Celebrating Centuries of Inspiration

March 8, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

“Can someone hit the house lights? Can I have all the actors in the house?”

Marcus Dargan, an alumni of the BMCC theatre program—as well as an award-winning playwright and co-founder of the NuAfrikan Theatre in Harlem—is directing the dress rehearsal for The Negro Speaks, A Celebration of African American Poetry, Prose, and Music, in BMCC’s north-wing theatre space.

Dargan compiled and adapted the production through the Nu Afrikan Theatre, and in cooperation with the BMCC Speech, Communications, and Theatre Arts department, where he is now an adjunct lecturer, having recently earned his M.S. Ed. in Educational Theatre at City College, CUNY.

“Okay, from the top!” he calls out, and a line of actors surges onto the stage, decked out in black dresses and furs from the Harlem Renaissance era; African head wraps, vests with watch chains, white shirts and a minister’s long black coat.

Weaving across stage, they clap and sing in vibrant harmony, “Wading through the water, children!,” from a traditional Negro spiritual.

300 years of poetry and songs
“I was initially inspired to create The Negro Speaks during the speech class I taught last semester,” Dargan says, referring to his students’ oral interpretation projects.

“One person presented Tupac Shakur’s ‘Changes’, another presented Maya Angelou’s ‘Phenomenal Woman’, and the final student presented Langston Hughes’ ‘Crystal Stair’,” he says, adding that he was “moved by the authenticity in their delivery, and the enthusiasm they shared for the text.”

In January, the BMCC theatre department held auditions for Dargan’s new production inspired by his students’ presentations. He cast several of them in The Negro Speaks, and began pulling the text together.

“I used The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., as my primary source,” he says, and the resulting production features poetry and songs ranging from Phyllis Wheatley’s 1773 classic “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” to Duke Ellington’s 1932 hit, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing),” to Gil Scott-Heron’s seminal work from 1970, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.”

“Pick it up!”
“Put some stamp on it,” Dargan yells out during the dress rehearsal. “Pick it up!”

“Levels!” he shouts. “Use the stools!” and the actors adjust their positions, some standing tall, some crouching down, their attention trained on one person at the center of their group.

“Let me get light cues! … five, four, three, two,” Dargan calls out, and a delicate woman in a black-and-white dress kneels in the spotlight, quietly reciting her piece as another woman gestures gracefully around her.

The works span over 300 years, and take two hours to perform. In the closing number, the entire ensemble gathers on stage.

“The battle ain’t over till the black man sings!” they chant. “The battle ain’t over till the black woman sings! The battle ain’t over till we all sing!”

Dargan calls out, “Saturday Night Live! Saturday Night Live!,” and the actors laugh and hug each other, echoing the well-known TV show’s familiar sign-off, a full cast hugging on stage.

By the community, for the community
In just a couple hours, the cast of The Negro Speaks will run through their performance again, but that time for a packed house, and without their director’s reassuring commands.

“To stage a production in a matter of weeks demands intense dedication,” says Dargan, who brought to the production not only his theatre experience, but insight gained by leading conflict resolution sessions, technique workshops with professional actors and LGBT youth, and social studies enactments with public school children.

Teaching and directing at BMCC is for him, a kind of coming home.

“With minimal time and resources, we were faced with very high expectations and everyone rose graciously to the occasion,” he says of the production that features several BMCC students and alumni, as well as participants from other CUNY colleges. “I encourage our audience to laugh, cry, shout, dance, and sing along with us. This is theatre for your community, by your community!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Negro Speaks was produced and presented by the following individuals: Actors: Noel B. Austin, Christian Baxter, Aissatta Beretay, Alexandra Bernard, Janelle Brathwaite, Duane Burress Jr., Tiffany Caserta, Leroy Graham, David Joel, Carelythia Laguer, Sophonia Pickett, Epiphany Samuels, Nefertiti Warren, Craig Watson and Crystal Williams; Guest Musicians: Larry Roland, Marcos Varela and Nioka Workman; NuAfrikan Theatre: Marcus Dargan and Jajmi V. Robinson; BMCC Faculty Advisors: Professors Liz Chaney, Diane Dowling, Katherine Kavanaugh, Shawna Lucey, Alkis Papoutis and Christopher Peifer; BMCC Student Production Staff and Crew: Aliff Abad, Erikka Anderson, Sabrina Bocel, Tiffany Caserta, Jazmin Fernandez, Franciose Foster, Blake Gainey, Hector Guzman, Kristina Gramlich, Nicole Iovino, Will Johnson, Julian Mobley, Kalia Narruhn, Bilal Patel, Isabella Peralta, Amelia Perez, Ryan Sheopersad and Devonte Springer.