Among my favorite early memories of Yoki at Smith was her vigorous participation in the African-American drama course that I initiated upon my arrival on campus, first as an exploratory seminar and soon as a class of approximately 60 students each year. Two-thirds of the class were students of color thirsting for writers who reflected spheres of experience, complexities of values, language, perspective, locale and pain that these students saw too little articulated and dramatized in so much they had to read and found lauded as “universal.” Yoki generally sat in the midst of rising tiers of movable chairs, on the window side of what used to be Sage 2, the lower level of Sage Hall, an intimate proscenium theatre now converted into the Earle Recital Hall. The plays we read included a number that explicitly confronted the philosophies and reactions expressed by Yoki’s father as well as those expressed by Malcolm X and believed to challenge or oppose her dad’s approach.
The class was wonderfully volatile, but when we came to discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X through their dramatic representations, the class momentarily stiffened. Eyes darted sideways toward Yoki’s face whenever any risky-seeming analysis or reaction was ventured. Yoki was visibly aware of this. Being Yoki, she was neither daunted nor eager to flaunt her lineage. I remember a particular moment when she (maybe five or 10 minutes into this stiffness) decided to speak. In a soft clear voice, she paid tribute to the Malcolm X character and to the “real life” person who had inspired it. Succinct and moving, she discussed the kinship of awareness and purpose that prevailed between Malcolm X and her dad, both within the scripts we discussed and in “the world.” I could hear an audible sigh of tension release as Yoki assessed strengths and weaknesses in the stances that each man took. Then she sat back and let the rest of the class take their turn. All that had been vibrant and volatile in the class resurfaced; and, thanks to Yoki, the free-for-all of conflicting ideas and goals found anew its disciplined yet irrepressible arena within the myriad script details with which each student had to contend.
As Yoki’s “faculty escort” during her visit to Smith as one of our 30 “Women of Distinction” (I was her theatre major adviser, and she took various courses and special studies with me, out of which her acting and playwriting skills joined happy forces), I reminded her of that particular moment when she transformed an entire class. Characteristically, she recalled that moment as having happened but without identifying her own role as catalyst. And then, for a split second, she allowed that identification to register, her smile as broad as the sun.
It’s little wonder that her professional career would embrace the formation of a theatre troupe with Malcolm X’s daughter. It’s little wonder that she would never seek to become a “star.” She had other things on her mind and in her heart. Her writing, her performances, her in-and-out-of-class dialogues at Smith, were signals of that. People, issues, societal struggles, the fabric of human interplay as impacted by place, time, character priorities and so much more, were what she knew theatre could effectively, even delicately, communicate. That said, what I recall more powerfully than anything was Yoki’s luminous warmth. Her very nickname (as lovely as her given names, Yolanda Denise) embodies that, and my grief at her loss is grinningly counterbalanced by my gratitude, my enormous gratitude, to have known her on this earth.
— Len Berkman is the Anne Hesseltine Hoyt Professor of Theatre at Smith College. This column is reprinted with permission from Grécourt Gate News.
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