The Maxwell Becton College of Arts and Sciences and the theater arts program at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s College at Florham is presenting its first Black History Month production, appropriately titled “Black History, Black Voices: A Celebration of African American Theatre.” With two scheduled performances on Feb. 25 and Feb. 26, the production features FDU’s first all-black student cast.
Stage manager James Michaelson has expressed his excitement about working with the first all-black student cast. “It’s great that [the theater students] are moving away from doing strictly main stage performances,” said Michaelson. “This is a way of blending cultural experiences and expanding the program even more.”
While the inaugural performance will certainly be ground-breaking, its roots and inception are of a humbler caliber. Angelica Herndon, the assistant director and a cast member, can be credited with the origin of the production. A freshman theater major, Herndon had always been surrounded by theater at home in Flossmoor, Ill. According to Herndon, her mother, a playwright and producer, originally introduced Herndon to the theater through performances at church.
Herndon’s parents, who graduated from Northwestern University, often talked about a “black theater initiation” they experienced their freshman year of college. Herndon was inspired by her parents’ experience and decided to attend the Black History Month committee meetings at FDU. After sitting through the meeting, Herndon felt dismayed as the committee had planned nothing for the theater. So she took matters into her own hands. Herndon’s plan was to put on a performance to honor and celebrate blacks as part of Black History Month.
After speaking with her fellow students, Herndon felt confident that there was enough student interest to present the idea to the theater department. Herndon pitched her idea to Stacie Lents, assistant theater professor, who was “extremely excited and supportive,” according to Herndon.
Lents, who is in her second semester of teaching at FDU, immediately gravitated towards Herndon’s proposal. “I was so inspired by her excitement and interest,” said Lents.
Featuring three renowned African American writers – August Wilson, Nikki Giovanni and George C. Wolfe – and six different pieces, the production will present a sampling of each of the writers’ works. Lents selected the individual pieces and adapted them for the performance’s purposes.
“We aren’t just working with conventional texts,” said Lents. “We are using poetry from Nikki Giovanni, for example, and adapting the poetry for dialogue.”
When selecting which works to perform, Lents laid down a few limitations. “The works had to fit two criteria,” said Lents. “One: They were works by African American writers who contributed to the black theater canon. Two: the subject matter honored black achievement.”
Through the combination of the chosen pieces, Lents has given the cast an opportunity “to be in dialogue with black history.” Lents believes that everyone can relate to the chosen pieces. She also believes each piece is important to each artist in a different way. “The point is to honor history, not to exclude anyone,” said Lents.
The largely freshman cast has also been asked by Lents to keep small reflection journals to document their process. The cast and crew are also seeking to create a documentary of their process, according to stage manager Michaelson.
“Actors will get a chance to explain their experience,” said Michaelson. “The audience will get a backstage view and see how the production impacts the cast and crew.”
Michaelson also said that the cast and crew intends on putting the reflection journals on display in the Barn where the performances will be held. “Audiences will get to peruse before and after and get to see the cast’s process,” said Michaelson.
Herndon believes that the documentary and journals are a great way to see the evolution of the actors, how the production came to be and how each actor relates to his or her characters.
Rehearsals, which have been ongoing since last week, have kept the cast busy. According to Lents, Herndon and Michaelson, scheduling has been extremely tricky. Sandwiched between the auditions for the two main stage productions, the cast and crew of the Black History Month performance have had to juggle multiple tasks. Michaelson said that many of the cast and crew also have been cast in the productions “Sweet Charity” and “Whose Life is it Anyway?”
Herndon, who is cast in both “Sweet Charity” and the Black History Month production, described her experience as “living in a constant limbo.” And because she can’t attend every rehearsal for the Black History Month production, she depends heavily on Lents, Michaelson and Chaelee Chaput, the assistant stage manager. As for the rehearsals she has taken a part of, Herndon said. “It is good! When we ran through it, it all really came together.”
Lents remained equally optimistic. “This is just a strong example of what is possible in an educational environment.”
But with any production comes challenges. “We have taken on something ambitious,” said Lents, in reference to the short amount of rehearsal time and the limited resources available. Lents described the production as being presented in a “workshop style” format with few production values.
According to Lents, the cast are pulling their costumes and settings from what either the department or the cast already has available. Despite limited production values, Lents, the cast and crew are taking advantage of the situation.
“With the workshop format, the focus is on the artistry, the writing and the process of the performance,” said Lents. Michaelson believes it is harder with fewer production values.
“We have to use what we already have and adapt,” said Michaelson. “What lacks in ornate setting is made up with great acting.”
Herndon also appreciated the value of a workshop format. “We wanted to keep that abstract feel to it. Sometimes plays are all about the set. This is raw. We take away the distractions so your focus is on the actors and the messages.”
And that message, according to Herndon, is love. “I believe the overall theme is love but not just in a relationship sense,” said Herndon. “It is love for your self, love of others. It is making a connection. It’s love that ties us all together.”
Lents, Herndon and Michaelson all hope to continue a Black History Month production in the years to follow.
Lents believes the production is “charting new territory” and hopes to continue this project.
Michaelson looks forward to potentially continuing as stage manager and hopes to help build a “five-year plan” for future Black History Month productions.
Herndon also wishes to see it grow in flourish in the up and coming years. “Words cannot describe how emotional and inspiring this whole process has been for me,” said Herndon.
Herndon, whose family is flying in from Illinois to see the production, says she is so grateful for the help of the cast and crew.
“It is amazing to be able to cross this off my list at only 19,” laughed Herndon. “Everyone has been so committed.”
The cast of “Black History, Black Voices: A Celebration of African American Theatre” includes Candyce Atkins, Laymah Cisco, Kadi Cisse, Kristin Fulton, Garry Jones, Ra’John Raeford, Kier “KJ” Thompson and Angelica Herndon.
Performances will be held on Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. with a reception at 6:30 p.m. and Feb. 26 at 4:00 p.m. in the newly renovated Barn Theatre. Admission is free.