REVIEWS FOR BLACK FOOTNOTES
Ryan Leeds for Manhattan Digest:
There is good news and bad news; First, the bad news: Black Footnotes, an ambitious, unflinching, but ultimately life affirming drama presented by the Rebel Theater Company and Nuyorican Poets Cafe will played its final performance on Saturday February 14th. Due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to catch this noteworthy show early in the run. However, I was grateful for the opportunity to have seen it and will now share the good news: Black Footnotes is a phenomenal new American play written, directed, and choreographed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj which deserves a much longer run and a chance to be seen by anyone concerned with fine storytelling, and human triumph over defeat.
The self-described “documentary play with music” chronicles the lives of four African-American women who endured endless struggles, but overcame them all to become accomplished scientists. Sadly, like many stories from our nations history, the contributions of these rock-solid inspirations have been ignored, barely discussed, or completely forgotten.Yet as, Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville (portrayed by three different actors including Adiagha Faizah, Natalie Jacobs, and Deja Nelfiria) wisely instruct us, “our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.” Granville was one of the first African-American women to have received a doctorate in Mathematics in 1949. She later went on to become one of the advisors in IBM’s space program. While the others represented in this piece have passed on, Granville, now age 90, resides in Texas and wants her legacy to be “letting African-American women know that we have brains too.”
Those great thinkers included Dr.Eliza Ann Grier,an emancipated slave who, in 1898 became the first African-American Woman in Georgia to study medicine. Her education spanned 7 years due to the fact that she alternated each year of study by picking cotton in order to pay for it. Ebony Obsidian, Mariah Ralph, Kezia Tyson, and Ashanti Acosta each play this obstetrician who died of a tragic and premature death in 1902. Her contribution would be “found in the minds, hearts, and scalpel of every Negro woman who earned the right to call herself, ‘Doctor” in these here United States.”
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright (April Storm Perry and Chrystal Berthell) was fortunate to have the support of her father, Dr. Louis Thompkins Wright (Lamar Richardson). Both a Harvard graduate and original founder of the cancer research center in Harlem, he impressed upon his daughter the importance of kindness and respect. Though she struggled against members of her own African-American race and conquered other biases, Wright eventually succeeded her father as director of the research center and became known as one of the most respected leaders in the field of chemotherapy.
Neuero-embryologist and pioneer of the Head Start Program Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods (Bonita Jackson, Tiff Salmon, and Brit-Charde Sellers) drew strength from her Christian faith in order to survive, but was also unafraid to comment that, “Too many good Christians have killed too many young black girls’ dreams in God’s name.” Still, she acknowledged that it was her faith in God that led her to her work.
Faith is a recurrent theme through Maharaj’s work as the four subjects (each performed by multiple actors) encourage the audience to continue the legacy of these brave ladies whose “seats are now empty” by “passing it on and passing it down.” The joy and struggles of being an African-American woman continue and even the characters of Oprah Winfrey (Bonita Jackson) and Michelle Obama (April Storm Perry) appear to remind us that “God can dream a bigger life for you than you can imagine” and that these “bold, beautiful, black women made these sacrifices, not just for black women, but for all human beings.” Most importantly, as witnesses to the history we now know, we are charged with honoring their legacies to the best of our abilities.
With a universally talented cast that boasts 30 plus actors, Rebel Theater, along with Maharaj and his accomplished assistant director Najah Muhammad, have fulfilled their commitment as a professional company that believes that “every person’s story has value.” Certainly the list of other fine achievements made by African-American women in the fields of science and medicine is much longer. For the sake of time and focus, this 90 minute show displays the highlights. It was an hour and a half well spent and a clear indication that Rebel Theater isn’t trying to be provocative or rebellious. It simply is. Andthat is the crux of fine theater.
Linda Covello for The Examiner:
In 1976, Negro History Week, which was inaugurated on February 12, 1926 by Historian Carter G. Woodson, officially became Black History Month. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every endeavor throughout our history."
Playwright/Director/Choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj says it is exactly this motivation that inspired him to dig into that rich history and uncover the stories of not simply pivotal figures in black history, but key female African Americans. Maharaj tells the stories of Dr. Eliza Ann Grier, Dr. Jane Cook Wright, Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville and Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods in his new play, "Black Footnotes", which had its world premiere today, the first day of Black History Month, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village.
Dr. Grier was an emancipated slave who overcame racial discrimination and financial hardship in the pursuit of her dream to practice medicine. Originally set on a path to become a teacher, Grier studied at Fisk University for seven years but wrote to the dean of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1890 to inquire whether "any possible way might be provided to an emancipated slave to receive any help into so lofty a profession." Grier alternated each year of study picking cotton to earn her tuition. In 1897 she returned to Atlanta to become the first African American to practice medicine in the state of Georgia. Jane Cook Wright, known as the Mother of Chemotherapy, was born in 1919. She was a pioneering cancer researcher and surgeon noted for her contributions to chemotherapy. Wright is credited with developing the technique of using human tissue culture rather than laboratory mice to test the effects of potential drugs on cancer cells. Wright's research work involved studying the effects of various drugs on tumors, and she was the first to identify methotrexate, one of the fundamental chemotherapy drugs, as an effective tool against cancerous tumors. Wright and her sister, Barbara Wright Pierce, followed in the footsteps of their father and grandfather in becoming physicians. Wright's father, Louis Tompkins Wright, founded the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center, where she joined him in 1949 and succeeded him as director when he died in 1952.
Born in 1924, Evelyn Boyd Granville was one of the first African American women to receive a Ph. D. in mathematics, which she earned in 1949 from Yale University. Granville ultimately became a full professor of mathematics at California State University in 1967. In 1999, she was inducted into the United States National Academy of Sciences' Portrait Collection of African Americans in Science. Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods was born in 1921 in West Palm Beach, Florida and developed a talent in Science. A professor at Howard University encouraged her to pursue his specialty, embryology, and to study at Harvard. According to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, as a Southern black woman, Woods was a rarity at the exclusive Eastern college in the 1940's. She is quoted as saying "I remember walking into a physiology course and seeing all the white students working with various instruments, which I'd never seen before. I said to myself 'So that's the name of the game', and I got up early every morning and stayed late every night."
Maharaj tells the stories of these pioneering women scientists in his documentary play through music and memory, and their courageous story hurdles from present to past; tragedy to triumph. "Black Footnotes", at its core, is a tribute to four of the thousands of important black women whom history has forgotten," said producer Adam Mace. "It's an honor to tell the world about their courage, love, journey and success." Indeed, a cast of 29 actors brings the powerful and often dramatic stories to life. There are moments of sublime beauty, and, at times, horror and shame. The women overcame gender and race bias to succeed in professions largely dominated by white males. There are memories of slavery and acts of grotesque discrimination that are revealed in scenes that can be brutal to watch. Maharaj does intersperse a few moments of humor to leaven the intensity, and the end is a joyous celebration of triumph of the human spirit as the actors all dance in groups together onstage to "I'm Every Woman". As the actor who plays Oprah Winfrey states in the play, "God can dream a bigger dream for your life than you can ever imagine". The play is a celebration of this idea, and, in the words of Najah Muhammad, the assistant director, "the message is to dream with your eyes open, and to know that we stand on the shoulders of giants.
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe has long nurtured innovative and experimental work by diverse artists from communities that have been traditionally underrepresented in the theatrical, musical and literary fields. Rebel Theater is the Cafe's first-ever resident theater company, and "Black Footnotes" is the first production of Rebel's second season at the Cafe. This residency program resonates with the Cafe's focus on championing exceptional artists of color who exist outside the mainstream. Both the Cafe and Rebel focus on the creation of new work by and about African-American, Latino American and Native American individuals. Rebel and the Cafe also reinterpret many classic works of theater, literature and music from the viewpoint of disenfranchised communities. Rebel Theater Company's other two productions at the Cafe this season will be R+J in Dixie, an adaptation of Shakespeare's play in which an interracial couple struggles during the American Civil War; and The Trail of Tears, which tells the story of the genocide visited against Native Americans in the American West (co-produced with the Eagle Project, and featuring Native American actors and activists).