Toward the end of a two-hour discussion with five celebrated African-American women in the arts on Monday night, March 28, the famed Oscar-nominated actress and surprise guest Ruby Dee stood on a stage among all the panelists and declared to the audience: “Art is the essence of power!”
It was a rousing close to the 2nd annual presentation given by the Riverside Theatre in New York City, and held in the spacious Assembly Hall of the Riverside Church. This year’s Women of Excellence are Carol Maillard, an actress and founding member of the vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock; Dr. Glory Van Scott, actress, writer and founder of Dr. Glory’s Youth Theatre; Ntozake Shange, the poet and playwright best known for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf; Tamara Tunie, a producer and director, and star of television’s Law and Order: SVU; and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, dancer, choreographer and founder of Urban Bush Women dance company. Playwright, producer and radio host Esther Armah moderated the discussion.
Ruby Dee’s comment connecting art with power capped an evening of sharing around a series of questions posed by the event’s moderator. If your art were a relationship, such as a marriage or love affair, how would you describe it? What does excellence look and feel like, and what is your breakthrough story? What tested your talent, your vision? And, what lesson would you share with others in the field?
Nurturing a Relationship with the Arts
Being a woman committed to artistic output can mirror all manner of relationships. Indeed, Carol Maillard said her experience in the arts “is a combination of all – sometimes there’s abandonment, sometimes it’s a passionate affair.” Dr. Glory Van Scott described feeling “like a newborn with everything I do.” Tamara Tunie said the process leading up to creative work, like having to audition and fundraise, can “get stale,” but the actual doing of the work “is an ongoing affair that remains exciting.” “My art is like an outsider with no responsibility other than to make me happy,” said Ntozake Shange. And Jawole Willa Jo Zollar described her process by saying, “I’m an old married lady with a partner who continually reveals play, challenge, and deep comfort.”
The responses to each theme were as rich and varied as each woman on the panel. Yet the importance of following one’s creative yearnings and seeking continual growth was a strong current running through the conversation. They mentioned some of the turning points in their development, including landing a particular role in a play, receiving inspiration to write a poignant poem, collaborating with other outstanding performers to connect with an audience, and taking personal and professional risks to seek a higher possibility for oneself.
Against the Odds: Don’t Destruct, Construct
Ms. Zollar, the dancer/choreographer, recalled the impact of hearing Sweet Honey in the Rock, and seeing For Colored Girls… for the first time. She captured a truth for all the women, saying that strength, support and validation can grow from the stories behind other artists’ work. Confronting hindrances and challenges, Ms. Zollar affirmed that discomfort and irritation – even through the desperation of painful tears, can signify a place of growth. “If there is no struggle there can be no progress,” she quoted Frederick Douglass, and reminded everyone that, as in dance – when you fall, you get up.
“You have to make the breakthrough of just trusting,” said Ms. Maillard. The audience nodded, sighed, and applauded in recognition of these truths expressed, and an air of community among the speakers and hearers deepened with Dr. Van Scott’s words: “Whatever you’re doing you can handle. Work on it! Then get quiet within yourself, and the answers will come.” “All of it is worth it,” said Ms. Tunie. “Just keep getting your groove on and be ready when the opportunity presents itself,” she added.
“Sometimes the struggle itself is what you’re writing about,” said Ms. Shange. Don’t let yourself scare yourself,” she added. “Don’t be afraid to write about the ugly things that come from your mind, because you have power over fear, and you have the ability to shut it off.”
We’ve Got the Power!
At the moment the surprise guest Ms. Ruby Dee was introduced, the spirit of unity among those in the hall was solidified. During a standing ovation Ms. Dee exclaimed, “What a pleasure to Be!” She expounded on some of the realities of African-American history, and urged women to be “stabilizers of the nation” and to work together to protect children, and to fight against hunger and homelessness. “We can change it, because each of us has inherited power,” she said. “Calling all women!” Again the panelists and the crowd were on their feet applauding Ms. Dee’s presence, as much as her wisdom. Her appearance at the close of the gathering seemed to bestow a special benediction on the lives of everyone who attended the 2nd annual Women of Excellence in the Arts evening.