There is good news and bad news; First, the bad news: Black Footnotes, an ambitious, unflinching, but ultimately life affirming drama presented by the Rebel Theater Company and Nuyorican Poets Cafe will played its final performance on Saturday February 14th. Due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to catch this noteworthy show early in the run. However, I was grateful for the opportunity to have seen it and will now share the good news: Black Footnotes is a phenomenal new American play written, directed, and choreographed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj which deserves a much longer run and a chance to be seen by anyone concerned with fine storytelling, and human triumph over defeat.
The self-described “documentary play with music” chronicles the lives of four African-American women who endured endless struggles, but overcame them all to become accomplished scientists. Sadly, like many stories from our nations history, the contributions of these rock-solid inspirations have been ignored, barely discussed, or completely forgotten.Yet as, Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville (portrayed by three different actors including Adiagha Faizah, Natalie Jacobs, and Deja Nelfiria) wisely instruct us, “our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.” Granville was one of the first African-American women to have received a doctorate in Mathematics in 1949. She later went on to become one of the advisors in IBM’s space program. While the others represented in this piece have passed on, Granville, now age 90, resides in Texas and wants her legacy to be “letting African-American women know that we have brains too.”
Those great thinkers included Dr.Eliza Ann Grier,an emancipated slave who, in 1898 became the first African-American Woman in Georgia to study medicine. Her education spanned 7 years due to the fact that she alternated each year of study by picking cotton in order to pay for it. Ebony Obsidian, Mariah Ralph, Kezia Tyson, and Ashanti Acosta each play this obstetrician who died of a tragic and premature death in 1902. Her contribution would be “found in the minds, hearts, and scalpel of every Negro woman who earned the right to call herself, ‘Doctor” in these here United States.”
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright (April Storm Perry and Chrystal Berthell) was fortunate to have the support of her father, Dr. Louis Thompkins Wright (Lamar Richardson). Both a Harvard graduate and original founder of the cancer research center in Harlem, he impressed upon his daughter the importance of kindness and respect. Though she struggled against members of her own African-American race and conquered other biases, Wright eventually succeeded her father as director of the research center and became known as one of the most respected leaders in the field of chemotherapy.
Neuero-embryologist and pioneer of the Head Start Program Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods (Bonita Jackson, Tiff Salmon, and Brit-Charde Sellers) drew strength from her Christian faith in order to survive, but was also unafraid to comment that, “Too many good Christians have killed too many young black girls’ dreams in God’s name.” Still, she acknowledged that it was her faith in God that led her to her work.
Faith is a recurrent theme through Maharaj’s work as the four subjects (each performed by multiple actors) encourage the audience to continue the legacy of these brave ladies whose “seats are now empty” by “passing it on and passing it down.” The joy and struggles of being an African-American woman continue and even the characters of Oprah Winfrey (Bonita Jackson) and Michelle Obama (April Storm Perry) appear to remind us that “God can dream a bigger life for you than you can imagine” and that these “bold, beautiful, black women made these sacrifices, not just for black women, but for all human beings.” Most importantly, as witnesses to the history we now know, we are charged with honoring their legacies to the best of our abilities.
With a universally talented cast that boasts 30 plus actors, Rebel Theater, along with Maharaj and his accomplished assistant director Najah Muhammad, have fulfilled their committment as a professional company that believes that “every person’s story has value.” Certainly the list of other fine achievements made by African-American women in the fields of science and medicine is much longer. For the sake of time and focus, this 90 minute show displays the highlights. It was an hour and a half well spent and a clear indication that Rebel Theater isn’t trying to be provocative or rebellious. It simply is. And that is the crux of fine theater.
Black Footnotes played its final performance on February 14th at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe. More information can be found at http://www.nuyorican.org. For additional information on upcoming shows at Rebel Theater visit http://www.rebeltheater.com or Twitter: @RebeltheaterCo