The Hotchkiss community honored the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a series of virtual events, beginning on Jan.17 with the screening of director Kamilah Forbes's HBO film adaptation of Between the World and Me by author Ta-Nehisi Coates. First published in 2015, the book was written as a letter to Coates’s teenage son, and recounts the author’s experiences growing up in Baltimore’s inner city and his increasing fear of violence against the Black community.
In a virtual conversation following the screening, the film was praised for its artistic mashup of archival footage, animation, music, photography, and readings, which offered a powerful commentary on racism in this country. Forbes, an award-winning director and executive producer of the Apollo Theater, joined award-winning director Leah Gardiner P'24 and actor Seth Gilliam P'24 in panel discussion the next day.
On Jan.18, MLK Day activities kicked off with an opening address by Head of School Craig Bradley, who called on the community to cultivate the seeds of change.
“We -- all of us -- are living through an incredible time of change. It is a time during which the legacy of struggle is bearing fruit,” said Bradley.
“This fruit, of course, holds the seeds of change and of future struggle. The work of anti-racism continues. The battle for fact over fiction goes on.
“You have heard me quote Voltaire, ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin.’ We must tend to our own garden. Our garden is Hotchkiss, and it is where we have the opportunity –- dare I say, the obligation –– to really learn about and come to understand the seeds of struggle.
“These seeds themselves are beautiful.
“They also possess immense potential power. To realize that power –- and ultimately, the beauty of a truly inclusive, anti-racist community –- requires careful cultivation and growth. Cultivation of our understanding and our empathy, and growth of our knowledge and our capacity to lead and effect change.”
He added, “Open your heart and open your mind, and cultivate those powerful seeds of change that you possess and that we possess collectively.”
Director of Diversity and Inclusivity Yassine Talhaoui echoed those sentiments in his call to action. Evoking the words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 address,“Don’t Sleep through the Revolution,” he told the community, “Do not, do not sleep through our revolution.
“Take an active role in creating and promoting communities that are kind, inclusive and welcoming of all identities. I want all of our legacies to be long-lasting ones, defined by strong character, kindness, courage, and strong and clear anti-racist stands, which require less words and are far more action.”
Following his words, BaHSA Leaders Keeilah Jewel ’22 and Mwicigi Wainaina ’21 presented the panel discussion, “How to Access, Persevere, and Succeed in Spaces NOT Originally Designed for YOU.” The Hotchkiss BIPOC Parents Network organized the session with director Leah Gardiner P'24 acting as moderator with panelists actor Seth Gilliam P’22 and Kamilah Forbes.
Leah C. Gardiner P’24 is an Obie Award-winning director, whose most recent work includes the critically-acclaimed revival of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls, If Pretty Hurts by Tori Sampson, and the world premiere of Kevin Artigue’s Steinberg Award-finalist, Sheepdog. She has directed two Pulitzer Prize-finalists and countless other plays. She holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.F.A. in directing from the Yale School of Drama.
Seth Gilliam P’24 has been acting in television, film, and theatre for more than three decades, having landed his first TV role on the sitcom, The Cosby Show. Since then he’s acted in HBO and MTV series; and, since 2014, as Father Gabriel on AMC’s runaway hit, The Walking Dead. He has appeared on the big screen in genres ranging from action blockbusters to intimate dramas and comedies, and in many theater productions.
Kamilah Forbes is a curator, producer, and director. Forbes created and directed the Hip Hop Theater Festival from 2000 to 2016. She has held directing roles for television and theater productions such as Holler if Ya Hear Me, The Wiz Live!, and the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Forbes was named executive producer for the Apollo Theater in 2016.
Forbes and Gilliam spoke about how they persevered, despite the barriers they faced in the industry. Forbes, whose parents are Jamaican, said her journey with theater and storytelling began when she was very young, when her parents would take her to theater.
“I remember one of the plays that really struck me was the musical Once on this Island , where I saw a young brown girl on stage telling her story,” said Forbes.
“This was one of the first times, I think, in my theater experience where I saw myself reflected, and it was a really powerful shift that happened. I knew I wanted to create magic like that,” said Forbes, who went on to study theater at Howard University.
When she graduated from Howard, she had a passion for directing, but it was difficult to get hired starting out. So, instead she directed her friends’ work.
“We were all learning together. We were all building together, and that was the start of a company we began called the Hip Hop Theatre Junction. We were writing plays that were reflective of us, that were reflective of our voice, which was theater and hip hop. We built our own community and found our own mentors to help guide me along the way,” she said.
Seth Gilliam was a class clown in school. A perceptive teacher invited him to join her drama class, where he fell in love with pretending to be other people. “It was a great escape from the housing projects that I grew up in,” he said.After graduating from the School for Performing Arts, he went on to graduate from the SUNY-Purchase theater training program. “I would not be where I am today without the care and direction of teachers,” he said.
Forbes said students interested in a career in the industry should be searching for their purpose in life, rather than a pathway. “For me, purpose is linked with inspiration –– what lights me up, what fires me up,” she said.
In the beginning of his career, Gilliam said the industry would lump together Black actors regardless of their ages, which made finding a mentor hard, because he was in competition with them.“I didn’t want to go on a cattle call for Black actors. I asked my agents if I could audition for white-guy roles, so I would end up being the only Black guy in the waiting room.
“By that I was being seen, and I was picked for things I might not have been seen for. And that's kind of how I forced my own way in the industry –- by seeing myself as not necessarily a Black actor, but an actual actor.”
Both panelists commented on how their own views have changed as a result of their experiences.
”I've been able to go to different countries, different cities, different states, meet lots of different people from lots of different walks of life and backgrounds. And so I've got so much more compassion for us as a species, than I had when I was younger; I had a lot more frustration. And now I have a lot more compassion, because the struggles are universal. They cross over – Black, white, male, female, how to identify sexually, what your political views are. The struggle to find happiness, peace of mind, a sense of place, a sense of worth, a sense of community, is universal; I am not just a representative of myself; I’m a representative of the human race, and it’s incumbent upon me to be my best self.”
In the afternoon, students worked in partnership with the Class Deans on “Doing the work: Anti-Racism at Hotchkiss," a legacy project that prompted students to consider: What legacy has been handed down to them at Hotchkiss, and what legacy would they like to leave behind for Hotchkiss students to come?
Carolyn Corrado, professor of sociology at SUNY-New Paltz and dorm spouse, facilitated the session.
“Are we being good ancestors?” she began.
“We need to start with a legacy mindset. How we show up in the world will impact generations to come. Recognize that your life matters, whether it is on six people or six million people. We all have a part of the responsibility for change-making,” she explained.
Students broke into groups to brainstorm over different anti-racist legacy projects, including creating a mural, a scholarship, enacting policy changes, reviving community dinner to be more inclusive, and creating more space to discuss racism. The daylong activities ended with Community Conversations facilitated by BaHsa, which offered members of the community an opportunity to voice their questions and personal experiences with racism at Hotchkiss and beyond Scoville Gate.