I Celebrate Them

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By Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen.

People that know me well (and some people that barely know me), know that I am a huge advocate for theatre.  I’m a Historian, an Oral Historian, and at the insistence of actors Margo Moorer and Keith Arthur Bolden, I’m also a dramaturge.

I saw the play “FENCES” that was written by the magnificent and late August Wilson decades ago.  Wilson was that rare African-American playwright that thought the particular culture of ordinary Black Americans was as worthy of a story to tell as any other story on earth…And he was right…He was damned right…

One of the joys of being an Oral Historian is interviewing people, many of who will never see their names in a book or newspaper.  Yet, what they can tell us about any particular period of history is invaluable precisely because they will tell you the truth about how any public policy affected them or did not affect them…which is why I always celebrate them…because they are so very important…and sometimes their stories are told in books and in films when most people least expect to see their stories told…So…

I am celebrating the fact that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have brought the stage play FENCES to life as a film…and I am not going to lecture about how many people need to go to see this film or to see plays…

And I am positively, deliriously delighted to see Viola Davis win the Golden Globe for FENCES; and I am delighted that the story of the African American FEMALE scientists who helped put a man on the moon is now brilliantly portrayed in the film HIDDEN FIGURES. Now, what I am about to say in the next few lines matters to me and to a lot of women…

It is rare when Black women (or women in general) receive any visible, tangible praise or remuneration for having brains. Women get called on for advice and to listen to people’s problems; and women get praised for their physical beauty and politeness and tact, but we rarely get praised for being smart…and we rarely get paid for being smart…

Now, while I can almost hear all the good men I personally know getting ready to challenge me on this, I want to remind everybody of one important thing…

President Barack Obama actually awarded the Medal of Freedom to Dr. Katherine Coleman Johnson who is the subject of the film HIDDEN FIGURES, a film that traces her and many other Black women’s mathematical and scientific contributions to the race to place a man on the moon.  The Medal of Freedom is the highest award a president can give to a civilian American.  Actor Taraji P. Henson portrayed Dr. Katherine Coleman Johnson in the film HIDDEN FIGURES.  However, Dr. Johnson won this Medal in December of 2015 and it was featured in a news story in the New York Times and in a few other mainstream newspapers…But

this Medal of Freedom award did not particularly resonate and become viral news with too many folks…Hell, even I stumbled on it much later in mid-2016 and I wondered why I did not know much about this Black woman, myself…But I’m not angry with anybody…and I’m not calling any names because…

When I was a little Black girl growing up in Atlanta, a beautiful and regal and talented and supremely intelligent and gloriously Black woman named Diahann Carroll received death threats from White folks via mail because she was a Black woman who portrayed a widowed nurse named “Julia Baker” on a TV show called “JULIA” back in the late 1960s…and there are folks that think I ought to forget about that…but I will not forget it…and

I, and so many other young Black girls from that era, dreamed of a day when young Black women like Ava DuVernay and Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis and so many other glorious sisters would occupy places in the sun and tell great stories…and I know I am leaving out about three dozen names of some other wonderful sisters, but I am going to ask you all to fill in those extra blanks and go support these young women whenever you can…and I can say that after witnessing my sisters with talent and brains be too often ignored that…

I lived long enough to see enough of them shine without asking anybody’s permission…and I am going to live even longer to see them shine even more and tell some more great stories, and ask no one’s permission to do so…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.

 

 

The Change Agents: A Thought for February

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

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013.  All Rights Reserved.  Self-Portrait.

Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013. All Rights Reserved. Self-Portrait.

Several months ago I heard Black British film director Steve McQueen (not the now-deceased White actor), say that art did not change anything.  I clutched my chest as if I was surely having a massive heart attack at what must be blasphemy.  Later, I figured out what McQueen meant.  Art alters and suspends that space in your head where your creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is located, and then YOU might be able to change yourself or your situation or your mind.  Art is the match or spark, which lights the fire in the potential change agent—YOU!

Now, history has taught us that my brothers and sisters, Black Americans, have, at least since the early twentieth century worked diligently to create art—paintings and sculpture, music and dance, or theatre—that they imbued with the herculean task of changing the way the rest of the world looks at us, and how we look at ourselves.  Too often, the belief is that an artistic representation of us, once seen or experienced, will alter the way others think of us.  This is why so many of my brothers and sisters can hyperventilate until they burst into a sweat (or burst a blood vessel) about a film or television characterization of us that is a pathetic and insulting stereotype or caricature of us that strays far from the truth. Typically, what happens next is a mad search for the most exceptional among us.

This February, 2014, I have been guilty of what WE historians call “chronicling.”  Chronicling is posting basic information about a person or event, often in date order, which we think, or believe to be of “historical significance,” whatever that means.  For Black folks, Black History Month reeks of an unsavory type of history that I, and others, also call “Great Man/Great Woman” history, or “Unsung Man/Unsung Woman” history.  I call it unsavory because it never really satisfies—It is the history of our people whom we see (or have been taught to see), as exceptional, or the exception to the rule.  I am also as guilty of it as anybody else.  Yet, this month, February 2014, in many of my Facebook and Twitter posts, I deliberately focused on Black people that have contributed to or participated in theatre.  I did not do this to simply cast a light on Black folks in the theatre that I think everyone should know about.  It was also designed to cast a light on Black theatre itself, something Black folks, those who were theatre professionals and those who were not, used to participate in on a regular basis as a matter of ritual, as a matter of teaching and learning, as a matter of lifting the spirit.

It did not matter whether the person(s) had talent or not, theatre was what WE did for each other and for ourselves.  In the early days of the twentieth century, theatre had not yet become the rather parochial profession as some folks think of it today, but rather it remained an essential exercise in the communal rituals we always participated in as a people.  After all, nobody said you needed talent to recite an Easter Speech or to memorize and recite a poem, did they?  Mama, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa all thought you “did good” up there on that stage even if you would never, ever be able to act or sing your way out of a jar, to say nothing of survive an audition.  I say all of this to make a few simple points…

Take one moment and forget about “Great Man/Great Woman History.”  Forget about “Unsung Man/Unsung Woman History,” and begin to look at your mothers, fathers, grandparents and others who belong to so many generations before you as the “multi-talented,” “multi-hat-wearing,” “multi-title-holding,” “multi-I’m-going-to-get-this-done-if-it-kills-me” people that they were.  When you do this, you will begin to measure greatness not by accolades and plaques, but by how well something they did served them, saved them and you, and whether it is or is not possible for you to emulate them.  Then you will find out everything you ever needed to know that never went into a History Book or on the cover of a magazine or in a documentary about our/your people.  You will then find that match or spark that ignites you—the change agent!  Ashé!

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 © 2014 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 and visibly stated as the author.

Artistic and Intellectual Dangers: Two Scenarios

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

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

Scenario One:

Although it now seems ages ago, I remember one of my former classmates told me something quite revelatory shortly before my graduation from Agnes Scott College.  She told me that when my classes were over, and I had turned in that last paper, I was going to make a discovery:  I would discover my reading and analysis addiction.  I laughed.  After all, I thought, we both were older when we returned to school to complete our college degrees.  Were we not naturally immune to the kind of excesses that affected much younger women?  Agnes Scott’s student body was and still is well over a fourth non-traditional age students, meaning students over the age of 25.

The benefit of attending school with students of various ages was that we all learned something from each other.  I was a History major and every semester I was usually assigned anywhere from 18 to 22 books to read in semesters that were usually no longer than 15 or 16 weeks.  When my classmate (who graduated before me) told me that after graduation she would get up at 6:00 AM just to go out to fetch the morning newspaper to read, I was certain she was telling one of her funny stories.  I was wrong!

After I turned in my final paper for the Senior History Colloquium, I lounged around for a couple of days and then it started: the hunt for reading material.  Now, I already owned over a thousand books.  I suddenly found myself opening books and re-reading chapters of books I had read years ago; then magazines, scholarly journals, and the TV guide.  I read a couple of stage plays, including the stage directions.  Was it possible for me to just stop reading and just let my brain relax for a moment?  Was it possible for me to pause and not do what I was trained to do?  Yet, if I did read something, could I read it just for pleasure?

Like most “Scotties,” my classmate gave me some good advice.  She said we all know that most people need to read more.  We tell our children to read books; and there is a genuine crisis in how little some people read.  Yet, she said, anything you cannot turn off for a while is controlling you, not the other way around.  Reading is absolutely necessary and essential to any good education.  Yet, when you have to struggle to allow yourself to take a break, there is a problem.  Reading and deep analysis must always be self-directed.  Deep analysis can become ineffective once it becomes an involuntary reflex.

Scenario Two:

On a few occasions, I have attended stage plays with actors.  Most of these actors I love to death.  We have sat in the audience making small talk before the show began and then WHAM!  Less than two minutes into the production, the same actors that I love were analyzing every thing:  “I wonder why the set designer placed that chair over there?”  “How did the stylist get that woman’s hair to look like that?”  After the play was over, the analysis really kicked into high gear:  “I thought that this character should have entered from the left instead of the right.”  “It was a great play, but I would have placed the intermission in a different place.”  “Why was that odd sculpture on the table in the corner?”  Soon I was thinking to myself, “Why, oh why, did I not just come to see this play by myself?”

Now, to be fair, all actors, playwrights, directors, and etcetera have to analyze plays like this.  If they do not do this, they risk overlooking important details that might compromise the integrity of their future performances and productions.  It is an exercise in understanding what works on a stage and what does not work on a stage.  They cannot take anything for granted: the lighting, the set, costumes, particular moments in the script that they believe need to grab the audience’s attention.  Yet, there is a problem when the criticisms and evaluations seem to run on automatic pilot.  There is also a problem in not being able to simply sit in an audience and just enjoy the show.

So why are these two scenarios a bit dangerous?  After all, there is every reason to complain about the lack of intellectual and artistic stimulation in society as a whole.  Most of us with any degree of brains knows that putting a book in a child’s hands or taking them to see a play or to a concert is far better than giving them $200 sneakers and video games.  Most of us have witnessed the performance that pandered to the audience for cheap laughs or sank into a ridiculous melodrama designed to do nothing more than make people weep.  We have all read the book or essay that seemed written purely for titillation.  We do not need any of that.  Yet…

The danger in never being able to simply watch a performance just for sheer enjoyment is dangerously close to losing the joy of viewing performance art altogether.  The danger in not being able to momentarily, put the book down or not being able to stop analyzing everything is also very close to becoming entirely disconnected from the very people you wish to reach and teach.  When you watch what they watch or read what they read, do you do so through their eyes and ears?  How can you know what the people expect or need to know or want to know or want to experience or need to experience unless you occasionally JOIN THEM?

So, take a moment and just chill.  Every once and awhile, when you read, simply drink in whatever you are reading, and leave your criticisms, questions, and analysis for some later time.  If you are watching a play or listening to a piece of music, just watch, just listen, just enjoy.  Pause and try to recall when everything that you know now (or think you know now) was once perfectly fresh and new to you.  Take that occasional moment to deliberately NOT review, but to renew.  Then, get back to work!

Peace.

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.

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.