Since 2016 we have been fortunate to work with AHS’s theater ensemble, the amazing students and their highly dedicated directors and staff. This years musical Sweet Charity explored issues of sexism misogyny and especially how young people are impacted in the systems we live in. Ward Dales, Gregory Theodore Marsh, Noelle Gentile and NCBI, are true masters of creating safe space for the students to share their own stories and experiences around the topics. Creating a performance that is not only about the story itself - it’s about everyone who has every been in a situation of toxic societal norms and for everyone else learning how to be an ally.
Over the years we have been fortunate to experience the transformative work of AHS Theater Ensemble and NCBI, bringing students stories, experiences and observations to the stage. The production of 2018, Blaq Boi is a truly deeply moving, pure and honest student written performance about the young black male experiences in this country today.
Growing out of initial workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as the student’s own experiences, the performance put the spotlight on racial identity; institutional racism, white privilege and internalized oppression, and celebrating the black America.
In addition to the performed play, each act was accompanied by real footage from the news, and an open heartfelt talkback followed each of the four performances. Needless to say, no one left the theater untouched. Keep your eyes open to the journey of Blaq Boi, because this, as one of the students very precisely said: “This is a movement.”
The play was written by students Camille Dobbs, Jacklyn Flynn, Thia Fowler, Sion Hardy, Jaidyn Hires, Xji-Anne Hudson, Zanief Washington and Immanuel Williams, and director Gregory Theodore Marsh.
AHS Theater Ensemble's director Gregory Theodore Marsh, co-director Ward Dales and Noelle Gentile, worked with Tawana Davis and Ira Baumgarten of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), an international leadership group that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion. In addition, NCBI worked with the cast, crew and writers on how to honestly and comfortably discuss racism. On the production team was also Arts Letters & Numbers Associate Director Frida Foberg as set designer.
Directors notes from Gregory Theodore Marsh:
"Have you ever been racially profiled? Have you ever walked down the street and had someone in front of you cross the street because they felt unsafe? Have you ever had someone be so amazed with your success because they couldn’t believe that someone who looked like you could achieve so much? Have you ever had someone say, “I’m not saying this because you’re Black, but…”? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then are someone who has experienced some of the pain and frustration of being Black in America.
What does it mean to be a Black man in America? For some it means a life dictated by circumstances that are beyond your control. For some it means “beating the odds”. For some it means having a life of little societal value. For me it means living in a world that made its mind up about me before I was even born. A world that said that my worth was predicated on my ability to “rise above”. I’ve spent much of my artistic life pandering to the needs of white people. My work centered on telling predominantly white stories, many tokenizing the Black presence. And on the rare occasion that the story was Black, or ethnic, whitewashing only further invaded spaces that should have been reserved for people of color. I am forever grateful for what I have been fortunate enough to do, but I look back on those early years of shucking and jiving and I see a man who had lost his sense of self and his ownership of his blackness.
Our protagonist “Treasure Johnson” is a black boy who represents all Black boys. His voice, along with that of his father and his chorus of Black men known as The Pride, serve as representations of who Black men really are. Regardless of the different places and circumstances we may come from, we can all relate to Treasure. His story begins after his family is met with an unspeakable tragedy that changes the trajectory of his life. As he grows and matures, he yearns to be on TV, but he struggles to find his voice. It isn’t until Treasure discovers his father’s tapes that were recorded before he was born, that he begins to find his voice and truly begins to own what will be become his Black pride. While his mother and his best friend, Isabis, are perpetual voices of reason and pride, they are often overshadowed by the white “allies” and adversaries in his life. His school friend Scott, media darling Michelle Carrier, and even one of Treasure’s teachers serve as examples of white “allies” who have yet to recognize their own complicity in displaying and living in their white privilege. They highlight white liberalism that still does not give space for them to understand what it means to be an ally to marginalized groups.
Blaq Boi is piece that serves not to educate, but to celebrate. We celebrate being unapologetically Black against a system that portrays us in an unsavory manner. Much of the media’s depictions of Black men paints us onto a white canvas with brush strokes that come from the hands of white people. We do not choose to be seen as thugs and criminals, but these are the expectations that are usually placed upon us. For our students, this play serves as an opportunity to highlight a voice that is rarely heard. Our Black students, writer and actors, have spent this school year working on a play that allowed them to be unabashedly proud of the richness in their Blackness. They have put all of their hearts and souls into this play and have embraced the idea that their Black is beautiful. For our white students involved, they have made a conscious choice to be allies in telling this story. Through this meeting of the minds, all of our students have gained a sense of pride whether it is a pride in being Black or pride in being an effective ally.
I am incredibly proud of the work our students have done not just telling this story, but allowing themselves the freedom to be honest and authentic. I would like to thank Tawana Payton-Davis, Ira Baumgarten, Joyce Shabazz, and the National Coalition Building Institute for their assistance in preparing our students, and adults, for this monumental undertaking. We have all come to an understanding of the necessity to tell this story. Too often, the Black boy voice goes unheard. Blaq Boi is a play that takes this voice and allows it to shout from the mountain top. While it may be uncomfortable for some, it is a story that is poignant, proverbial, and must be told. We are resilient. We are brilliant. We are empowered."
Directed by our dear friends Ward Dales & Gregory Theodore Marsh, Albany High School Theater Ensemble performed Oliver! at The Albany High School Theatre in Albany, NY, in early April.
Based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Lionel Bart’s frothy musical adaptation boasts some on the most classic tunes in all of Broadway history. And as with all of AHS Theatre Ensemble's productions, the audience got to experience a “twist on Twist,” as they explored the show’s deeper themes of lost innocence, corruption, classism, and social decay.
ALN's Che Perez and Frida Foberg have had the great opportunity to work with the team behind the production, and has designed the set for this unique version of Oliver!
“The project helps people find a place of home in themselves and you learn from it and then you get to share it with the world.”
-Bianke, 11th grade participant
“You can never take what I fought for as a child in the refugee camp, the love of my life, the opportunity to learn. “
-Ar, 12th grade participant
“Try to take away my pride, take away my hopes leaping high. But you will hear this beautiful black girl’s voice because I matter.”
-Camille, 10th grade participant
What did a teenager escaping the juggles of Burma have in common with a teenager fleeing Iraq in fear of political reprisals? What do teenagers leaving Mexico and Haiti both for family economic survival have in common with African American teenagers who are stopped by police on the block where they live and questioned about stealing groceries they just bought for their Mom?
All were students in Albany High School’s after school Social Justice Theatre program. In 2016 the students wrote, developed and performed a play entitled Which Way Home that told their person and family journeys to find a place of home, a place of peace in Albany, New York.
Arts, Letters and Numbers was invited to collaborate with the Theatre Program to witness the students in the telling of their stories and to design a single stage set that would be used for this production along with seven other student-written and performed plays as part of an annual festival. After the festival, ALN hosted the Albany students at the Mill and with Youth FX, a local non-profit film arts program, they filmed and produced a dramatization of students’ stories.
The Social Justice Theatre Director, Noelle Gentile, explained, “The purpose of the piece is to highlight the transformative power of listening to one another, hearing each other’s stories and discovering the bonds that unify us. The piece aims to empower all those involved and those who witness it as audience members.”
Other collaborators in this project included the National Coalition Building Institute who facilitated coalition building and story telling activities with the students that formed the basis for the script for Which Way Home.
These films will then go on to be a teaching tools in classrooms with students grappling with similar issues.
Collaboration with Albany High School Theatre Ensemble, Capitol Rep, National Coalition Building Institute and Youth FX and Arts Letters and Numbers