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[whitespace] 'Blues for an Alabama Sky'
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Souls of Black Folk: Eddie Miller and Noble Monyei rehearse a scene from 'Blues for an Alabama Sky.'

Common Ground

UCSC's African American Theater Arts Troupe revives the history and culture of a people

By Kiet Tran

'WE DO NOT need colorblind casting; we need some theatres to develop our playwrights. ...Without theatres we cannot develop our talents," said Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, in his famous speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," delivered at a national theater conference at Princeton.

The statement reverberates when Don Williams, founder and artistic director of UCSC's African American Theater Arts Troupe, talks about his vision for a multicultural theater.

In between questions in the car, as Williams shuttles his young son D.J. to school, he plans the evening's rehearsal of Blues for an Alabama Sky and thinks about the day's agenda for his full-time position as Facilities Coordinator for UCSC's theater department.

"There simply is not enough multicultural theater," he says plainly. This is the sentiment that keeps him coming back every year and producing plays of color. It is fitting poetic justice--the story about the fighter who keeps on getting beaten down only to come back for more.

"There were times when I had to scramble to get a show on its feet," he recalls. Scrambling meant rehearsing in dorm rooms due to lack of rehearsal space, and calling up the Lorraine Hansberry Theater to rent a set because the production staff was reassigned to another project. Minor obstacles like this don't seem to faze him.

Williams offers to tell me a story: "When I was in the fourth grade, there was a private Catholic school right next to our public school. And the school had a football team. They had a rule that three non-Catholics could play on the football team. Well, that year I tried out and after the tryouts the coach said to everybody, 'Okay everybody, if you find equipment in your locker after tryouts you made it. Come back on Monday.'

"I went and tried out and when we were all done, everybody was looking in the locker and cheering and I looked in mine and there was no equipment. Everybody went out to practice on the field and I found some mismatched shoulder pads and tied them together with shoelace and a mismatched pair of kneepads and stuffed them in my pants and went out on the field that day to practice, and after practice the coach got us all around in the huddle, and I looked at him and he had tears coming out, and he said, 'Boys, that boy Donny wants to play football.' Come in on Monday and I'll have some equipment for you."

I have in fact heard this story twice, but the second time around it's as fresh and full of emotion as the first.

The troupe's philosophy is grounded in Williams' experience. As a rule he tries to spend one-on-one time with all of his production staff to make sure they have a clear understanding of the process of putting on a show. From his point of view, this "builds a sense of family," an environment in which African American students and community members can share experiences.

Williams' committment to inclusiveness extends to casting actors who often have little or no previous performance experience. Giving everyone the opportunity to participate and perform is the troupe's priority.

Cast of Thousands

UNDERGRADUATE enrollment statistics reflect a slow decline of African American students over the last 10 years at UCSC, dropping from 3 percent of the university's population in 1990 to 2.5 percent in the fall of 2000. The decline may also have been due to the 1995 UC Regents' decision to ban Affirmative Action from enrollment of underrepresented minorities with Proposition 209.

J. Michael Thompson, admissions vice chancellor for outreach, considers the troupe to be of great value in the recruitment and retention of African American students, as well as a reflection of their quality of life on campus.

As part of its agreement with the university, the troupe tours at high schools and community colleges throughout California. Members perform and speak to underrepresented students in hopes of attracting them to pursue higher education at UCSC.

In return, the office of admission funds a portion of the theater company's touring costs as well as the time Don Williams spends working with the troupe. University research shows the troupe is having an overwhelmingly positive effect. The applicant pool for Fall 2001 quarter showed a 36 percent increase in African American students as well as other students of color.

Ordinary Heroes

THIS THURSDAY, the troupe celebrates its 10th anniversary with the opening of Pearl Cleage's acclaimed play, Blues for an Alabama Sky.

Set in 1930, the play begins at the twilight of the Harlem Renaissance and the dawn of the Great Depression. Harlem in the 1920s was a time of great artistic and social bounty for blacks, producing legends like Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker. By the time the '30s rolled around, the lights of Harlem were fading.

Blues follows the lives of five ordinary characters who dream of making it big in life. It was important for Cleage to focus on the ordinary "heroes" because she felt the lives of ordinary people weren't celebrated enough.

Williams considered reprising the troupe's first production, the African American classic Ceremonies of Dark Old Men, but chose Cleage's play instead for its combination of "spiritual, historical and dramatic content. Often in dealing with American history," he says, "African American history and culture is overlooked."

The play also has a strong spiritual component--a essential factor in William's decision to stage it. The diverse spirituality of African American culture is reflected in many of the troupe's past productions, including the famed Fences by August Wilson and Tambourines to Glory, a musical by Langston Hughes.

UCSC graduate Tobias Wilson, 23, who portrays Guy, a gay costume designer in Blues for an Alabama Sky, is grateful for the opportunity the troupe and Williams have given him. "When I first started doing Rainbow Theater [a sister theater troupe], Don made me feel like I had a gift," Wilson says.

The theater "builds relationships," says Regina Hatfield, outreach coordinator for admissions. For Patricia Russell, who performs the role of Angel in the play, the troupe has boosted her self-confidence by allowing her to perform in front of large audiences. Shanta Wilson, a third-year American literature and theater arts major, has found in the troupe plays that deal with "issues affecting people of color," which she says she doesn't find enough of in the department.

Don Williams' mantra is that "the road of living life is always filled with stumbling blocks and one must hold on and work through them." This gem of truth has given countless numbers of black students the chance to understand--as August Wilson emphasized--that their histories, their experiences and their stories count. Actor Tobias Wilson brings up a scene in Blues for an Alabama Sky in which collard greens are mentioned. He says such familiar imagery provides an authentic black experience, reconnecting him to his own family and grandparents.

"The thing the African American Theater Arts Troupe has done for me," he says, "is to bring me back to my culture."

Blues for an Alabama Sky plays Feb. 15-18, Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sunday 3pm; UCSC Second Stage; $6-$9; 831.459.2159.

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From the February 14-21, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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