by Alcides Costa
Whether you saw him in passing with his Gucci loafers and Canadian tuxedo or heard about his illustrious acting and directing classes or productions, you knew that the name Rodney Gilbert carried significant weight around Drew University. With notable quotes such as: “Do the Work” and “Mind. Body. Voice. Soul,” he made his statements so articulate and clear that they rung through your ears even when you were sitting in your dorm room thinking about how you would make your own impact in the world. Upon first sight you knew that Rodney was special. Not because he had the best style on campus and probably on the east coast (which he did), not because he was a revered artist (which he was), and not because he could instantly grab the attention of a full auditorium of people with a clap of his hands (which he could), but because whatever he did he lead with his heart and soul.
His love for his students was unparalleled, ensuring that everyone felt included in the safe spaces that he created so that all could thrive and manifest their own power within his classes. Teaching courses spanning from Speech, Intro to Acting and Directing, African American Theatre to Advanced Acting Classes along with new courses like Black and Latino voices; Rodney was about spreading the work and platform of diversity in art and culture and empowering those who had yet to come into their own voices. He also extended his hand and helped teach classes for the EOS Summer Program and collaborated with Cordelza Haynes to produce a Salon each semester to bring awareness to works and voices of different diasporas. Beyond the classroom, he directed the highly successful shows “Raisin in the Sun,” “Gospel at Colonus” and “King Hedley III”, and ensured that he carried his students forward even outside the university by founding Yendor Theatre Company to provide work for those who have graduated and are navigating the world as theatre artists. Professor Gilbert ensured that we got all parts of him as a professor, from his expertise as an actor, director and producer, to his experience as an artistic director of Yendor Arts and most importantly his passion as a social activist to advocate for the underserved.
This passion was not only reserved for Drew students but also his students in his home city of Newark, N.J. In collaboration with the Victoria Foundation, The Marion Bolden Center and Professors Lisa Brenner and Chris Ceraso, he helped found the Advantage Arts Program. Within Advantage Arts, Newark students could collaborate with Drew students in the Newark Community Based Learning course to create devised work, teach invaluable skills in different theatre techniques and provide interaction between the two communities. The most beautiful aspect of the program, other than the amazing work that has been produced under it, is the fact that Professor Gilbert ensured that the Newark students would receive college credit for their participation and would also employ them over the summer for their work.
Rodney Gilbert was not just a professor or an artist to the people that knew him; he was a mentor, a caregiver, a father figure and a symbol of hope for many. That is why it is so hard to even fathom having to say goodbye to him. Which is why we do not have to, since he lives within us all, the whole generation of artists he inspired and the families he brought together. The spirit and the incredible work of Professor Gilbert are carried through what we put into the world as people whom he touched. I would like to end off with a quote from his best friend, collaborator and colleague Professor Lisa Brenner.
“I’m struck by how many people describe Rodney as a close friend, a mentor, a collaborator, and it’s all genuine. He was a smart, talented, passionate, caring, insightful, creative artist and teacher. He taught me that people need to be valued, heard, and seen. He taught me about the need to respect yourself, your culture, each other, and the work. He taught me that the arts can transform lives and communities. We’d do the hard work, have the uncomfortable conversations, and still find laughter and hope. There is a saying from the Ethics of the Ancestors, ‘It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.’ Rodney never desisted from the work, and now upon us to continue his legacy.”