Back to the Future

“Is that where you want that light? You’re sure? It looks kind of ominous.”

“Mmm. Yes? Wait, no? Don’t do that?”

Once I’d deciphered my own handwriting in my little red notebook (was that an e? a very confused y? maybe a j trying to do a cartwheel?) and decided, revoked, and then re-decided how I wanted my lighting to look, I was relatively finished with our brief teck week before Friday’s show. Were all of my staging choices intentional, purposeful, and made with confidence? Sure. But, I had picked out an astronaut pin and a planet pin to wear as part of my costume — surely at least one spectator would instantaneously notice these small, hardly-visible-from-the-audience accessories and remark to their neighbor “wow, those are so cool and must be Easter egg-props imbued with symbolism, and also he’s a good performer!”

The Black arts collective I’m a member of, Heritage Theater Ensemble, was putting on a showcase of four different performances all focused around “Black Futurity.” Through a variety of stories - a play about two ambitious but estranged sisters, a writer’s dreamlike choreopoem, a surgeon extracting the Big Bang from a phoenix in a spoken word piece, vignettes in a space pirate’s life on Pluto - we imagined what our future could look like. Yet, while we acted out the alternate and perhaps eventual futures of the world around and outside of us, the internal future of our group was remolding as well.

Warm-ups and scenes from three of the four different performances at the showcase!

“What is joy but Blackness with its innocence intact?”

Our four acts performed, met by waves of laughter and lulls of solemn quiet that were interspersed between the sounds of Beyoncé and energy rifles (no, that’s not a cane — clearly it’s a very dangerous laser, yes?) It was unlike anything I’d participated in before: freshly strange and brilliantly terrifying, finding ways to carry the past into an inventive future. Originally founded in 1979, we celebrated our 40th anniversary this year — and though we had treasured and been known for our history, we were also redefining the spirit of the group on our own terms as well. Yale is a place of old and storied histories, and we often ascribe an inherent value to this past — the achievements made, how far we’d come. All that pride (ask any HTE member and we will cheerily tell you about our undying love for our group founder and national icon Angela Bassett) and happiness embodies much of the group. Yet, we’re also an evolving student organization establishing our own mark, trying to honor and continue our founding goals. A sci-fi play with space pirates, but the space pirates are also on a quest to discover their ancestry? Shadow puppetry combined with a narrated poem? A lyric essay about Kendrick Lamar’s “FEAR.” or the geography of dreams? It was all exciting and peculiar and fledgling — new but no less genuine than the more conventional theater we’d done before.

Old pictures from past HTE events!

The show finished, the shuffling of feet and congratulations mixing with the thrum of “Get Me Bodied,” the occasional audience member looking over at me and my friends dancing, hopefully thinking “oh my, how enthusiastic, coordinated, and not-silly they look, the tall one especially, what a guy!” Our performances were, in many ways, celebrations of new horizons, while still being conscious of their origins. Every now and then, someone will chance upon or go looking for material from other generations of HTE, sending a picture to our group chat met by an eruption of softly glowing, excited questions. What do we know and love about our group’s beginnings, and how do we carry that forward into reshaping it? Part of what drew me to Yale was the idea of being immersed in its storied traditions, as they were already — but also have a chance to bend and leave my own imprint upon them. I wanted to enjoy the legacy left in our hands, the atmosphere of the group, its mission, yet I also wanted to see and be part of its growth. Form new traditions. Reimagine old ones. Invent. Reinvent. Create something different (even if it’s a little weird, if it goes off, then it goes off) and lead in alternate ways and recast ourselves with revived purpose. Here was a space that had been created to uplift voices like ours — to support us, and yet allow us to reforge it, too.