The Play’s the Thing
Award-Winning Performance Improves North Carolina A&T’s Stage Presence
Less than three hours before what would become the most honored performance of their young acting careers, members of the North Carolina A&T State University’s Richard B. Harrison Players rushed through scenes of David Richmond — a play inspired by the life of one of the four A&T students who participated in the famous 1960 sit-in protest at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
“Let’s keep the pace going on this,” shouts director Miller Lucky Jr., while standing close to the lighting control booth in the back of the theater. “Ten minutes. Come on cast, let’s get through this.”
Lucky, an A&T theater professor, is watching the clock because though union rules at the renown John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts allow nonprofessional groups certain hours during which they can rehearse at the facility, the time is short. Miller beseeches his young actors and stage crew to keep pace lest they run out of time.
Later that evening, the Harrison Players elicited a standing ovation from the audience. It was the first of two well-received performances they gave that weekend at the Kennedy Center. Afterwards, retiring A&T Chancellor Dr. Edward Fort, David Richmond playwright/theater professor Dr. Samuel Hay, and Lucky joined the actors and production crew onstage for a post-performance ceremony.
The students’ production of David Richmond was one of six finalists chosen from a field of 900 in what is the American College Theater Festival (ACTF), the largest collegiate drama competition in the nation. This year’s performance marked the second time in three decades that an A&T student drama group has reached this pinnacle of student theater competition.
“Theater at A&T has flourished because of the generous support it gets,” Fort says proudly.
The achievement is especially notable because David Richmond honors a former student and celebrates the Greensboro Four. Richmond and his three classmates participated in what is now recognized as one of the most influential protests of the Civil Rights Movement. The original play, written by Hay, is helping raise A&T’s profile in the Black theater community as a venue for new play development.
Over the past 30 years, a number of Black college productions have found success in the ACTF. Institutions such as Prairie View A&M University, Howard University, Hampton University, North Carolina Central University, and Grambling State University have been finalists in the ACTF.
Every April, the finalists from eight regions are featured during a week of performances at the Kennedy Center, the reward for having won state and regional competitions.
In 1983, North Carolina A&T’s production of Charles Fuller’s Zooman and The Sign made it to the Kennedy Center finalists. The winning production featured then-student actor Lucky as the play’s leading character. During this year’s awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center, Fort cited Lucky’s work as a student actor in the winning 1983 production.
While the selection of David Richmond as a winner in the ACTF has drawn attention to North Carolina A&T’s highly-regarded theater program, it also has raised the North Carolina college’s growing profile as a venue for new play development. This success with David Richmond demonstrates the viability of developing African American plays on the college campus, Hay says.
In the past five years, the A&T theater department has entered productions of three new plays in the ACTF state and regional competitions. Two of them, David Richmond and Crack, Cream, and Brown Sugar, were written by Hay. The third, Boy x Man, was authored by playwright Ed Bullins. All three fared well in ACTF competition, according to A&T officials.
Both Hay and Lucky say new plays offer a valuable learning opportunity for student actors and actresses. While observing a play’s development closely, students have also been able to make valuable contributions to his plays, Hay says.
“I’ve had the students tell me this character wouldn’t say this or that in a play. My students give me good ideas,” he says.
Derek Gordon, vice-president for education at the Kennedy Center, says new play development is actively encouraged within the ACTF. Not only are there new-play competitions for student playwrights, schools are also urged to enter original plays in the student production competition. He says it’s not unusual to have an original play, such as David Richmond, make it to the Kennedy Center ACTF finals showcase.
Hay says there is interest among some theater companies in getting David Richmond staged professionally. He declined to name specific companies, but says the play is still a work-in-progress.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com