African-American Theater Arts Troupe Celebrates 30 Years With Live Online Performance – Santa Cruz Sentinel

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UCSC’s Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center is hosting a public gala on Saturday celebrating the 30th anniversary of its flagship theater ensemble, the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT).

The two-hour online event includes a live performance, storytelling about the history of black theater and playwrights, and a short film depicting the history of AATAT and founding director Don Williams.

Williams, who has directed nearly every AATAT show since its inception, accepted an offer to join UCSC’s theater department as a lecturer in 1991. Almost immediately, Williams found himself approached by black students at the looking for performance opportunities that resonated more personally with them.

After a brief period of reflection and planning, Williams and a group of 10 students officially form AATAT during its first year on campus. At that time, they had no budget or formal process for students to receive course credit, but the desire to tell authentic African-American stories could not wait.

“The first play we did was ‘Ceremonies of Dark Old Men’ by Lonne Elder III in 1992. We had four performances and every night they got standing ovations,” Williams said, “So I asked the audience if they would like to see more and they yelled at me ‘YEAH!’ ”

And more is exactly what the Santa Cruz audience received. Under Williams’ constant guidance and mentorship, AATAT students began producing, promoting, and performing plays that gave voice to African-American stories. Classic works by playwrights like August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry, both favorites of Williams, are mainstays of the troupe’s catalog and critical topics like racism, class and culture are boldly explored and confronted.

John Bennet, Odeosa Eguavoen, Henavea Robertson, Jokaelle Porter in “The Skeleton Crew” about a struggling Detroit auto stamping plant during the Great Recession. (Cameron Rivers — Contributor)

“With August Wilson, each play deals with a certain decade or period of black life and history,” Williams said of the prolific playwright. “It gives you a sense of your past and it’s important, not just for black people but for any member of the public, to get a better sense of the culture. And that’s why we do what we do.

This same passion for sharing history and culture has been passed on to many of Williams’ students. AATAT alumnus Jazmine Logan is currently working to complete her master’s degree in theater at San Francisco State University. Although she’s only been away from the program for a few years, Logan carries memories and lessons from AATA’s performances that continue to influence and inspire her work today.

“Lifting others higher than yourself is something I’ve really learned and taken to heart from my time with Mr. Williams and AATAT,” Logan said. “I want to continue to raise awareness of the importance of black theater. How to increase the representation of Black Theater and African Theater? It’s something I definitely aspire to. »

Not only is AATAT’s mantra to “lift others higher than yourself” embodied by its members and alumni – many of whom pursue majors and careers outside of theater – it is also present in the history of the squad itself. After only a handful of productions in 1992 and 1993, it became clear that the desire for authentic storytelling was widely shared by people from all walks of life on the UCSC campus and beyond.

“After a few years of AATAT, other people from other cultures started coming up to me and asking if I could help them tell their stories too,” Williams said. “And I thought there was something going on here.”

Inspired by the different communities, Williams and his AATAT students established UCSC’s “Rainbow Theatre” in 1994, a multicultural theater troupe featuring actors and productions from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and cultural.

In addition to establishing a diverse and collaborative presence on the UCSC campus, both troupes have also made it their mission to spread that diversity throughout the region by collaborating with other local theaters and after-school programs. When not rehearsing, AATAT and Rainbow Theater students spend much of their time mentoring high school students across California and fostering a culture that elevates the voices of traditionally underrepresented communities.

In 2011, 19 years after their first performance, AAAT again asked the UCSC community if they would like to see more. This time, the question was posed in the form of a ballot measure creating a self-imposed student campus tax that would fund and support their work. The student body responded with overwhelming support and the measure was easily passed, helping to secure funding for the performance, scholarships and the creation of the Cultural Arts and Diversity (CAD) Resource Center on the campus.

CAD is run by many AATAT and Rainbow Theater students and plays a vital role in its outreach, performance coordination, and development efforts. Cameron Rivers is the CSA President and has helped organize and coordinate the upcoming 30th Anniversary Gala.

“I think the CSA theater troupes have really helped me come out of my shell,” said Rivers, who has performed in both troupes but particularly enjoys the behind-the-scenes technical work. “I used to be the person at the back of the class, but now I’ve become more and more active in my community.”

CAD originally estimated 250 attendees for the 30th anniversary event, but as of last week they already had over 360 RSVPs. “I’m just super excited to see everyone,” Rivers said, as a beaming smile spread across her face.

AATAT is the only African American theater troupe in the University of California campus network and continues to fulfill a vital role in the Santa Cruz County theater environment. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a temporary pause on traditional in-person productions, AATAT and Rainbow Theater have continued to find creative and multimedia methods for their performances.

For more information on attending the 30th Anniversary Gala and other upcoming productions, visit the CAD website at https://www.cadrc.org/.

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