As part of our Underground Freedom Galleries activities this week, Kathryn Bentley, professional actor and professor of theater, led two sessions in the EBR Reading Room.
On Tuesday, October 5, Bentley and a group of her students performed poems by Phillis Wheatley, Frances Harper, Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, and Ishmael Reed related to poetry. The performers--Sarah Goins, Sharana Turnage, Curtis Lewis, and Cassaundra Sampson--have worked with Bentley on productions of Black Theater Workshop and other humanities projects over the last few years.
Although members of the audience had already read the poems, we had never experienced them with the elements of drama as presented by the actors. They performed the pieces and gave the speakers of the poems a life and personality well beyond the page.
The group ended with a choral reading of Robert Hayden's "Runagate Runagate," where they read parts together and individually during different moments during the poem. They sang some sections, changed their pace and volume levels, and seemed to improve on a poem that was already remarkable.
On Thursday, Oct. 7, Bentley returned and led a mini acting workshop for a group of 20 first-year black women students. Bentley took them through vocal and movement exercises and worked with the group on performing a choral reading of "Runagate Runagate." The processes of learning how to produce the piece as a group allowed the readers-turned-performers to experience Hayden's poem in a unique and memorable way.
The performances that Bentley led this past week gave us an opportunity to consider the multiple possibilities of the EBR Reading Room as a black cultural and intellectual space at a predominately white university.