Drew’s Department of Theatre and Dance put on its annual Rodney M. Gilbert Salon. The Salon occurs during Black History Month and continues the legacy of Rodney Gilbert, who was a professor of theatre at Drew until his passing in 2018. In his time at Drew, Gilbert taught Black Theatre, Introduction to Acting and Speech, and he was instrumental in bringing diversity to the forefront of the theatre department.
Gilbert was known for his support of students of color on campus, giving them opportunities in everything from on-campus performances to community outreach. Kimani Fowlin, a professor of dance and the producer of the Salon this year, has been instrumental in the Salon since Gilbert himself was involved. Describing why the theatre department is so passionate about keeping Gilbert’s project alive, Fowlin said, “We wanted to keep his spirit alive. We want to create more space, to feature, showcase and uplift talent that might not otherwise be seen.”
This year, the Salon performed “After/Life Detroit ‘67” by Lisa Biggs with a cast of professional actors. The play focuses on representing the voices of the black residents of Detroit (particularly women’s voices) during the summer of 1967 while they were facing police brutality and inequities on all fronts.
The show opened with a powerful performance from young dancers of The Unity Steppers, a small dance troupe based out of Morristown. After the staged reading of the play, students in the audience had the privilege to talk with the playwright, the original director of the show, several historians, eye-witnesses to the riots in Detroit and the 2020 protests in Newark and poet Deborah Chenault Green. Green not only acted in the production, but their poetry is also featured in the script. During the talkback, the panelists discussed their experiences putting on the play for the first time in Detroit for the 50th anniversary of the riots as well as their own experiences being young children during the time of the uprisings.
Judy Tate, a professor of theatre at Drew and the director of the production, wanted to use this opportunity to bring a piece of important history to the Drew community. Intergenerational actors who could bring their life experiences to the stage played a key role, as they gave younger students the opportunity to connect the piece to their everyday lives.
“I think it’s important for students to be able to look at history and say, ‘Hey, that’s like what is going on even today’ or ‘Wow, things have changed more (or less) than I thought they have,’ ” Tate said. They also emphasized their desire for a play like this to spark conversations for the Drew community to discuss.
During the talkback, the panelists reached out to the audience and requested that they share their own experiences that might relate to the issues discussed in the play. Tears were brought to the eyes of many while a young student from Newark shared their experiences with the police amidst the protests over the murder of George Floyd. A young woman also urged those present to go forward and share their knowledge with their communities.
Several of the woman’s calls to action were echoed by the panelists, including continuing to learn the history of inequity and injustice in our country, discussing and fighting for these issues in our everyday lives and remembering that Black History should be celebrated and discussed every day of the year.
Featured Image courtesy of Cecilia Lomanno
Caption: Artwork of Gilbert and the library dedicated to him in the Greenroom of the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts. Artwork by Christian Alvarado.
Cecilia is a first-year majoring in theater and English.