On February 25, the school’s Black History Month celebration concluded with an impressive, virtual mini-concert, featuring select students from the String Ensemble, Vocal Ensemble, and Concert Jazz Band, who performed sacred and secular music interspersed with poetry to bring the theme of Black joy as expressed through the arts to life.
The repertoire included a performance of “Amazing Grace,” featuring violinists Aria Trotta ’23 and Eujin Shin ’21, with a reading of Robert Hayden’s poem, “Frederick Douglas,” by Anjavie Thompson ’21. Three students in Vocal Ensemble, Erin Whitney ’24, Audrey Richards ’23, and Erin Ryan ’21, performed the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is often called “The Black National Anthem,” written by James Weldon Johnson, with music by John Rosamond Johnson. A performance of “The Memphis Blues,” written by W.C. Handy, the father of Blues, featured Jonathan Nichele ’21 on drums and Joe Zhu ’21 on bass guitar, with a reading of the Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too,” by Alex Warren ’22. The finale was an a cappella performance of the spiritual, “Ain't-a That Good News,” arranged by Mark Hayes, featuring Maggie Xiang '21, soprano, Yolanda Wang ’21, alto, Drew Sutherland ’21, tenor, and Dayne Bolding ’23, bass.
Ron Castonguay, Director of the Arts, said he selected that particular piece because it embraces the theme of Black joy. “It’s such an awesome arrangement and the four of them just hit it out of the park,” he said of the students, noting that all four vocalists have been selected to perform in the All-State Mixed Choir at the 2021 Connecticut All-State Music Festival, and one – Bolding – is now qualified to audition for the 2021 All-National Honors Choir, which represents the top vocalists in the country. “We have a growing number of students who are being selected to perform at the state and national level, which truly is an indication of the quality of our music program,” Castonguay said. ”I’m so proud of these students.”
This year’s Black History Month celebration featured student presentations and artist interviews, which were featured each week during School Meeting. Thompson and Jayla Stack ’21, who are members of the Black Student Union, gave presentations on the Harlem Renaissance, the art of braiding hair, and the contributions and accomplishments of Black artists in the visual arts, film and television, theater, music and dance. In addition to this, LaDarius Drew, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, shared with the community two interviews he conducted, one with visual artist Imo Imeh, Ph.D., and the second with Otoja Abit ’04, who is an actor, writer, producer, and director.
Interviewed at his studio in Springfield, Massachusetts, Imeh, who is a visual artist and scholar of African Diaspora art, and an associate professor of art and art history at Westfield State University, spoke about how he is using art, music and writing to frame what he is feeling and experiencing during this time of the pandemic and political change.
“I’ve been doing art for as long as I can remember. I’ve always fallen into the rhythm of making something,” he said. “In the last decade, my inspiration has been really the various deficits that I’ve seen in my community as an African man, as a Black man. I am a student of history to a degree. I enjoy understanding where we come from as a people and maybe imagining the possibilities of where we can go.”
Imeh recently created a piece titled, “Breathe,” for an exhibition at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which came with a song he wrote for it and was inspired by events he witnessed during the pandemic. “I think Black joy sits in the intersection of great striving over pain and trauma, realizing that there’s always something beautiful in the mix,” he said, adding that right now, “There are these moments of hypervisibility that happen for Black folks in the midst of the craziness, where if nobody else sees us, we see us. I think that’s beginning to happen more and more and more.”
Drew’s interview with Abit was conducted on campus, on stage in the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center, which the writer, actor, producer and director visited for the first time. Abit discussed his trajectory from his post-graduate year at The Frederick Gunn School, which the New York City native described as “the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” to his first role on Broadway, his work as an independent filmmaker and the global debut of his first feature film, “A New York Christmas Wedding,” on Netflix in November.
Abit, who came to what was then The Gunnery to play basketball, had always wanted the opportunity to act and decided to try out for the lead role in the fall play. He got the part, and that experience encouraged him to pursue acting as a career. “The Gunnery gave me that type of validation that, ‘You are this leading actor in our world here, in this community.’ From there I felt like this was something I really wanted to do. I had the acting bug. I wanted to do it more,” he recalled.
He played Division I basketball at St. John’s University, graduating in 2008. He started going to auditions and was cast in the 2011 Broadway play “That Championship Season,” where he had the opportunity to act alongside Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan, and Chris Noth, and under the direction of Tony Award-winner Gregory Mosher. “This is the world of the arts at a high level. My other comparison to theater in my life was at the EPAC and then my next theater job was on Broadway. That doesn’t really happen.”
Abit went on to roles in film and television and wrote, directed, produced and starred in an award-winning debut short, "Jitters.” He spoke about that experience, as well as his debut feature film, “A New York Christmas Wedding,” which he wrote, directed and starred in, before answering the question of what Black joy means to him:
“Black joy to me is just being able to wake up and be fulfilled in the idea that the day before, the night before, I went to bed giving it my all,” he said. “I’m an artist, I’m going to keep on growing, I’m going to keep on trying to do what I can do, and I’m going to keep on spreading the word and being an example of, ‘If I can do it, you can do it, too.’ I've sat in these seats. I walked around here and I had dreams and I’m still trying to do it every single day. I'm still trying to do the work, go to bed and wake up with joy.”
Over the past several years, students and faculty have participated in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service, and the school has hosted guest speakers and film discussions to celebrate Black History Month on campus. The goal of this year’s programming was to engage the community in a more meaningful experience, by offering continuous, interactive programming, throughout the month, rather than an event for one day. In an interview on The Highlander Podcast, Thompson said this year’s Black History Month celebration was an opportunity for students to lead, and for the community to learn together. “I feel like that’s the most important part of the programming, that we’re all learning together,” she said, adding, “Also, it’s just been super fun. The music has been by African American people, the fun facts, the quote of the day. We’re having fun with it.”