A photo taken of my high school friends and I at our graduation. Circa: 2014
In January 2017, I hosted a workshop for the graduating performing arts students at Cicely L. Tyson High School, my alma mater. I wrote a letter sharing what I had experienced graduating from high school and transitioning to a college for the performing arts. I included a reading list of books that helped with that transition and plays I read and enjoyed during my first two years of undergrad.
Read it here:
I graduated from our high school in June 2014, I couldn't have totally prepared myself for how college would change my life, even if I knew what was to come. I chose to attend The New School for Drama in New York City. I had my hopes set on living on campus, in an apartment style dorm, to truly get the New York experience, but the bill for school came, and the amount of zeros shocked me into reality. I had gotten a scholarship from The New School covering 40% of my tuition because they were very pleased with my audition, as well as three outside scholarships for $500 each, but I still couldn't afford to pay for housing and tuition. My first reality check slapped me in the face before I started school, I would have to commute. I cried, because my plan was changing, but my first reality check was: PLANS CAN CHANGE, Most likely they will change.
I spent my summer trying not to let the change of plans discourage me from having the best experience in school. Orientation week for The New School for Drama started at the end of August, I had to read The Color of Water by James McBride, to prepare. I walked into the theatre that I had seen during my tour of the school, in April when I auditioned, but this time, it was filled with the other 49 students who had auditioned and been accepted, just like me; however, only 6 of them looked like me. The majority of the program was made up of people who looked white to me, I knew I was attending a PWI (predominantly white institution), but I always thought the word “predominantly” was an exaggeration. Don't get me wrong, I'd attended a middle school with 1000 students, and my brother and I were 2 of 12 Black students, I wasn't a stranger to being a minority, but I thought about the plays I wanted to do, and the plays that made me fall in love with acting, those casts were all Black. I guessed we wouldn't be doing any of those plays at this school. We started orientation off in a large circle to introduce ourselves. It was hard for me to listen to the students introducing themselves, because I was thinking about what I would say when it was my turn, the second reality check: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT ME.
I gave my name and my little “two interesting facts”, and I locked eyes with another Black student who was sitting across from me; I couldn't remember his name because I hadn't been listening when it was his turn to share, but he’d obviously been listening to me. If I knew then, what I know now, I would've listened to him, but everything happens for a reason. After we introduced ourselves, we broke off into small groups to do an activity that required us to problem solve, I hated the activity, so I blocked it from my memory. Knowing me, I hated it because I had to work with people I didn't know. I learned later, that was only the beginning of being grouped unwillingly.
We broke off for lunch, and the Black student, from across the circle, came over to me. I asked what his name was, he said his name was Avon, and he really liked what I said about myself. He was from Baltimore School of the Arts (Tupac and Jada Pinket Smith went there, so I was listening now.) I was intrigued, we spent the rest of the lunch break just talking about our creative interests and our career goals. He later became my soul mate, and we never used that term in a romantic way. After break, we went back inside and sat together. It was time to devise a performance piece based on the book, The Color of Water. I was so happy to know I would be in a group with Avon. I would spend the rest of the week trying to make art with these strangers and Avon… I got my third reality check: THIS ART S#!+ CAN GET WEIRD.
Avon and I had someone take a picture of us together, so we could post first day of college pictures on instagram. I posted the picture, with the caption, “Good vibes”. The picture wasn’t even up for ten minutes before I got a firm text, from my boyfriend at the time, to take the picture down. I had been dating this boy since I was a junior in high school, and I thought we would be together forever. I actually considered taking the picture down, because he was a year behind me, still in high school, and I didn't want to do anything to make him insecure about my being in college. However, I didn't want to delete the picture, and make my new friend think I was fake. That day, I made the first decision that led to the end of my relationship with the person I thought I'd marry, I kept the picture up, same caption and all. I'd seen my boyfriend angry, but never that angry. I had to block his number to make him stop calling and texting me. He came to my house, and after learning that I didn't plan on deleting the picture, he started to delete himself from my life. That was just the first straw the led to the camel’s broken back.
I returned to the second day of orientation week, after a night of tears, not sure if I was ready to create a performance piece with my strange classmates and Avon, but I didn't have a choice. They offered us breakfast, (they wouldn't give us free food again, until next year’s orientation week). We broke off into our small groups, and we got to work. We kept rehearsing for the rest of the week, and finally it was time to perform the piece in front of the larger group. My group was scheduled to perform second to last, so I got to see what the other groups created before it was our time to go up. I saw one group strip down to their underwear, a group stage a fight, and other things I didn't know was possible to create in a few days; I was obviously in a less ambitious group (I can't say I was disappointed). I can admit I liked being in the less ambitious group and preferred to keep my clothes on. We went up and did our piece, it was definitely the most simple. It involved miming in front of a mirror and trading off speaking roles. The class as a whole commented on our simplicity, and I was happy to be through with orientation week and through with being pushed into groups (I thought wrong).
I was ready to start classes. I was registered for global dramatic literature, writing and critique, foundations in acting, imagination and synthesis, aesthetic inquiry, and monologue technique. I named global dramatic literature first, because that was the class that gave me my fourth reality check, I'll share the name of the reality check after I tell you a little about it. Global dramatic literature was a class designed to introduce us to plays that ALL theatre makers should read, and the history of theater. On the first day I learned that the other students (most of them white) had engaged with most of these plays and the different styles of theater. We discussed the syllabus, and it seemed like it was written in Spanish to me. The syllabus featured plays from Shakespeare (I’d only read Romeo and Juliet and heard about Hamlet), Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, Moliere’s Tartuffe, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr.Faustus, Everyman (play), yes I know sounds Spanish to you too. I had never read any of these plays, and I felt like I had been done a disservice in my public school performing arts education, because I had never been introduced to what was considered to be classic theatrical literature. The fourth reality check was called: GO HARD OR GO HOME. I went home the first day of global dramatic literature, and after crying over feeling unprepared I ordered the required textbook (even used it was $50, thank God for those book scholarships), and I looked online to see if I could find free PDFs of the plays we were going to read later in the semester. I wanted to get familiar with the plays in order to be able to contribute to the conversations and sound/be well-read and well-versed in theater. I'm sharing this story because this was my introduction to college, feeling like the other students already had a head start. It is easy to let that defeat you, but only the strong survive and succeed.
Since that fourth reality check I've had hundreds of reality checks that I couldn't cash, many “aha” moments, and breakdowns, but I've also grown and am still growing everyday. There is no perfect school, but there is a school that is perfect for you. Some of you may choose to go to Two-Year conservatory programs or choose not to go to school at all, but I'm going to share why I picked The New School and how I know it was the best choice for me. The New School for Drama’s BFA (bachelors in fine arts) program was brand new when I sent them my deposit on May 1st. There was only one class of students in front of me, which means no one had graduated from the program yet, there was no way for me to see what kind of “artists” would grow out of this program. I put “artist” in quotes because I had never referred to myself as an artist until I went to The New School. I was an actress, and I thought that was all…. I thought. I auditioned for The New School for Drama, and felt a passion and a peace in my heart, that I’d never felt before. The building was walking distance from the Hudson River, the theatre was intimate, but still big enough for a decent sized audience, and the people who auditioned me were such warm people. I was choosing between Spelman College and The New School, but my heart was already in New York City.
The New School gives students the opportunity to produce our own work in a course called Creative Cafe. We can do any play we’d like to do, we can cast who we’d like, and we get to perform it in a space we’re given by the school. I auditioned for the main stage production at The New School, and I earned a lead role my first time auditioning, but it was in a “cute” play about dungeons and dragons, however, it wasn't the kind of play I would want to do in my professional career. Through creative cafe, I've done things I never thought I'd be able to do. I starred in my favorite play, Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, I got a group of my friends (other Black students including Avon) to write a play and produce it at school, that play ended up being performed at The Fringe Festival (which is a big deal in NYC), I starred in a new musical that another one of those Black friends of mine wrote, I’m stage managing for one of those Black friends, who is about to be a member of the first graduating class, next semester. She's writing a play that she’s also going to direct and star in. I am not trying to sell you on The New School, it is the perfect program for me, but I would recommend if you'd like a program do your own research and VISIT THE SCHOOL. I didn't know I wanted to write as much as I do (I couldn't help but to write you this note, I love it so much), until I became a student at The New School.
College or any type of training is one of the most important decisions of your life because of the people you'll meet, the places you'll go, and the art you'll fall in love with. I’ve developed an insatiable hunger for knowledge, and I work to feed my brain through art, literature, and conversations with people who are hungry just like I am. I must write about Avon again, because he has been such an important part of my journey. Many of those “aha” moments and reality checks ended with a hug from him and a reminder that I’m brilliant and my desire to be great is valid. I’ve learned that who you surround yourself with is just as important as the books you read. A lot of your thinking will come from evaluating things in class and breaking them down further with your close friends. You will be as successful as your five closest friends. Your friends should never discourage you from doing anything you wish to do. I met Avon at school, and I will be entering the world with him. The most important element of our friendship is communication. He matters too much to me for us to stop speaking over something that hurt either of our feelings. Growing up in East Orange, just like you, I know so many friendships end over misunderstandings and miscommunications. Don’t lose someone you love over pride.
I’ve developed a love for Shakespeare, a love for reading, a love for Black women (I took two courses that were Black women specific at school: Narratives of Black Women and Womanist/Black Feminist Theater), a love for fine art/fine artists (painters,sculptors) a love for East Orange (a desire to see East Orange in a better light). The New School is giving me the opportunity to teach a theatre class in Brooklyn starting in February until May. I never dreamed of teaching, but now I realize how important it is to share the knowledge someone shares with you, which is why I wanted to come back to see you. I will go on to have the acting career I want, because I believe in myself and my brilliance. I know the fight for what I want is worth it. I believe in you as much as I believe in myself. I couldn’t have grown as much as I have if I didn’t leave my small mind in high school. I left small thinking and negative attitudes behind. I am twenty now, only two or three years older than you, but I can see greatness in my future. I can see greatness in all of our futures, but it starts with YOU.
Some of your parents may not see the future as colorfully as you and I, but you must not let go of what makes you want to get up in the morning. I have to leave my house two hours before class starts because I have made it my duty to always arrive thirty minutes before I have to be somewhere, it gives me time to collect my thoughts and enter the room with my best energy. I can only be my best self, because I love what I’m doing. I want the same for all of you. There is no happiness in playing it safe, and if your parents want you to pick a “safer” career path try to express your passion and your desire to them. This is your life, and you are in the perfect position to chase a dream, and that may require some scary alone time. I’ve attached a suggested reading list of plays and writers who have helped me get to this point in my journey. If you’re auditioning for an acting program, and you’re looking for a monologue, there are some great monologues and scenes in these plays. I have read many books that I’ve loved since I started school, and I will share those with you as well. I had to search for many of the Black writers I’m featuring, because representation isn’t always featured on the syllabi for your classes, sometimes you have to find it yourself, but don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t there. I care about you, and if you have any more questions feel free to contact me.
Wishing you the best,
Gearing Up to Go On
Black plays written by Black playwrights for Black actors:
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark
Crumbs From The Table of Joy
For Colored Girls
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning
Children of Killers
Our Lady of Kibeho
The Piano Lesson
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Gem of the Ocean
Two Trains Running
King Hedley II
Suzan Lori Parks:
The America Play
In The Blood
Father Comes Home From The War
A Raisin in the Sun
Zora Neale Hurston:
A Blues for Mister Charlie
The Amen Corner
Wine in the Wilderness
Mojo and the Sayso
Black Theatre USA (21 Black Plays)
The Fire This Time: African American Plays for the 21st Century
There are more Black playwrights, but I haven’t read their work yet, you may like them, so google them. Some of them are featured in the anthologies I mentioned :
Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
George C. Wolfe
Tarell Alvin McCraney (he wrote the play that the new popular film Moonlight is based on)
Douglas Turner Ward
Peter van Deist: Everyman
Romeo & Juliet
(All of his work honestly, it’ll help)
Maria Irene Fornes:
(explore more of her work)
A Doll’s House
The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya
The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire
Medea, Electra (more of the work)
Oedipus The King
There are so many more, and if you’re meant to find them, you will.
Books that aren’t plays:
Anna Devere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Richard Wright: Native Son, Black Boy
James Baldwin: Go Tell it on the Mountain (fiction), The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son
Claudia Rankine: Citizen
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Nella Larsen: Quicksand, Passing
Will Tuttle: The World Peace Diet
Zadie Smith: On Beauty
Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
Richard J. Powell: Black Art (A Cultural History)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Infidel
Kevin Powell: The Education of Kevin Powell
The Bluest Eye
Song of Solomon
Maya Angelou: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
W.E.B Dubois: Souls of the Black Folk
Elaine Brown: A Taste of Power
Jeff Hobbs: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Rhonda Byrne: The Secret
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me, The Beautiful Struggle
Mary Prince: The History of Mary Prince
Narrative of Sojourner Truth
Harriet Wilson: Our Nig
Elizabeth Keckley: Behind The Scenes, Or, Thirty Years A Slave, and Four Years in the White House
Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (more work)
Edgar Allan Poe
Ann Petry: The Street
Black Feminist Literature:
Audre Lorde: Sister Outsider
Michele Wallace: Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman
Melissa V. Harris-Perry: Sister Citizen
Akasha Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, Barbara Smith: But Some of Us Are Brave
Patricia Hill-Collins: Black Feminist Thought
Paula Giddings: When And Where I Enter
Anna Julia Cooper: A Voice From The South