#PersonOfChange: An interview with Richarda Abrams

I grew up in an artistic household surrounded by music, art and drama.

From the early age of two Richarda Abrams (she/her/hers) was already on stage. She recalls playing the mighty role of a mouse.

My dad’s theater colleague Catherine E. Slade asked my parents if I could play this part. I wore this mouse head that was quite warm inside but not too warm for me to say my lines. The first lines I spoke I squeaked. I was quite smitten at 2 years old with the idea of playing in public.

She grew up in Chicago, IL in a household brimming with music and creativity.

My dad was Dr. Muhal Richard Abrams a great pianist/composer/historian/visionary/artist who co-founded The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and several other organizations. My mom Peggy is a musician/composer and my grandmother Bernyce was a composer. I was always around creative people and artists of all of the different disciplines.

For the last six years, Adams has been tirelessly developing a solo-show based on the life of civil rights activist Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, a resilient educator who started a private school for Africa-American students in Florida in 1904. Just like the subject of her play, Richarda Abrams has dedicated her life to being a #PersonOfChange.

When was the first time you saw yourself represented on stage or film?

As I said I was surrounded by artistic people so I saw myself/my image represented in many different disciplines.

My dad is my biggest influence. The fact that he was predominantly self taught and had such a strong dedication to his craft is known to many. But the fact that he practiced and studied every single day of his life is known to few. So every time he played on the stage wherever he was in the world I saw myself represented.

On film: While we still lived in Chicago, I remember one profound moment for me on film was the movie Sparkle with Irene Cara, Philip Michael Thomas, and Lonette McKee. My cousins and I fell in love with this movie and we had all of the dances, moves, dialogue and every nuance of the movie committed to memory and could perform them at will. Of course now I own the DVD.

Then after moving to New York with my family, I saw a ground breaking performance of Coriolanus in the then Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park with my dad’s colleague Catherine E. Slade. I remember seeing this great work, it was so powerful and moving. I was a witness to these tremendous classical actors Morgan Freeman, Gloria Foster, and Earle Hyman! I was mesmerized! The cast also included the great Michele Shay, CCH Pounder, Count Stovall, Novella Nelson, Denzel Washington and many others. This experience was profound. The work was so strong.

“The drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth.” — Mary McLeod Bethune

What inspired you to write a solo-show about ‘The First Lady of The Struggle’, Mary McLeod Bethune?

I was in a reading series as an actor and I was selected to read a play where I was to be Mary McLeod Bethune. So the more I researched her life, I discovered how much I didn’t know about this great woman in our American history. I was so enamored with her life’s work and had discovered so much information about her that was not in the play we were reading that the playwright suggested I write my own play.

Thus began my journey into Mary McLeod Bethune’s great life’s work. I figured if she lived such a life and many of the things she fought for mirror things we are actually re-experiencing today, that at least I could use my craft to provide a platform for learning and personal growth. As she lived her life First By Faith, I too embarked on this journey First By Faith.

I started this journey in 2013 and the more I researched and the more questions I posed, the more people appeared with real information about her as they had either been students or their parents were students of hers and had stories about being in her presence.

This is certainly a journey of Faith and I am so honored to be able to tell her story.

How has acting influenced your writing?

More aptly it has been all of my being influencing my writing utilizing every experience that I have as an artist and as a human being in this world.

I received a B.F.A. in Acting with honors from New York University, Tisch School of The Arts, Experimental Theatre Wing and a M.A. in Educational Theatre from New York University, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. I studied with so many cutting edge teachers. One of the teachers that had a great influence on me was Anne Bogart and her six viewpoint work. As I developed First By Faith: The Life of Mary McLeod Bethune, my initial approach had a lot of viewpoint work in it. Literally spatial relationship to the space helped me tell the story. Another great teacher who had influence on me was Richard Schechner and Performance Theory.

I had written things before, but after making the decision to write about Mary McLeod Bethune, I first set out to learn the craft of the playwright. I had taken courses in school, but I participated in a playwright’s workshop at New Federal Theatre (NFT) to learn the craft of the playwright. I have such an immense respect for acting that I knew I could not in good faith embark on this journey without a healthy respect for the craft of playwriting. Because if I didn’t that would be irresponsible. At NFT at the end of the seasons we would have showcases of scenes from plays written and each season I would perform an excerpt of a scene from my play.

I am also a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW) and I participated in Julia’s Reading Room and read/performed different versions of my play at different times for my colleagues at the same time I was enrolled in NFT.

I am also a lifetime member of the Actors Studio so after a certain point I decided to continue my journey, I had an opportunity to workshop my play in the Acting sessions and try things out in front of my peers. I could see what worked and what didn’t work. Also as a member of the Playwright and Directors Workshop I received more opportunities to work on my play, and I was given an opportunity to have a special staged reading of the entire script.

In each instance my colleagues/peers were very supportive. I received honest feedback which allowed me to continue going deeper into the work.

Then one of my LPTW colleagues Jenny Lyn Bader the Producing Artistic Director of Theatre 167 and I had #OneMoreConversation (LPTW initiative) and she asked me to participate in a Workshop Presentation of my play for their WET INK Series. I thanked her for that opportunity. I then enlisted my colleague director Dina Vovsi and the rest is history.

Do you find it easier or more challenging to perform your own material?

I enjoy the art of play. It is no more easier or challenging it is all part of my journey. The fun part is, if something doesn’t work you are the playwright and you make the decision on what to do about it.

What is it like collaborating with director Dina Vovsi and music director Amina Claudine Myers?

Working with Dina has been a dream. She really gives her all. Before our first meeting she did research herself on Mary McLeod Bethune. She recognized where I was in the journey and we began our collaboration together. She is a great director. She enjoys developing new work. I am overjoyed to be working with her.

I have known Amina Claudine Myers for many years. She is a pianist/composer/vocalist/educator/actress. I studied voice and toured internationally with the Amina Claudine Myers Voice Choir. Her knowledge and musical lexicon is expansive. She is a brilliant musical genius. It is always a joy and pleasure to work with her.

What will ‘First By Faith: The Life Of Mary McLeod Bethune’ contribute to the current theatrical ecosystem?

I hope that First By Faith: The Life Of Mary McLeod Bethune opens up a conversation about who Mary McLeod Bethune was in our world and how we can tap into our own inner Mary McLeod Bethune to make great contributions to our world wherever we presently stand.

You can learn more about Richarda Abrams by visiting her website. If you happen to be in New York City on October 7th, 2018 don’t miss “First By Faith: The Life Of Mary McLeod Bethune” at 6pm at Theatre Row (410 W 42nd St, NY, NY 10036), as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival. To learn more visit www.firstbyfaith.com


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