Going to the Shiva or Powerhouse Theater to see a show on weekend nights is probably no strange idea to Vassar students. However, going to the Bardavon, an opera house in downtown Poughkeepsie for a performance might be a whole new experience. This February, Vassar will collaborate with the Bardavon Theatre and the City of Poughkeepsie School District to present two award-winning programs that address racism in America and encourage honest conversation about prejudice. “Rhapsody in Black,” LeLand Gantt’s one-man play about his life as an African-American seeking to transcend racism, will be shown on Friday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. “Through a Lens Darkly,” the first documentary film to explore the critical role of photography in shaping African-American identity from slavery to the present, will be presented on Feb. 20.
The first event, “Rhapsody in Black,” allows the audience to follow the performer’s spellbinding life story—from an underprivileged childhood in the ghettos of McKeesport, Penn. to teenage experiments with crime and drugs to scholastic achievement and an acting career that lands LeLand Gantt in situations where he is the only African-American in the room. Gantt, the performer and creator of “Rhapsody in Black,” wrote about how he considers the show, “The message of my show is worthy of display and conversation anywhere in the world…I’m hoping to stir a conversation surrounding racism and social discrimination in this country, and other forms of rising discriminations.”
He continued, “I want to supply information that debunks people’s misinformation and an indefinite lack of information they have about the other culture or person. And this information hopefully can take us to the understanding that basically we are all human beings.”
Executive Director Chris Silva initiated the programs and, along with the Bardavon, played an active part in the one-man play. He said, “We have a long relationship with the Actors Studio in New York City…. So, over the last year, we’ve been working with Estelle [Parsons] and LeLand to develop the piece further and to create two versions of it, a 60-minute version targeting high school students and the full-length version.” Silva then approached Vassar to get the campus involved as well. “I’ve been trying to involve Vassar for 20 years at the Bardavon. And very recently in the last year, we brought into our Board of Directors two Vassar professors. It was really them who made it happen and we’ve had much support from Vassar.”
The two Vassar members on the Board of Directors at the Bardavon are Leslie Offutt, Associate Professor of History, and Miriam Mahdaviani, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance. They joined the Board Opera House last June and work with the Bardavon on a regular basis. Offutt and Mahdaviani were excited about what these two shows could bring to both Vassar and the local community. “With the goal being to foster greater conversation and understanding about the issues of race and discrimination that touch us all…[w]hat we hope to do here is to stretch that, by bringing members of the Vassar community–students, faculty and staff–into a larger conversation with members of the Poughkeepsie community, to break down the walls and get Vassar people more cognizant of issues that affect the community in which Vassar is embedded.”
Mahdaviani also hoped to draw audiences’ attention and enthusiasm to the panel discussions following each showing. “I think its important to note that the panel discussions provide a unique opportunity for dialogue with people with whom we might not usually interact at Vassar—African American high school students, community leaders, members of the Poughkeepsie community…understanding their motivations should help us dispel false assumptions the next time we encounter a person of color whom we don’t recognize on campus.”
In order to achieve such goals, the event is free to the public, and there will be free transportation from Vassar to the Bardavon on the two nights of the event. Financing these arrangements has been made possible through the “Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences” program, a grant program available for innovative programming.
Offutt and Mahdaviani stressed the significant role of this program in organizing these two events. “We applied for a ‘Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences’ initiative, which is designed to facilitate conversation within the Vassar community about the racial issues the College has seen surface, and needs to address, because it seemed that these two events offered the opportunity both to stimulate conversation on campus and with the larger community. We’re excited about the fact that these two events are designed to get Vassar students off-campus, breaking out of the bubble,” they said in an emailed statement.
The Director of Education and Community Services at the Bardavon, Kay Chirchill, also approached the Poughkeepsie City School District to extend the influence of these programs to young people. And as a result, an abridged version of “Rhapsody in Black” will now be shown in Poughkeepsie High School the evening before it is shown at the Bardavon.
With the showing of “Rhapsody in Black” around the corner, Silva commented on the piece, “It’s a very powerful piece, especially for our time right now. The issue of race is always going be relevant in our societies, but things are happening that are bringing it back to a stronger focus. It’s also very funny, moving and surprising. As LeLand says, “he’s really just trying to start a conversation and he succeeds.”
Gantt concluded, “I have confidence in what I have to say and it will hopefully be well-received.”