On an otherwise frigid night, Burden Auditorium radiated tradition from the soulful and spirited show gracing its stage. The audience was treated to a delightful and educational exposition of African Diaspora’s art, culture, and history as the African-American Student Union (AASU), the Caribbean Business Club (CBC), and the African Business Club (ABC) collaborated in bringing us their annual production of Sankofa.
For the second year in a row, the show was an unquestionable hit, leaving the 500 members of the Harvard Business School community in attendance impressed as their sectionmates and friends unveiled hidden talents. The audience soaked up the energy of the performers and readily showed their appreciation with frequent laughter, applause, and vocal encouragement. The entire night, including the pre-show reception and the post-show celebration, was a clear example of this community at its best.
The show takes its title, Sankofa, from the Ghanaian Akan-Twi language. Roughly translated, the word “Sankofa” means “We must look back into the past so that we can move forward into the future.” This year’s production, led by Ciara Gary (OD) and Matthew Brewer (OF), was deeply adherent to its title both thematically and in detail. The beautiful cover of the Sankofa program was a prime example of this nuanced yet consistent approach with its eponymous “backward looking, but forward facing” bird. The quilt work of acts was neatly stitched together by a series of interludes featuring a fictitious present-day African-American family sharing a Sunday dinner. Through their dialogue, the members of the family guided the audience while providing both context and comic relief.
This family of guides was an elegant way of bringing out some less apparent, but no less important, cultural and historical themes. For instance, the mid-show introduction of an interloping boyfriend, named Tyrone and played by Damien Hooper-Campbell (NC), provided an opportunity to engage some of the tension that exists between tradition and progress. The ensuing inquisition of Tyrone by Father, played by Harold Martin (OE), evolves into a broader table-wide discussion contrasting generational differences in reverence for and allegiance to our traditions and history. In juxtaposing this archetypal, contemporary family and performances behind them, Gary and Brewer masterfully divorced their audience from the notion that the evolution of African-American culture is strictly linear and compartmentalized in genre and era. The end result was a mosaic yet cohesive exploration of African Diaspora’s culture that forced its audience to not only draw lines between obviously connected acts, such as two dance routines. But also, to see the more subtle influence of, for instance, traditional spirituals on modern-day Greek stepping.
The stage-acts kicked off with an energetic display of three types of Dance: Afro-Brazilian, African, and Hip-Hop. The routines, Choreographed by Lily Liang (OI), Linda Dempah (NH), and Akilah Rogers (ND), exemplified the grace, power, and sensuality traditionally associated with African movement. However, each dance act also displayed a hint of whimsy, reminding us that throughout the diaspora, movement is a communal and fun experience. The dancers themselves showed skill and versatility with more than one performer showing adeptness across multiple styles. The hip-hop act brought the audience to its feet, particularly Section D, which had been eagerly anticipating the stage-debut of Fred Smith (ND).
The next act took us back in time to the Savoy ballroom circa 1944, where Kirkie Maswoswe (OA) was channeling Billie Holiday, right down to the flower in her hair. Backed by the trio of Nalia Stephens (NC) on piano, Nii Dodoo (NA) on bass, and Luciano Codino (NE) on Drums, Maswoswe crooned Holiday’s classic “Dem Dar Eyes.” The next act had its roots in the Harlem Renaissance, but carried us forward sixty years to a present day spoken word venue. The performing poets illustrated the rhythmic lyricism of contemporary African-American spoken word. Moving easily between poetry and rap in his performance, Matthew Brewer highlighted the similarities between the two.
After a further visit with our family of guides, the show transitioned to one of its most educational acts. Eight barrier breaking African-Americans were portrayed through monologues presented by Garry Thaniel (NH), Johnita Mizelle (OF), Michon Pinnix (OA), Tres Watson (OG), Earl Gordon (OH), Deidre-Ann Harper (NF), Jeanine Barnett (NB), and Jonathan Wilkins. Each monologue gave specific insight into the lives and accomplishments of prominent but lesser-known African-Americans. Of particular interest were notable businesswomen, Madame CJ Walker and Maggie Lena Walker, both of whom should be duly noted for the contributions they made to the advancement of women in business as well as African-Americans in business.
The history lesson continued into the next act as Constance Jones (OA), Frances Messano (OG), and Shandi Smith (OH), backed by the stellar house band, sang a medley of Motown hits by the Supremes and others. The ladies took turns belting out some legendary tunes while audience members clapped along with some even feeling the need to get out of their seats and dance. The singing continued with another wonderful vocal medley of gospel and spirituals performed by Earl Benson (OB), Ciara Gary, Constance Jones, Lamonte Leftenant (OC), Kirkie Maswoswe, Frances Messano, Shandi Smith, and Bruce Ware (OI). A montage of images depicting the trial and tribulations of slavery and gave added resonance to the Acapella Octets’ moving rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The group’s version of the Civil Rights Movement Anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” was similarly rousing.
The final act of the evening was a Step Show featuring a triumvirate of Black Greek organizations. The ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, decked out in all black and wearing their signature pearls, took the stage first, averring that “pretty is not just about aesthetics” and then bringing the audience to its feet with a series of precise routines. Not to be outdone, the ladies of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated brandished their own fiery brand of rapid and rhythmic stepping raising the room to a fever pitch. The already enthusiastic audience members could barely contain themselves as the boot-clad brothers in black and gold took to the stage. The five members of Alpha Phi Alpha brought the house down with an intense combination of powerful steps and stomps. This provided the perfect finale for the show and the audience rose to its feet to show their appreciation.
The entire show proved to be one of the best events this fall. Not only was Sankofa entertaining, but it provided the entire HBS community with an important lesson on the value of collective memory. The constant maintenance of ritual and its thoughtful application in contemporary culture has allowed the entire diasporal community to make tremendous contributions to our global village. These contributions deserve to be recognized and celebrated by us all. On this particular night, in our small corner of the world, we made this aspiration and reality. And we were all greater for it.