Arts & Humanities Unearths the Beauty In Marginalization

By Mervin Malone, Jr.

AUSTIN, Texas — A theatrical catharsis of the most sublime was in full–swing, as the drama department of Austin Community College – in conjunction with other Arts & Humanities branches within the college readied a series of short playlets poised to pay homage to numerous influential playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance era later this month. At the helm of this ambitious project is ACC drama department chair, Prof. Marcus McQuirter.

“The plays are largely closet dramas; they are playlets written for literary consideration, but not necessarily intended for staging.” McQuirter said. “As such, we've taken some liberties in standing them up and seeing them through a twenty first century lens.” He continued: “May Miller's 'The Bog Guide' blends Dark Continent explorer narratives with tragic mulatta themes, then inverts the story in a tale of personal vengeance and generational retribution. 'Holiday' explores the tale of a Vaudeville star whose past forces her to confront a dark personal history. In 'Mine Eyes Have Seen,' Alice Dunbar–Nelson examines the dilemma of African–Americans called to enlist and prove their patriotism in the face of racial prejudice at home. Finally, 'Color Struck' is a varied telling spanning twenty years and set in Hurston's literary world of black Floridian townships, where social occasion exposes the politics of complexion, a common theme throughout Hurston's work.”

Dubbed Beauty is the Best Priest: Short Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, this project will showcase the dramatic works of several African–American female playwrights, among them Ottie Graham, as well as the aforementioned May Miller, Alice Dunbar Nelson and Zora Neale Hurston.

“We picked the works we did because they've seldom been produced,” McQuirter continued, “and also because the writers – with the notable exception of Zora Neale Hurston – are not widely known. The others – May Miller; Alice Dunbar–Nelson; Ottie Graham – are hardly discussed. Alice Dunbar Nelson, for example, remains largely under–recognized. She was married to the famous African–American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. But, a lot of people are unaware that she, herself, laid considerable groundwork for the Harlem Renaissance.”

The Beauty is the Best Priest showcase is the brainchild of a united Austin Community College Arts & Humanities division, one that came together with a project that is substantially greater than the sum of its equally potent parts.

“I'm excited about these shows because they show a spirit of collaboration,” Marcus said. “Arts & Humanities – we are an odd collection of disciplines. Visual art; dance; drama; philosophy; foreign language – our organization is made up of unique people from numerous disciplines. I'm working with several other departments. The Art department is contributing, as is the Dance department. Also, I'm working with three other highly skilled directors: Feliz McDonald, Zell Miller III and Florinda Bryant. Often, when people think of dramatic productions, they picture egos clashing. We've come together to work, however.”

McQuirter's longstanding relationship with the Boyd Vance theater – a location that many consider to embody the city of Austin's African–American cultural heritage – is another aspect that bodes wonderfully for the series' success.

“I did a show at the Boyd Vance theater about six or seven years ago,” he said. “It's intimate and appropriate and the George Washington Carver museum staff has just been wonderful.”

The timing of the playlets' performances perfectly coincides with two highly commemorative months.

“February is Black History Month, and March will be Women's History month,” said McQuirter. “As all of the playwrights are black and women, this show is a way to observe and appreciate a few contributions to the world of art and literature made by Black Women in the 20th century.”

Beauty is the Best Priest: Short Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, opens Friday, February 22, at the Boyd Vance Theater at the George Washington Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina Street. It will run through February 24, and will also run March 1st, 2nd, 3rd. The times will be: Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $5 for students and seniors, with all proceeds benefitting the Dance and Drama Scholarship Fund.