoring Conference” for SREB Doctoral Scholars held in Washington, DC.  Meeting these young dedicated scholars of color is/was always a blessing and inspiration…

I recognize and embrace the fact that I am a fierce and brilliant intellectual who owes so much to so many scholars and artists who invested their time and energy in my intellect and abilities. I am also the daughter of two now-deceased parents who knew that my purpose and destination would exceed the limits of their lifetimes. Therefore, some changes for 2016 are in order so that I might fulfill my ancestral legacy and complete my sacred God-ordained mission.

I am saying, “Sayonara,” “Adios,” “O da abọ,” “Kwaheri,” “Au Revoir” and “Goodbye” to that small group of men who narrowly envision me (and women in general) as someone designated to sit and listen to their plans, their projects, and their problems. If any of these men are reading this and need some kind of advice, I suggest that they call a counselor or their Mamas, but they need not call me. Too many of these same men who dialed my phone for all kinds of help and assistance have also routinely compensated other men for doing what they expected me to do free of charge…Therefore…

I will no longer vet projects and/or consult and/or render my academic expertise without some form of compensation. The wonderful people that I have individually thanked above in this blog deserve me as one who operates at full capacity for myself and for them.  Mess over or mistreat or mishandle any one of these phenomenal people and I will take it as a personal insult.  I have only one thing, however, to say to those men who think I am some kind of built-in, automatic, academic workhorse meant for their personal use: Delete my phone number until you recognize my value and until you can pay me what I am worth; and we need not speak unless I consider my association with you to be a plus rather than a liability. And please understand that all of the people I care about know who you are, so do not bother calling them either!

To all those friends and colleagues who have encouraged me in some way this year:  You are too numerous to name in a single blog, and I am sure I have forgotten someone, but charge it to my head and not my heart.  Please know that I appreciate every one of you.  Happy New Year!  Àṣé!

Copyright © 2015 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this blog or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

My First Five Favorite Facts about Early Black Atlanta Theatre

By Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                     Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

One of the best things about research is that no matter how long you do it, you always find something new.  As a historian, and particularly one that focuses on theatre, I am always amazed at the rich theatrical heritage of my own native city Atlanta, Georgia and the tremendous role our Historically Black Colleges have played in nurturing that heritage.  There are certainly more facts about this facet of the city than appear on this list, but below are my first five favorite facts:

1. The founder of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the former slave Alonzo Herndon, had a wife that taught Drama and Speech to one of the first academic theatre groups at a historically Black college in the United States.  An amazing thespian, Adrienne Elizabeth McNeill Herndon enjoyed a stellar reputation as an interpreter of Shakespeare.  Married to Alonzo Herndon, she devoted much of her expertise to the students of *Atlanta University (then an undergraduate institution) in the late 19th century, helping to develop and found the Atlanta University Players (not to be confused with the Atlanta University Summer Theatre) and coaching it into an amazing group of actors that made its debut in 1895.  However, Mrs. Herndon was a very fair complexioned woman.  African American scholar Dr. W. E. B. DuBois had the best and most humorous story about her.  Because of her acting abilities (and the fact that she was not always easily identifiable as Black), Thomas Dixon, a white racist playwright offered Mrs. Herndon a part in his play “The Klansman.”  Writing in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in 1927, W. E. B. DuBois noted that Dixon offered her a role in his play in “blissful ignorance of” her race.

2. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre gave its first performance in the summer of 1934 and ran continually until 1977 making it the longest running Summer Stock Theatre in the United States.  The Atlanta University Summer Theatre was made up of student and faculty actors & professors, visiting professors (and some local Atlanta actors) from *Atlanta University, Spelman College (all female), Morehouse College (all male), and later performers from *Clark College, and Morris Brown College.  The Atlanta University Summer Theatre actors and directors performed five full-length plays over a six-week period, during June and July of each summer from 1934 through 1941 alone.  The five-play, six week schedule was not completely abandoned until 1970 when the summer schedule was trimmed to three plays.  (*Founded in 1865 Atlanta University was an undergraduate institution as was *Clark College, founded in 1869.  During the school year 1929-1930, Atlanta University exclusively became a graduate school.  In 1988, however, Atlanta University and Clark College merged and became Clark Atlanta University.)

3. One of the great scientific minds of our time was Morehouse College alumnus Dr. Samuel Nabrit, who earned a Ph.D. in Biology from Brown University in 1932.  An accomplished Marine Biologist*, he taught at both Morehouse College and Atlanta University.  In 1956, President Eisenhower appointed him to the National Board of the National Science Foundation and he served as Special Ambassador to Niger under President John F. Kennedy. (A biography and obituary on Dr. Samuel Nabrit in the New York Times.)  Less well known is that Nabrit was a regular actor performing with the Atlanta University Summer Theatre when he taught at Morehouse College and Atlanta University during the 1930s.  (Sidebar: *Marine Biology was the original academic major of actor Samuel L. Jackson, when he was a student at Morehouse College.)

4. A few weeks before her nineteenth birthday, Black Theatre legend (and then Howard University student) Shauneille Perry spent her summer in Atlanta and appeared as the character “Anias” in Alexander Dumas’ “Camille” during the 15th season (1948) of the Atlanta University Summer Theatre, directed by Owen Dodson.  Shauneille Perry is one of the first Black women to direct an Off-Broadway play and has a long list of credits for both the stage and the screen.  The United States Congress honored Perry in 2011 for her lengthy and prolific career as an actor, playwright and screenwriter.

5. The amazing and rather colorful director-actor-lighting and technical designer Dr. John McLinn Ross, both acted in plays and directed for the Atlanta University Summer Theatre during the 1930s.  Like his colleagues who managed and directed the Atlanta University Summer Theatre (the principle director during the 1930s was Anne M. Cooke, a Spelman professor, along with Owen Dodson), he studied at Yale University’s School of Drama.  Yet, Ross has the distinction of being the first Black person to receive the Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting, Directing, and Technical Directing from the Yale School of Drama in 1935, only four years after Yale graduated the first MFA graduates in Drama.  Atlanta-based photographer & cultural chronicler Susan Ross is the great niece of Dr. John McLinn Ross.

Peace…To be continued…

Leslye Joy Allen is a perpetual and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.
Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

A Little Girl and “The Nativity”

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

For the record, I am a historian and contrary to popular belief, historians are not social scientists.  History belongs in the category of the Humanities, as in the phrase “Arts and Humanities.”  Art and artists tell stories and so do historians.  We just do it in different ways.

Historians analyze and interpret the past.  We ask “why” something happened and we ask “how” something happened.

There are as many different angles and answers to those “how” and “why” questions as there are historians.  Performance art also does this because no two performances are ever the same; and audience members often see and interpret the same story or song in a hundred different ways.

Yet, I digress.

What I really want to share is a particular story, a story about a little girl who sat in an audience and gave me the best lesson about what the arts, particularly theatre, does for an audience.

I have always been fond of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. Many theatre companies in Atlanta have performed this holiday classic over many decades.

I recall seeing many performances of it by Jomandi Productions and many other local Black theatre companies. In recent years, many directors and playwrights have produced their own version of the “Nativity.”

There was yet another re-imagining of this annual story conceived, written, and choreographed by Patdro Harris as part of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company’s annual Christmas offering that played in December of 2011 at the beautiful Southwest Arts Center.

Yet, a couple of years ago, I witnessed Black Nativity for perhaps the eighth or ninth time.  This time, however, I sat behind a little girl who could not have been any older than five or six years old.  I watched her and nostalgically recalled that my first theatre experience occurred on a visit to New York when I was four and a half years old—I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. in Golden Boy.  However, the little girl watching Black Nativity did more than bring up fond childhood memories for me.

Sitting in the dark at the Southwest Arts Center, preparing myself for True Colors Theatre Company’s version of Black Nativity, I watched this child’s face break out in a wide—missing-tooth—grin as the music, dance, and dialogue began.

She watched the show with wonder, that kind of childhood wonder where everything is brand new.  After the show was over, while I chatted with some folks in the lobby, I watched and heard this child make a dozen comments and ask nearly as many questions:

“Mama, I sure did have a good time.”

“Mama, was the baby Jesus a real baby or was it a doll?”

“Mama what do actors do to make themselves look old?”  “

What does “nativity” mean?

How can the same person pretend to be two different people?

The questions and comments from this child kept coming.  Yet that is what the arts do—art always triggers the imagination.  So I often wonder why some legislators do not realize that part of the reason why schools have difficulty raising students’ Math and Science scores is partially due to the fact that there has been a systematic de-emphasis and de-funding of the Arts and the Humanities.

Being able to memorize and regurgitate information is not a clear example of scholastic aptitude; being able to creatively think one’s way through or out of a problem is an explicit illustration of genuine intelligence.  If you think Albert Einstein created his theory of relativity based only on what his science and math teachers taught him, you are dead wrong.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,” Einstein said.

If you think George Washington Carver did not understand the importance of creativity, think again.  Carver emphasized that, “Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible.”  It is not likely Einstein or Carver would have become the geniuses that they were without a genuine respect for the arts.

That little girl I listened to asking questions in the lobby of the Southwest Arts Center would never have asked the kind of questions she asked her mother had her mother decided not to take her to see a play or a musical.

Black Nativity had stoked her young imagination.  When you stoke children’s imaginations, they ask intelligent questions; and when this kind of inquisitiveness is encouraged, they tend to grow up to be adults who ask intelligent questions.  When you have adults who know the right questions to ask, you tend to get a community that will demand and possibly get better public policy on everything from city services to health care to education.

So, do your community, yourself, and your children one favor.  Take yourself, your children or a child to see a play, a Jazz concert, a ballet, and/or an art exhibit.  Now there is no guarantee that you or any child that you expose to the arts will become the next Einstein or Carver, or even a great performance artist.  Yet, why not give them a shot at being any or all of the above.

Peace.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.